Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Love at the Five and Dime

'Love's on sale tonight at this five and dime'.

Well, I was too young for romance back in the day when chopping dandelions earned a penny a pair. There was no allowance in our home, just chores and duties. All our needs were met; extra curricular efforts earned discretionary spending. We were expected to pick up the trash that blew into our yard every day; we were expected to clean the bathrooms twice the week and dust the furniture on Saturdays. We made our own beds, changed our own sheets, and put away our clothes. When we were younger, we were supposed to clean our room, but, like most kids, our version of clean and my dad's version of tidy did not see eye to eye. We assumed a clear path to walk to our beds was sufficient; when informed that the floor was to be picked up, we soon learned to stuff as much under the bed and into the closets as we could, ensuring no stray stuffed animal foot or Barbie dress protruded from its hiding place.

And we had lots of toys, many of our own creation. We were pack rats of sorts, collectors of objects peculiar and diverse. And to grow theses collections, we needed cash money.

Our room housed as many animals as Dr. Doolittle's menagerie, with skeletons of pipe cleaners and pelts of yarn. We made garages, bridges and highways with blocks and the latticed squares of the hooked rug in our room for our Matchbox vehicles. We built barns and corrals for the Breyer horses we loved as proxies for the real thing. We bounced Super balls against the metal closet doors and down the shiny tile hallway. We drove hard bargains for the baseball and football cards of our favorite players, the privileged cards chosen not so much for achievement on the field as face appeal on cardboard, though Redbirds and White Sox were most desired and frayed around the edges. We made jungles of fake flowers and vines not yet required by my mother's "antiquing" projects for the residence of slimy creepy crawlers of all colors and shapes.

All this took cash. Hard cash, not the paper kind. Paper money came in birthday cards and was immediately requisitioned and assigned for duty in our savings accounts. The idea of spending an actual five or ten dollar bill was unheard of. Frivolity was tolerated, but only in very small coinage.

As it turned out, the local stores had nearly everything we could ever need. Or afford, at any rate. Hawkins Five and Ten didn't have the name recognition of a Ben Franklin or a Woolworth or a Kresge, but it did have a couple of aisles of sewing supplies, including yarns in the colors we assigned the horsey hues of roan, palomino gold, bay brown and black. The sundries for pipe smokers were not out of our reach and a packet of short white pipe cleaners were just the right length for a pair of legs or a head, neck and body. We added girth to our horses' torsos with a Kleenex wrapped tightly around the intended body. When too much galloping, cantering and steeple chasing caused a break in some steed's leg, no euthanasia was necessary. Instead, yarn was unwrapped, a pipe cleaner prosthesis was twisted on and the pony went on to further adventures with nothing but some bulky "scar" tissue to indicate the operation. It took a lot of yarn to make our herd of 100 some horses. I wonder what the proprietors thought we were doing with our purchases. We finally ran out of names purloined from Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books.

I don't remember if Hawkin's was our source for Matchbox cars, or if it was the Kosnar Walgreens next door. The selection would turn over from time to time. The little cars were not encased in plastic and cardboard back then as they are now. Rather, I remember looking at the little vehicles in their little "match" boxes through a glass showcase. They cost about 50 cents each, a perceived bargain even then. They had metal bodies and rubbery wheels. I loved the metallic colors, but the favored machines had doors or trunks or hoods that opened. Some of the cars even had springy axles, though that was more a feature on the newer fangled Hot Wheels. We bought Jaguars and Volkswagens, convertibles and concrete trucks, buses and tractors, all with a hint of glamour associated in our minds with these British imports.

I think we got our first Super balls as Christmas presents. The first ones were a pretty utilitarian hue of black or grayish green and about the size of a baseball. They were as amazing to us kids as our first Slinkies were....and just about as durable! Even with the best of intentions, a Slinky would become a bent and tangled puzzle in no time and we found our Super balls splitting in two like overripe watermelons. Their demise was crushing, but only temporarily so. Before long, knock off Super balls in every conceivable size and hue were available in the stores, but, more importantly, we could get them in gum ball machines.

Now my folks did not prohibit chewing gum. As a treat, we could have some Juicy Fruit or Wrigley's Spearmint now and then. But that gum came in packs from the store without the frisson of excitement of a gum ball dispenser. There was also the rare opportunity to blow bubbles, bigger and bigger, then suck them in just before they exploded in a thin gooey film all over your nose, lips, and chin. Bubble blowing was as impolite in our family as chewing gum with your mouth open; hence, bubble gum tended to be something we indulged in when my dad was at work.

But gum is ephemeral, a momentary pleasure. TOYS in a gum ball machine were thrilling, the kid's equivalent of gambling, for just a dime. Some of the wonders we purchased with our ten cents included, but were not limited to: the aforesaid superballs, tiny little multi-paged fat comics with one little cartoon a page, giant bubble rings of multi-hued translucent plastic, and creepy crawlers.

Obviously, the chemists were working overtime in the sixties. Maybe creepy crawlers were yet another offshoot of the wonders of NASA and the space program, but, whatever their origin, they were another collectible to the Renken girls. A machine full of creepy crawlers was a machine of mystery. The critters, whether flat two dimensional turtles, or lizards, or miniature alligators, or centipedes, or truly disgusting giant house flies, were all compressed into little capsules. Plink! went your dime into the slot and out popped a capsule with a critter ready to emerge from its chrysalis. Later, the toy makers marketed machines to make Creepy Crawlers, but these imitations lacked the requisite sliminess of the gumball animals. Before we were done collecting creepy crawlers, we discovered the wonders of fake fishing worms at Schleer's Hardware in Jeff City. At least once during each visit, my grandfather would go downtown to Schleer's to visit his buddies and Laura and I would ogle the fluorescent bait worms nestled in their gooey plastic beds. Never mind that these purchases would soon be covered in fuzz from the ditty bags my grandma made us for our treasures, until then they were colorful jewels in our trove.

These stores were not great emporiums, but it didn't take much to satisfy the longings of kids with literally a dime or two to their names. Our purchases were rationed by our funds, but we never considered them anything but a treat. I am pretty certain some of my old (and very very dog eared!) baseball cards are still in a box in the closet with old Barbie dolls and other tokens of bygone days. I remember the contents of the little cedar box that was my mom's: Missouri license plate key chains, tumbled stones in a little leather and fur bag, skeleton keys from assorted barns, sheds and old houses, skeins of embroidery thread, a handful of marbles. The trash and treasures of a childhood in love with the local five and dime.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Free Range and Free Spirits

Millie loves chickens.

That's easy to see from the decor in her new kitchen. Friends and family have contributed. Bit by bit the original corn theme is being consumed by roosters and hens. Appropriate, no? We've done our share with the addition of a four foot tall sheet metal rooster on the front doorstep. We knew she would love him.

Blake has lots of stories about the ongoing battle between chickens and varmints when he was growing up. When we came back to the farm, I think the chickens pretty well had the run of the place. This situation fluctuated depending upon the aggressiveness of the neighbor's dogs. Too many feathers flying and the chickens were locked back into their pen between the farm house and machine shed under the silver maple tree.

The first summer we were home from college and farming, Millie butchered chickens. Like many of the other summer chores, it was a family production: everyone pitched in. This meant the menfolk helped, but it also meant the newest farm wife got a pan of water and a big knife.

Just one problem. The newest farm wife was pregnant, the stage of pregnancy particularly susceptible to odd smells, textures, heat.....well, I don't have to paint you a picture.

The chickens did arrive in the kitchen sans feathers and sans heads. But they were in possession of all their no longer vital organs. All the lessons of high school biology came back to me as I sliced the bird open. There they were: kidneys, liver, crop, heart. Gulp. I knew without being told that I was the color of a chicken gizzard. With teeth clenched, I cleaned gobs of fat off the chicken and picked at the nibs of pinfeathers. I stuck it out but I won't pretend I was heroic. I will say it was about thirty years before I put up chickens again...and that baby Lee helped this time around, also pregnant, determined, and green around the gills.

Because of attrition in the hen house, or perhaps just because she liked to, baby chickens appeared nearly every spring at Millie's house. Sometimes they started life on newspaper with walls of cardboard and a heat lamp keeping them toasty in the utility room where muddy farmers would have to dodge their peeping fluffiness until they were big enough to go to the hen house. After the grandchildren started arriving, the new chicks took their turns in the playpen. Millie loved to show the kids the baby chickens but it became even more important to keep them away from little hands; more than one chick got a way bigger drink than was really good for its health. Or maybe the confusion between "chickens" and "ducks" caused the unwelcome immersions.

When we moved back out to the farm, we inherited a small pig shed in the lot across the driveway. Before we knew it, we were expecting parents to a new flock of chickens cheeping in Millie's utility room. We walled in a safe cozy room and installed some used nesting boxes. We got a waterer and several sacks of chicken feed. Blake pounded in some steels posts and we drug up some cattle panels for a new chicken yard.

Our chicken flock turned out to be 'bin run' in a manner of speaking. Out of our dozen chickens, half turned out to be roosters. This wasn't a problem for quite a while. The girls now had chores to do: in the morning, check the chickens' water, let them out, check their feed. Look for eggs.
I have to admit that Lee and Ann showed some reluctance to pick up eggs with poop on them. Even wearing gloves down to the chicken house was insufficient protection from the offending excrement. But they did take care of the birds even if I had to do mop up operations on gathering eggs.

When the roosters got bigger though, it got more difficult to get the kids to care for the chickens. The roosters were aggressive and the girls weren't very old. I finally took action, relying heavily on Mother Nature. I left the roosters outside. Presto change-o....happy kids, happy coyotes. No roosters.

The chicken population waned as the dog population waxed. Something about our farmstead proved irresistible to abandoned dogs.There was Frisky, who pulled all my clothes off the line. Mister would stand on his hind legs and "dance" with the girls. And Bob, a big dog eager to please whose outstanding achievement was eating fireworks! A steady parade of friendly and forlorn animals showed up from time to time; as long as they mingled well with little kids, didn't dig, or bark for hours at end, they found a second with lots of other dogs!

Juno was our first pet, a German Shepherd Doberman mix with soulful eyes and a gentle disposition. She spent her puppyhood riding back and forth from Columbia to Tarkio in the back seat. That experience informed her life long behavior. Juno leapt into the pickup each morning before Blake poured his last cup of coffee. She rode in the front, in the back on toolboxes and fuel tanks. She would wait in the cab of the tractor running the auger until a truck arrived to ride in.
Juno's day ended only when Blake returned home. She retired when she could no longer make the jump into the front of his pickup.

At risk of anthromorphizing our doggy companions, I'll tell you that Juno had a great buddy. Nancy's beagle Barney was a wandering soul. In Juno's later years, he would show up at our place on his short stubby legs and stay for days or weeks on end. Nancy knew where he was; periodically, she would come up to fetch him back home. They are both long gone now, but I remember the two gray muzzled dogs resting beneath the trees and how happy they seemed to be when Barney trotted up into the yard.

Summertime, and each family made plans for its summer escape. Summertime, and the entire cow herd, from fat cattle to mamas and babies, found ways to taste freedom as well. Cows would munch the green grass on the side of Highway 0. The electric fence would short out and the steers would head for the tall corn. As everyone knows, these excursions happened most frequently on Sunday mornings. Like the cherry atop the sundae, the yard bull would be back in Millie's front yard.

The yard bull was a Houdini and creature of habit. Wherever the bulls were pastured for the summer, this bull would find his way out and head for the headquarters of Hurst Farms. He never strayed into the road and paid little or no attention to the parade of pickups and other implements coming and going in the driveway. He appeared tethered to the pines. I believe we would have accepted him as another animal oddity if he not taken a notion to scratch himself on the little fruit trees Millie was nurturing. Whether or not one saw the yard bull, the path of destruction he left in the yard was indelible.

No more free range chickens, no more open range cattle; the farm is devoted to corn and kids and flowers these days.

One less excuse to be late for church on Sunday.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Can I?

The first green beans of the season just filled a six inch azalea pot. That's about 10 beans each, not a real auspicious start. There are only a couple dozen plants in Lee's garden though, so its job is just to wet our whistles. Down at Millie's, there are three nicely hoed rows west of her house. With the rain this week, every bloom ought to make a pod. Our shelving in the basement is empty of beans; we won't need much encouragement when it comes time to pick.

Thus will commence the cluttering of the kitchen. Up will come the jars from the basement. Down will come the pressure canner from the kitchen closet. In will come the stainless steel canner from its winter home on top of the fridge on the back porch.

I was born to can. Its in my blood and my gene pool, but this is a perfect example for those who wish to argue 'nature' or 'nurture'. My grandmother's narrow galley kitchen radiated heat from the multiple enameled canners spewing dangerous geysers of steam across the walk way. The back porch table where we kids ate would be covered in jars cooled and ready to be hauled to the basement. Endless buckets of my grandfather's produce marched by the back porch stairs, multiplying like the brooms in Fantasia. Or, at least I'm sure it seemed that way to my grandmother.

Granny's basement was a cornucopia of produce: beans, pickles,tomatoes, peaches, plums, pears, applesauce, and probably lots of other vegetables I don't remember because I didn't like them at the time!!

My folks planted a big garden out at the farm too. My mother canned all permutations of tomatoes, but my favorite recipe was her chili sauce. Tangy, not hot, it included lots and lots of onions and peppers. It was more pickled than salsa, sweet and sour both from lots of cider vinegar, cinnamon, and cloves. Anything cooked with tomatoes got a healthy dollop of chili sauce; I liked it better than ketchup, even if it made for a supremely messy burger.

Which isn't to say my mom's homemade ketchup was less than the elixir of the gods. Unfortunately, it took longer to cook than the seven days of creation; we only had homemade ketchup when we had no idea what else to do with all the tomatoes. The essence would permeate the house; the stain would remain on the cooking pot for a week even after scrubbing.

Little heathen that I was, I preferred store bought dill pickles for many years to home made bread and butter pickles. Fortunately, before I finished taking sandwiches for lunches, I saw the light and realized that virtually any meat sandwich went from dull to delicious with the application of a healthy forkful of bread and butter pickles. Those translucent slices of onion and cuke with pungent mustard seeds for extra zip were the perfect companions for anything from summer sausage to cold steak. Add some brown mustard and you had a deli treat....and really bad breath for the rest of the afternoon!

What home canned pickles have over store bought is the ineffable essence of crunch. Merely waffle cutting a cucumber doth not make it crisp. I will occasionally splurge on the purchase of a cold kosher dill, but like Charlie Dunn, 'once you have home-made, you'll never buy a store bought pair.' Well, OK, that's about boots, but you get the idea.

For whatever reason, maybe geography, maybe genealogy, I'd never had a lime pickle until I moved to Tarkio. I assume my Granny made them; I remember seeing crocks all over, but my mother did not. Millie made lime pickles though; after much discussion and analysis, we have concluded they are the secret ingredient to her famous and justly lauded potato salad. One of my prized gifts from my mother in law is a five gallon crock the perfect size for making lime pickles. Two gallons won't hold enough cucumbers if you've got a bumper crop going. Anything larger than five gallons is way too heavy to hoist to the sink to rinse the required three times.

Lime pickles are a three day project. First day, one slices the cukes, discarding the ends (they contain enzymes that can soften the final product) and dumps them into the lime solution in the crock. Lime is messy messy stuff....any splashes or puddles will stay white for repeated scrubbings. I always throw in a few ice cubes with my lime mixture, press down on the whole shebang with a large dinner plate, and keep the cukes submerged with the gallon of vinegar I will later use for the pickling solution.

The cukes steep overnight. Then comes the rinse cycle. One carefully lifts handfuls of crispy white slices into the sinkful of cool running water. Inevitably, the entire front of the cabinets takes on the look and smell of a hot spring. The only other alternative it to haul the entire crock, cukes and all, to the edge of the sink and dump the contents. I've tried both and found the drippy dribbling mess to be a less dangerous option to toes, fingers, cabinets and plumbing.

'Rinse three times' is the next instruction. Easier said than done. The best way to cleanse the pickles of the lime is to fill the sink with water, but replacing the drain to refill the sink is no small task. Before you know it, the bottom of the sink is full of crispy cucumber fragments, not slices.

Now the cucumbers soak in cool water for several hours. Its time to prepare the syrup. One to one, the vinegar and sugar are poured into the large canner. I bought my big 21 quart canner many years ago from a Spiegel mail order catalog, of all places. It was on sale, but still cost twice as much as a black enameled pan from Curfman Hardware or Orscheln's. On the other hand, I had already, in just a few years, burned up two enameled canners. One solitary chip on the bottom and it was only a matter of time before the heat elements of the stovetop and the unprotected metal of the pan lead to a rust spot, then a thin patch, then a leak. The stainless steel canner is more than thirty years old now and has processed untold jars, scalded bushels of tomatoes, boiled scads of pickles and roasting ears, and burnt on applesauce. Good investment. I fully expect it to survive the next generation of canners as well.

Nothing really heats a kitchen like 20 quarts of boiling vinegar, sugar, allspice, and cucumbers. The pickles come to a rolling boil and must cook that way for 40-45 minutes. On canning days, I just bit the bullet and left the windows open with the fans running. Keeping the house cool was futile. Sweat rolled and eyes watered as the vinegar tore through sinuses. Once the pickles cooked for a while, I started the other burners with pans of water to boil the jars and lids. The racket of rattling jars and roiling pickles stopped all conversation. It took alot of care to ladle the pickles into jars. It was best to use wide mouthed jars; a bumper crop of cukes meant a fairly high percentage of sandwich size slices. Even with a big opening, the hot sticky syrup wound up down the jar, in between the stove and counter and on the soles of your feet.

Fortunately, processing afterwards was a mere nothing. The hot jars took no time to return to a boil, five or ten minutes passed, the buzzer went off, and the kitchen took a reprieve from its Amazonian atmosphere.

After dealing with the macro amounts of cucumbers, it was a pleasure to work with the fruit. Instead of quart sized wide mouth jars, there were adorable little half pints with pressed designs of fruit or quilted with a diamond design. The house was redolent with the concentrated essence of whatever fruit was cooking; cherries, blackberries, peaches, or, in very rare years, apricots. I think I've made apricot jam exactly three times in the many years I've canned jellies. Apricots bloom so early they usually freeze. Apricots are a fruit wanting to fall; any storm will leave a hail storm of hard green fruit in July. The years of apricots are memorable.

Jam making is no less sticky than pickle making. Its a physical reminder of how much sugar is being consumed with every jar of these condiments. Squeezing the jelly bags turns one a fascinating shade of violet. Cherry juice is invisible...until one's clothes are washed and dried, when it becomes readily apparent how many cherries one's shirt has absorbed.

In bountiful years, it can be a tie between apples and tomatoes for the title of most versatile garden product. Tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and hues are transformed into salsa, spaghetti sauce, chili sauce, or just plain old tomatoes when inspiration runs out. I was always tickled when Ann, so particular about goo on her hands any other time, offered to "squish" the peeled tomatoes in the pot. As a matter of fact, I never lacked for help when canning time arrived. The kitchen may have been steamy, but nothing compared to the blistering August day out of doors. Fetching jars, coring tomatoes, scalding and peeling them: any task aside from taking the mushy leftovers out to the compost pile was welcome.

We use tomatoes for so many things that I rarely turn down the offer to pick or use someone's surplus. I used to grow lots of Roma tomatoes with the idea their tidy size and small seed cavity would make a saucier sauce. Instead, I have concluded they are a total pain. They are impossible to core. If a Roma is in boiling water one second too much, half the tomato comes off with the skin. And, biggest drawback of all, they just aren't that tasty. I welcome all other tomato comers though. My dad even throws cherry tomatoes in, skin and all, with the theory one will never notice a couple dozen little tomato pelts in a canner of juicy glory.

Apples bring the canning year to a close after the rest of the garden has subsided into a tangled mass of foxtail and gourd vines. When the kids were little, I used a food mill to separate the peels from the apple quarters before I cooked. Insta-sauce. But it never tasted as good as the more labor intensive method employed by my grandmother and my mother. So I went back to peeling and quartering all the apples, then cooking them down til some were sauced and the rest warm and tasty pieces like pie filling. Aha! When I made applesauce now, I would leave a huge bowl for immediate consumption...and it would disappear. Suddenly, I used about half as much sugar as well. Granted, one couldn't use this method for all apple varieties, only the late summer and fall types like McIntosh, Jonathan, or Delicious.

Home canning doesn't save money. It may not even taste markedly better. But it yields psychic benefits of security and self sufficiency. There is a certain beauty to the orderly arrangement of quarts and pints, greens and reds, fruit and vegetable. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, there are ties to our past, those 'mystic chords of memory' in the practice of the home arts.