Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mama - The Armadillo Hunter

Mississippi's roadways in spring are breathtakingly beautiful.  I don't know who first decided to use red clover along the shoulders and drainage ways of the roads but it was a good decision.  To top that big hill, whose hollow forms a gentle curve on Highway 98 northwest of Hattiesburg when the clover is blooming is inspiring.  Maybe not "purple mountain's majesty," but certainly deeply carpeted crimson splendor.  The red blooms of this soil-saving ground cover are amassed in such quantities as to rival the robes of Solomon. 

The goldenrods in fall equally match the glory of the spring's red with mustard-colored scepters held aloft at ninety-degree angles to the terrain.  The goldenrod and clover are rarely ever messed with, not even bush-hogged, as an hour spent among these two will bring on hay fever and a quick trip to Piggly Wiggly for more Kleenex.

There's a lot of something else you see on the roadways in the South year round:  dead armadillos.  Alive, I think they're as cute as the next critter occupying the planet with us, as long as they're not digging for earthworms and grubs in the yard.  Dead, they make a great stink and attract buzzards.  They're drawn to the roads, driven (pardon the pun) by their hunger and the easy meal of insects to be found on a sun-warmed road on a cool night.  And then they get smashed flat like a fritter. 

Some armadillo corpses manage to stay relatively intact and roll to the shoulder to remain there with feet pointed skyward until the local carrion-eaters come and move them so Mama's dogs can drag up the putrid shells.  I think someone at Mississippi State is working on a formula to predict the population of armadillo in a given area exponentially based upon insect/earthworm availability multiplied by proximity to a roadway, a roadway being defined by it's ratio of width to depth of asphalt to y-equals-cars traveling in x-equals-time.

A lot of Southerners go out of their way to run over an armadillo in the road.  I don't do that, although the urge to hunt, track, and destroy armadillos flashes feverishly hot in my blood at the sight of them.  I come from a long line of armadillo hunters, the greatest of them for all times being -- Mama.  She hates them.  I use the term "hate" with all gravity here.  As children, in Mama's house, you didn't hate anyone of anything.  It was too severe a term for anything in God's creation and even now, I don't let my (almost) grown sons say "hate" either.  We always did and still do, use phrases like "I intensely dislike," or "I really can't stand," or "It gets my gall up."  This doctrine was so deeply ingrained in us that we did not and do not say "hate." 

If anyone anywhere ever truly hated something, Mama hates armadillos.  And they hate her, too!  She's forever referring to the hateful things digging under her clothesline, or the hateful things, messing in the turnip patch, or the hateful things keeping her awake by being outside her bedroom window.  I expect the feeling is reciprocal.

She hunts them.  She hunts them down.  With a focus and singleness of mind equalling Olympic athletes and the determination of Sir Edmund Hillary she tracks and exterminates every armadillo that enters her property, or at least comes messing around the house and yard.  Like a cold-blooded assassin she executes them for trespass against the Perlena with her trusty .410, one shell in the barrel and four in the clip, just in case he jumps and she misses. 

While a few armadillos can be seen in daylight (mostly dead) they are generally nocturnal.  That means to hunt them successfully, Mama must go out at night.
She is one well-equipped nocturnal hunter.  She has everything she needs:  a headlight, a firearm, and ammunition.  Over the years, several of her children have bought her different styles and designs of headlights for her nighttime hunts but she still prefers the adjustable elastic band-type, like the miners wear on their safety helmets in miner movies, with the lamp in front, long cord attached to a big batter clipped to a belt.  Except Mama doesn't have a miner's safety helmet.  She doesn't wear a belt.  The armadillos come in the yard around ten at night, so she's usually in her gown.  Where DOES that battery go?

Let me tell you of one night some years ago.  The month was June.  The family and I were down visiting Mama for a long weekend away from Oxford. The weather was remarkable;  a cool snap had come through.  The humidity was down to fifty percent and night time temperatures were hanging in the low seventies.  We were sleeping in the corner bedroom with the windows up, a cool breeze rattling in the magnolias.  I was awakened by the sound of multiple little feet stomping-tromping through the summer-shed magnolia leaves.  Somebody or something was outside!  A little more tromping and then, through the bedroom window, I see a beam of light moving purposefully across the ground in determined arcs.  OH!  It was Mama, hunting the armadillo that had invaded her territory for its last time. 

Mama was in all her array.  The headlight was on her head, its power supply secured around her waste by a non-wearable pair of pantyhose:  battery knotted in the waist end, and the legs tied around her midriff.  She did indeed have her gown on, along with her old garden shoes, discarded sneakers from a granddaughter.  The presence of the faithful little shogun is implied.  At this point I must remind you that Mama is a country dweller and this is not improper behavior on her behalf when everyone is supposed to be asleep and the nearest neighbor is a half-mile away.

The four legged tromping started again.  Without warning the .410 is discharged, followed by three rapid whacks to something that sounded rather hollow.  Not only had Mama shot the armadillo, she was now beating it with the barrel of the gun to make sure it was dead, ammunition being expensive and not wanting to waste a precious resource in shooting the hateful thing again.  She said later that she had picked up a stick to beat the dead armadillo with, however;  the time lapse between the shot fired and the whacking contraindicate this.  Must have been a pretty close stick.

I called to her from the window, "Mama, did you get it?"  In her most precious kindergarten-teaching voice she replied with a question, "Oh, did I wake you up?"

With fits of giggles, which are not uncommon at Mama's house, we went back to sleep.  The next morning there was a carcass to be hauled off down the hill and Mama had carved one more notch in the stock of her shotgun, which now looks like fine cross-hatching.

Oh, yes, she may seem the ideal grandmother type:  soft voice, gray hair, big lap, good cook.  In reality she is the all time great surreptitious hunter of armadillo.  Maybe Mississippi State could hire her to help with that formula...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Chocolate Custard aka Custard's Last Stand...

I know I know - bad pun, right off the bat.  But it's custard and chocolate all at the same time:  the be all to end all of custards.  I'm a fan of custards, the smoothness and egginess and sweetness of them the right amount of everything for my palate.  Maybe I'll learn how to make a bunch of different custards one day - but not soon.  I'm content knowing how to make real banana pudding, a decent flan, and this:  chocolate custard. 

I've made this to use as a filling in a chocolate cake for an aspiring chocoholic.  Her mom's ordered the chocolate overload for the youngster's high school graduation party.  In a small community like this, you grow up knowing everybody or going to school with their younger or older siblings or, heaven forbid,  being related.  The graduate's mom, Brenda, was a year ahead of me in school.  We were in the band together for years and years.  Her dad was in Mama's kindergarten.  I know this family so when the call for a graduation cake came in, I wanted to kick it up a notch for them.  I'm using this chocolate custard as the means to an end.

Before I get on with the tutorial I need to explain 'bout the cakes made here.  They are NOT dried-out-mealy-textured sheet cakes.  Nope.  The closest to a sheet cake I make is a double layer.  Cakes have to have something in them to break up that butter/sugar/egg/flour texture likened to a bad pan of cornbread.  Mine are filled with something like Bavarian cream or lemon curd or fresh strawberry filling or seedless raspberry preserves.  It's the thing that makes them exceptional.  The fillings and home made icings make them of such good flavor and texture as to be memorable.  And I like memorable.

So annnnyways, Miss Abbie's cake is to be special.  A chocolate cake with chocolate custard filling and chocolate butter cream icing.  Here's what you need:

See that post it note to the right?  No recipe until just then! The margarine is missing!  Ohhh no!  Maybe it'll show up at the microwave.

Into the food processor, you know how I love the Cuisinart, put 2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup flour, and 1/2 cup cocoa powder.  Making it for myself, I like to use Hershey's special dark cocoa powder.  And don't give me any problems about that being too much sugar.  No such thing!  Give it a whirl and then add the eggs.

These are free range fertilized eggs from a local farm, Perlena's Peculiar Hens.  Okay.  You caught me...they're from Mama's incredibly tame chickens that speak Hen-ese to you.  Seriously!  Those chickens hear a soul coming through the shop, expecting feed or greenery and they'll sweet talk you right into a handful of corn.   She has the one Araucana chicken that lays the green egg.  Only the outside is green, see?

OOOoooo... seeing more of this home's good stuff today.  That little white bowl is very vintage;  unmarked Homer Laughlin I think.  I forget.  Home grown eggs are VERY yellow and should always be cracked into a separate bowl before being used.  Always.  The first time you drop a rotten egg into a hot skillet to make a fried egg sandwich you'll remember those words of wisdom and vow to never repeat the mistake.  The eggs go into the food processor.

Processing that results in a thick, gummy something-or-another so add the can of evaporated milk and blend again.   If you don't care for the taste of evaporated milk, use 12 ounces of sweet milk, by all means.  I know some souls don't cotton to it.  Money was tight in a family with five growing youngsters.  Sometimes if the sweet milk was gone before a trip into town could be arranged Mama would open a can of evaporated milk, add another can of water to it, and use it like regular milk.  I always kind of liked it on the frosted flakes on a Saturday morning, the only day of the week we had cereal.

Pour everything into the big 8 cup measuring cup.  Put another 2 cups of milk in the food processor and buzz it to get allllll the chocolate out.  Pour that in the measuring cup as well and nuke that chocolate deliciousness for 10 minutes on high.

Look!  There's the margarine and vanilla.  Lots of cooks say you can't tell the difference between real vanilla and imitation.  I dunno.  I'm not going to use anything but Mexican vanilla where flavor is uber important.  As Forrest Gump says, "And that's all I've got to say about that."  Yikes!  You can almost see me in the reflection on the microwave.

Go clean your kitchen while you wait.

oh SNAP!  Now you know my very inexpensive secret to degreasing all the greasy mixing bowls from the icings.  Octagon soap.  It's in the soap dish up there on the left.  Wet the dishcloth and get it very very soapy with that and you won't have any problem getting the dishes clean the first time.  I don't.

After ten minutes, take the custard out of the microwave, whisk in the 4 tablespoons of butter or margarine and a big teaspoon of vanilla.  Return to microwave for another four or five minutes.  Whisk it all again until it's a smooth texture like this:

The whisk is standing up by itself.  See that clementine?  A good cup of custard will come out to be used Monday in a different cake.  I'll grate a bit of clementine rind into it as a teaser, changing the entire dynamic of flavor!

Press the obligatory wrap against the surface to keep nastiness from scumming the deliciousness and let cool.

You absolutely can put the un-nuked custard in an unbaked pie shell and bake as a pie.  Add an another egg if you do.

The ingredients for Chocolate Custard are:

2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup plain flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3 eggs
1 large can evaporated milk
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Y'all saw it put together up there -- now go and do and make me proud!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Chickasawhay River Flows...

The Chickasawhay River flows ever so gently through Greene County, here in the very southeast of Mississippi.  It has, from the first Indians to camp here to present been the absolute favorite body of water to wet a hook in and while away the time.

In our family, fishing was approached with an almost religious attitude. You had to be prepared (sound familiar?).  Earthworms were to be dug, catalpa worms picked, minnows seined, livers cut, and crawfish netted.   And that was just the start.  Rods and reels had to be checked carefully for old line that may break once "the big one" got on. Never a family to waste anything and, heaven forbid, throw out an old hook, Daddy would check the hooks for rust.  The sound of a metal file as it's worked to remove rust and sharpen the barb always gave me the heebie-jeebies. Daddy NEVER lost a fish because he was using old line on the Zebco or the hook wasn't sharp.  Nope.   A day spent fishing with the family meant having all implements of fishing fully repaired and absolutely prepared.  Really. 

I remember being very young, young enough to have several of the brothers still living at home, and Daddy working into the late hours of the night "fixing up the tackle" he was fond of saying.  Every rod 'n reel and cane pole was checked for hooks, sinkers, and bobbers.  They were practice-cast behind his workshop (away from the cats that loved to chase danger) to assure the drag was properly set, and to make sure his rod had more line on the reel than anyone else's, him being the provider of the family and all. 

The tackle box also had a thorough going through.  Daddy would check the supply of aforementioned hooks, sinkers, and bobbers. The pliers had to be in there, especially the needle-nosed pliers, in case a fish swallowed the hook.  Hooks were never expendable when they were close enough to be retrieved.  A knife, bug spray, but most importantly, the stringer were the rest of the components in Daddy's tackle box.  As a family, we did not fish with lures, crawl worms, or any of the other artificial bait, because, well, that really wasn't fishing the way our family fished.   Those things were not in the tackle box.

Mama took care of the food. If she had time the morning of the fishing trip she might get up and fry chicken to be eaten picnic style with a full complement of sand.  If Daddy didn't want to fool with making a fire to cook breakfast at the river,  Mama made fried egg sandwiches with just a little mayonnaise and lots of black pepper, a loaf at a time. Jugs of ice water and sweet tea magically remained cold when Mama did the fixing. Coffee was doctored to Daddy's specifications, of course, for the Thermos was ever-present with him once the fishing destination had been reached. Somehow, there was always a cookie or two to be found in the food sack, either honey buns or moon pies.  We never knew money was tight at our house when Mama fixed for the river.

Our fishing destination might be any of a half dozen places up or down the Chickasawhay River.   All of the good fishing spots accessible to families not in a boat were privately owned.  Prior arrangement with the landowner was required to secure the almost-sacred key, necessary for entrance onto fenced and gated land beyond which the aquatic wonder gently burbled and swirled. 

Daddy drove the truck, so the actual unlocking the gate, swinging it open, and closing it once the truck was through was delegated to Mama.  This, in order of importance of all her other tasks crucial to a fishing trip, was her greatest undertaking. Not only did she have to do this quickly enough to suit Daddy, she also had to be responsible for safely restoring the gate key to its original position in the truck, lest it become lost and we were locked in the swamp.   I don't know how many times I heard Daddy question her about the security of the key, but I am aware his questioning wore a little thin on her one good nerve.  

Bouncing along the sandy roads into the river swamps, the occasional but monstrous mud puddle was ever a threat to us reaching our destination. Even in the midst of severe drought, the river roads always had at least one gigantic puddle to be concerned about.  Each one would have to be carefully navigated but not too slowly, becoming stuck was not an option when Daddy was going fishing.

Successfully around the puddles, seemingly mile and miles later comes to view a dense stand of young live oaks, a bend in the road, an opening through the woods, and the river finally is there, suddenly appearing as if the Almighty had just created it then and there for us.

In the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, a mist dances ethereally across the surface of the slightly muddy river water. Indian hens call from their hollowed tree sanctuaries. In the tall turkey pines and cypresses along the bluffs all manner of songbird are awakening to greet the dawn with their own Hallelujah Chorus. Crickets chirp and the mosquitoes buzz around exposed ears.  Wild hogs and deer could be heard stomping through the leaf-carpeted woods of river birch, sycamore, bay and hickory, but they won't bother us, Mama always assured.  There we were, children and parents, together on a day when all seemed infinitely right with the world:  a glorious day to fish.

Hours later, sunburned, food consumed, tackle lost to that unknown element that exists under the surface of the water, the process is reversed to carry us home. The fish were cleaned, fried, and eaten, accompanied by Mama's hushpuppies with the hint of garlic and onion, served one way:   piping hot. Sunday clothes somehow became ironed and shoes polished. Baths were taken and as I drifted into that dreamless sleep that every child has after a day spent in nature, I saw Daddy's shop light on as he carefully puts away all the fishing things for another day to be spent with those he loved the most.

Gee, Daddy, how was the fishing?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mama's Stuff

Life is crazier than crazy right now with Mama's recovery, keeping up two households, a few cakes, a little catering, and the production of Havard Lane Totes to carry to the different arts and crafts festivals in the Deep South.   Several local folks made the comment yesterday that Mama was always good at 'saving' stuff and, as exasperating as it is to manipulate through the piles of it at times, it's because of her saving stuff that Havard Lane Totes are around and doing so well.  This Mama's Stuff story is being repurposed recycled reposted with that in mind...


For Mother's Day and Mama - because all her good stuff (of which I'm made) is precious to her, even though I give her a hard time about it...

There must be something about growing up in the Depression as one child of thirteen that makes a person a packrat for the rest of her life.  Mama is the ultimate packrat. She calls it her stuff -- yeah, because she can't stuff her house any fuller of it.  I went out to help Mama clean in the kindergarten the other day.  It's her building but she had graciously loaned it to me to open a day care in.  I had cleaned it out and it was ever the cutest little day care in Greene county (actually, the ONLY one for a while). 

 What I cleaned out was Mama's stuff:  fabric softener bottles, wipie boxes, 15 year old magazines never read, paper clippings, bits of string, pencil stubs.  We boxed, bagged, and hauled her stuff to the old crib that was used to store the winter feed corn in and left it there for several years.   At one point some of the brothers came home and cleaned the crib out, burning Mama's stuff.  She was incensed with them but I got the scathing tongue lashing for putting her stuff in harm's way to begin with.

The day care is closed, has been for several years.  The family has reverted to calling it the kindergarten and it is again full of Mama's stuff.  Every ribbon from floral arrangements, styrofoam meat trays, aluminum pie plates, margarine and CoolWhip tubs, egg cartons, strawberry baskets, material scraps for that quilt she's going to piece together, more magazines, Mrs. Claudia's Mississippi Press Registers, at least three years old, and Tupperware.

Everything has a purpose and at least one use. The floral ribbons are needed in case she puts flowers in the church and the arrangement needs a touch of color. The meat trays and pie plates are to set her flowers in when cold weather comes and forces them to be brought inside, never can have too much of those. Margarine and CoolWhip tubs go to Naomi's;  she's forever cooking and sending food and those won't have to be returned. The hens are laying again and she needs the egg cartons, maybe not a hundred, but they'll be handy if she does.  The strawberry baskets can magically be transformed into by a child into an Easter basket with just a chenille wire and plastic green grass.

One day, really, she will piece that quilt together but settling on a pattern has been a bit difficult.   And the magazines and newspapers need to be gone through in case there's any good recipes in them. Mama doesn't like to miss out on good recipes.  Never mind that there are adequate numbers of terra cotta and plastic trays for the plants to sit in. Those sweat and may mildew the floor.  She doesn't like her Tupperware getting away from her, the grown grandchildren still may need it even though they've all set up their own houses.

I see her blood pressure visibly rising every time I discuss the mayonnaise jar collection and its' disposal.   You'll notice I said I discuss it, the conversation is decidedly one-sided.   Empty prescription drug bottles are not even a conversation topic;  a necessary entity of Mama's stuff, their existence qualified by their small size and ability to be crammed into minute drawer spaces, purse pockets, and corners of boxes.

You would have to see all her stuff to believe the magnanimity of it. Truth be told, Mama likes her stuff.  She thrives on attaining it and is ever planning how to get more. Maybe growing up during and after the Depression her family wasn't able to have stacks, bags, and boxes of stuff everywhere and Mama's making up for lost possessions. Maybe it's comforting to her.   Maybe I'm way off base and Mama has one of those stuck behind the piano.

She could, you know.  That's where all the really good stuff is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why I Don't Work on Sundays

 In a tiny little community called Pine Level three miles northwest of the unharried small town called Leakesville (unharried barring tornadoes, that is), John and Perlena raised five children with dutiful reverence for Sundays.  My parents even called it the Sabbath, as in "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy."  The only work done around the farm on Sundays was the feeding of critters - two-legged and otherwise.  We didn't get outside playing and forget ourselves, whooping and a-hollering, didn't pop firecrackers or shoot firearms.  All those things were disrespectful to the day set apart by the Almighty as a day of rest.  Mama and Daddy took their rest seriously.

A couple of years after Daddy died, a fellow had come to cut the hay in the ten acre field by Mama's house on a Sunday.  Mama tried to dissuade him but he insisted it was the only time it could be done.  She warned him:  something was going to break but the fellow cut the hay anyways.  On his way home that Sunday evening his truck broke down (with the trailer and tractor and bush hog) well before he reached the Walley Bridge over Big Creek.  Mama said she gave him a proper "I told you so" the very next time she saw him.  He didn't cut hay on any Sunday afterwards, Mama having put the hex on his Sabbath-breaking activity. 

If someone ever did slip around and do work on Sunday, her washing machine broke.  Every time.  I don't know why it was always the washing machine but hearing about it was much worse than paying the repair bill.  It didn't take but a time or two of Mama being inconvenienced by a non-working washing machine to cease work efforts on the Sabbath in Pine Level.

Last fall, preparing for an open house reception, I thought the work was less labor-intensive and even though the end product was for profit, maybe the Almighty wouldn't mind if I got a head start on the busy week.  I should have listened to Him when the egg rolled off the counter and I caught it with my belly, requiring a change of clothes and much wiping of cabinet fronts and floor.

Because I have two Kitchenaid stand mixers and lots of loaf pans, I was making two cream cheese pound cakes simultaneously.  They were to be used in the wonderful dessert that is strawberry lasagna.  Strawberry lasagna is another fine recipe you'll want to google.  The butter, eggs, and cream cheese had been set out the night before.  Loaf pans were buttered and floured and sugar measured out.  Hmmmmm.... There wasn't any plain flour.  No problem riiiight?  There was plenty of self-rising flour, I'd just leave out the other leavening agents.  HE was telling me as the the egg rolled off "Six days shalt thou labor..." but I continued on, determined to sever late-night work time in half by getting ahead of schedule on prep work.  I made the cakes with self-rising flour.  They were put in the oven, temperature set, and started to bake. 

Forty-five minutes into the baking cycle, the aroma was too 'cooked-flour-ish' to not check. If you ever get to the point that you bake a couple of dozen cakes a month, you'll eventually notice that there is a shift in the aroma coming from the oven.  At first, a cake will give off a custardy egg-y aroma and then a sugary-buttery smell, then a cake-ish smell, and finally an almost-roasted flour smell.  Cream cheese pound cakes start in a cold oven;  it takes them a very long time to bake.  They hadn't been in the oven for even half the time required to fully bake and were already smelling that they were almost done! 

I opened the oven door.  I should have left it shut.  The cakes had risen so high, they were touching the top of the oven.  Carefully, oh so carefully, I tried to adjust one of the pans.  The cake batter ruptured/popped/exploded sending raw cake batter upwards to the top of the oven and then falling through the racks to the oven floor.  The other three pans followed the impetus of the first and did the same thing.  What a mess!

I didn't bother trying to do a thing at that point, I could only do one of two things anyways:  take the pans out and dump the batter then and there or let them finish baking and hope for something to be able to salvage.  I opted to let them bake.  Judging when they were done was a bit difficult, almost half of the batter had self-ejected from the pan in the explosive episode.  Eventually they were done, though, and there was nothing left to do but recalculate the profit margin ratio and remember to pick up more cream cheese and eggs at Piggly Wiggly to make more cakes on Monday.

That was just Sunday.  The entire week continued similarly.  I would never have thought that mitochondrial DNA could pass down the Sabbath Work Curse, but it must have!  Tuesday's peanut butter fudge was soft and had to be rolled and dipped in peanut butter chips/parafin to be able to salvage that cost.  Wednesday night's pecan pie bars were baked a little too long and, being unsalvagable, had to be remade Thursday (major adjustment to the profit margin!).  Picking up a bag of self-rising flour to make more Cheddar Bay biscuits (because I configured amounts wrong?  How'd that happen?) that I thought was unopened resulted with a good pound of it on the floor.  Friday, after packing up and leaving, I quickly had to return to the house for the cold items forgotten in the refrigerator.

I've learned my lesson:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
~Exodus 20:  8 - 11

At least my washing machine is still working.....