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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Storms

We have some pretty good summer, thunderstorms here in central South Carolina.  We had some yesterday afternoon.  Sitting here in my cube at work I could hear the thunder rumbling off in the distance and an occasional, sharp bang that comes when something gets struck by the lightening.

It started me thinking about storms.  See, I enjoy a good thunder storm.  I love being outside (in a safe location, of course) when it is raining hard, the wind whipping the tree limbs around and thunder and lightening fighting it out in the sky.

I guess the thunderstorms that set the tone for my love of storms happened when we lived at the Spring Knob forestry tower.  The top of that hill was not immensely high but plenty high enough to where the bottom of the storm clouds was down the hill from the house.  We were located right up in the clouds close up to all the thunder and lightening.  I can recall some storms where the thunder was so close and so loud the windows would rattle and the house would shake. 

During the storms the air had such a special feel and smell you get no other tiem or place.  That air is the reward for being outside and braving the storm.  Of course if you were not careful where you were outside to brave the storm you also had a chance to be struck by lightening.  I liked being in a house by an open window, on the porch under a roof or out in the woods in under a rock overhang.   The rock overhang was best.  There one not only had the fresh feel and smell of the air and the noice of the thunder but the wind was whipping all the branches in the trees around with the rain pattering as it found its way through the trees to the ground.  I've had some really nice times sitting under a rock with a little fire built just sitting, thinking and enjoying being out in the storm.

I think most of those special places are gone now.  Victims of strip mining which has torn the tops off most of my childhood hills.  The top of the hill there at Spring Knob is now a couple of hundred feet lower than it was when I was a kid living on top of that hill.  Many places are gone in fact though they live on, fresh and clear, in my memories.

I still love the storms.  I don't get out in them like I used to do.  But, there are times, the air still feels and smells just like it did when I was a kid.   Those are special times filled with good memories.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Good Gravy

I don't get gravy (no, not turkey gravy or brown gravy... just good breakfast gravy) much anymore.  Really, it is what I find at the cafeteria at work.  I've tried at Lizard's Thicket (local meat and three joint) and Cracker Barrel and their gravy sucks.  Basically, every restaurant gravy sucks.  But, we have a manager at our cafeteria who thinks he can cook.  It is sad to say but the darned bagged,  heat and serve gravy is far superior to his "homemade" gravy.  I have come to the conclusion people no longer have the first clue how to make good breakfast gravy.

So, as a public service I'm going to elucidate on the method of making gravy.

First step is to decide if you want "regular" gravy or sausage gravy.   Regular gravy is made with bacon grease (drippings for those who watch the Food Network) whereas sausage gravy comes from sausage grease with some crumbled sausage added in.

The first step is to fry the bacon/sausage.  (Iron skillet preferred.  Say what you might there is NOTHING that beats a cast iron skillet for any frying and a lot of baking.) 

Take the bacon/sausage out of the skillet.  If you have a little too much grease (this is just a matter of experience and the number of people you have to feed) dip it out and put it to the side to save. (It is a mortal sin to waste bacon grease.)  Then you put flour in the grease.  Don't really matter if it is all-purpose or self-rising as it is not going to raise anyhow.  Stir continuously until the flower forms a paste and turns brown.  Tastes vary but I like a very dark brown color.  (Food Network calls this a roue).

Once the flour/grease paste is the desired color add milk while stirring continuously. The amount of milk to roue is also something that just comes from experience.  Keep stirring the gravy as the mixture heats.  Stop stirring and the gravy sucks.  Keep stirring.  When the gravy comes to a boil, let it boil until the desired thickness is reached.  I like a thin gravy but a lot of gravy I've eaten is wallpaper paste.  (Ok, you young people might not even know what wallpaper paste is.  When I was growing up and we were putting up wallpaper we did not go to the store and buy an adhesive.  Mother made the wallpaper paste from flour and water.  Tasted about as good as modern store-bought gravy does too.)

Our beloved cafeteria manager makes wallpaper paste gravy with unbrowned flour.  Not the best but it is edible unless he gets creative and does something stupid like using whipping cream... Managers should manage and cooks should cook.  As an aside he can't make an 'over medium' egg for sh%t either. 

Once the gravy reaches the consistency you prefer it is ready to dish up if you are making gravy with bacon grease.  If you are using sausage grease now is the time to crumble sausage into it and stir in good before dishing it up.

Good gravy is not hard to do.  Just takes time enough to stir well and BROWN the damned flour.  The difference between well-browned flour and raw flour is amazing.    Add in some biscuits and eggs (done to your preference) and you have a great breakfast.  Working men have thrived for ages on this breakfast. 

I hate to see real country cooking disappearing from our land.  Believe it or not, when properly used real hog lard is healthier than all the crap you read about as a "healthy alternative".  I was not too fond of my childhood but, damn, I did have some good food made by my mother and grandmother.  And they never screwed up the gravy or biscuits.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mulberry Trees

I used to have a very small garden plot out in my back yard.  I'd lug bags and bags of topsoil and composted cow manure around there each year and dig it into the garden area.  Until I got to where I could no longer do that.  Now it is just another part of my back yard and covered in grass.

Of late I've been thinking of putting some kind of dwarf fruit tree back there.  All that good dirt and hard labor should not go to waste on grass nobody but me and the lawn care man will ever see.  While perusing the offerings on the Stark Brothers website I came across a listing for a Mulberry Tree.

Now, those trees are much too large (some times) and I doubt they would do well in our central South Carolina climate.  But, it got me remembering other Mulberry Trees from back in my childhood days in Kentucky.  I loved to eat Mulberries so I knew where all the local trees were growing.

The two most prominent Mulberries I can recall  were one that grew beside an old coal bank (mine) just up the Julie Fork (of Nat's Creek) and one that grew on a small bank in what used to be the garden at my sister and brother-in-law's old house and where they put a trailer later.

That Mulberry tree up in the first little hollow on the right up the Julie Fork was the place to be in May when the Mulberries got ripe.  They were also the favorite food of squirrels.  One could get there before daylight and find a good sitting spot up the hill from the tree so the top part of the tree was about eye level and just keep shooting the sqirrels as they came to the tree for breakfast.  In May there were a lot of young squirrels as well.  Perfect for frying.

Now, May was no where near any hunting season but hunting season was just two meaningless words when I was growing up.  Food was more important than game laws.  We never hunted during the mating season and when game was pregnant but later on it was all over for young animals.  And when one got all the squirrels that came to the tree or all one wanted there were always plenty of berries that had fallen from the tree to eat.

That tree was pretty tall.  The one that was in the old garden out from Homer and Mary Jane's old house was pretty small.  Best I can recall it was around eight to ten feet tall.  I'd go stuff myself on berries every spring until they moved in the trailor and got rid of the little Mulberry.

Honestly, I don't even know if I'd like a Mulberry now.  I don't know if it is me or the berry or a little bit of both but I can buy all the blackberries, raspberries and strawberries I want but they just do not taste the same as when I was a kid.  Maybe it was because berries were such a treat for me that made them taste better.  Maybe it is because of the way they are grown, harvested and shipped now them make them so tasteless.  I don't know but those berries in my memories were so much better than any I find today.

Mirror Thoughts

I  don't know when it happned
But, the man in my mirror changed.
The person I see staring back at me
Is not the person who should be there.

He is not exactly my grandfather.
He is not exactly my fatherer.
He is not exactly some stranger.
But, he is exactly not me any more.

I see him staring back at me
And think Ishould feel like him inside.
I don't know what he might feel
But, I know I am still me in there.

I guess everyone has this awakening
To the harsh realities of passing time.
I'm just not ready to be awakened.
It was only yesterday I was just a kid.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

When I was young the thought of dying was horrifying to me.  But, as I get older it does not hold the same level of fear for me as it once did.  I guess that is Mother Nature's way of preparing us for the inevitable.  But, this is not a piece about my own mortality but of all the people I've known who have preceded me in shuffling of this mortal coil. 

I think the first experience I had with some person dying was when Spicy's husband died when I was around three or four years of age.  I don't remember her last name.  All I ever knew was Spicy.  They lived on top of the hill right at the Martin/Johnson county line and that little piece of road was known as Spicy Gap.  See, back in Kentucky there were a lot of places named after someone who lived there.

I don't remember much about it except that my mother took me to the burying.  I remember this (to me) huge hole in the ground and asking my mother what it was.  She called it a 'bury hole' rather than a grave and said that was where they put people when they die.  I don't remember being upset or frightened of it but I do have a sense of unease when I remember it.

The first dead person I saw was Quiller Huff.  He was a man who lived up the hollow (holler) from us when we lived in West Van Lear.  The area where we lived was  called "Burglar Holler" though its real name was "Burger Hollow".   He comitted suicide when I was somewhere in the vicinity of eight years old. 

My mother made me go to his funeral though I cried, begged and threw a hissy fit not to go.  I did not want to see a dead person and, to this day, the sight of a corpse bothers me.  I'm not frightened.  I just would prefer not to be there. 

I really did not know Mr. Huff except by name so it was not all that personal to me except for being forced to attend his funeral.  The first people that dies that I actually knew were an elderly couple who lived across the little creek from where Mr. and Mrs. Huff lived.  I don't remember their names for sure but I think the woman's name was Bessie.  They were somebody my parents knew and my one memory of them while alive was of visiting the home with my mother and Bessie making me a hamburger.  I refused to eat it becaue she had "touched it whith her hands".   You need to put this in perspective since I loved hamburgers more than Wimpy on the Popeye cartoons. 

Anyway, one day they came home from the hospital and both lay down to take a nap and neither of them woke up.  Carbon Dioxide from an unvented gas heater did them in.  Just after the funeral my dad rented their house from some of the family.  I did NOT want to move there.  People had DIED in that house.  I threw another crying, begging, hissy fit and it did me just as much good as the one I threw about going to the funeral.  We moved anyhow.  In the end I'm glad we did.  It was the only house I lived in until I was married and moved to Paintsville that had indoor plumbing.  All in all the nicest house I lived in until I bought the home I live in currently.

From then, up through my early teen years I don't recall being impacted by death of a person.  Not to say I was not familiar with the death of a loved one but those loved ones were dogs that were pets until my dad killed them.  But, that is another whole story.

We left that nice house in Burglar Holler when I was thirteen and moved back to Nat's Creek so my mother could help my grandmother take care of my grandfather.It seems like ages but it was only around two years before he passed away.

I cannot think of my grandfather's passing without thinking of the two coffins he kept out in the "smokehouse".  See, he had Virgil Boyd to cut a large poplar tree on my dad's land and then had it sawed into boards and Virgil built two coffins from those boards.  One for my grandfather and one for my grandmother.  They were lined and cushoned and had a little pillow on one end to support the head.  I was told my grandfather even climbed into his to test it out for comfort. Sounds exactly like my family.

I don't remember the funeral though I do know where the grave is and I do know he did use that homemade coffin.  When my grandmother passed away though they gave her a "store bought" one.  Fancy coffins seems like a wast though.  Just going to lie under the dirt and rot away with time.  Its not like we believe, like the ancient Egyptians, in the need to preserve the body to ensure an after life.

I was fifteen when Poppy died.  I'm trying to remember who was the next to go in the line of people I've known but I think it was my aunt Burnice.  She was a diabetic and in her days there was not much in the way of treatment.  Then it was called "Sugar Diabetes" or just "The Sugar".  It was not as well understood then and there was very little treatment except to not eat things with sugar in them.  The country people did not realize all carbs turned into sugar in the body so she did not stay away from gravy and biscuits and other breads and starchy foods.  I recall she lost one foot and before she was released from the hospital she died.  I don't recall how old I was but according to my dad's bible she was sixty-six at the time of her death.

After I got married when I was nineteen there have been far too many deaths to go into detail about.  Trying to think of just how many.

Both parents.
Both Grandparents I knew.  My other grandparents died before I was born.
Both aunts and uncles I knew.  The ones on my dad's side I never knew.
Two of Aunt Burnice's children I knew well and another two or three I really did not know.
Two of Aunt Dixie's children and two of her daughter-in-laws.
One sister.
Three cousins in my age group I can remember.
One brother-in-law.
Ex father-in-law and mother-in-law and some assorted sons and daughters-in-law
A few of Aunt Burnice's sons-in-law.  I can't think of just how many.
One kid I went to grade school with in West Van Lear.
One high school fellow student I know of.  Could be more.
My best friend from high school's father.

Quite a few.  I'm probably leaving some out whom I'll remember later.  Comes from being born to aging parents and living to get to 59 1/2 myself. (So far).  Even the ones who are still living from my cousins are pushing anywhere from sixty to eighty.  Should I make it to eighty myself I'd say there are going to be very few of my family left to go to my funeral.  Does not really matter though as I won't know if there is anyone there or not.,

But there is going to be no "bury hole" for me when I go, however old I might live to see.  Even though I know I would not be aware at all I just cannot stand the thought of being confined in a small box under the ground.  Just give my body to the clensing flames when the time comes.