Friday, September 27, 2013

Magic Numbers

Cards cut magic number to 1 

Kind of at loose ends tonight...

There are a mere three baseball games left in the long season, just one more series of their favorite team for many fans before they reluctantly push the red ESPN score button to some other sport.  They may follow the playoffs, but will neither suffer the thrill of victory nor the agony of defeat.  

But...even though I am  making do with Dodgers/Giants as my nighttime relaxation, post season baseball is on my mind.  The math still matters; during the last three games the Cardinals play the Cubs, the stadium will be electric with more than the normal good humored rivalry.  The stands will hum and the crowd will inflate and deflate as scores of other contenders are posted.  The days will still be warm but the nights will cool down; the stands won't be quite as red as they are during the summer.  Having a magic number means college football will take a back seat this Saturday and the pros won't warrant a second thought on Sunday.  Nerves in our house will be frayed; for the most edgy fan (me), sitting will be a trial and I'll wander the house like Banquo's ghost.  Even though baseball season comes around every year; the pitchers and catchers report in Florida sunshine, the opening day crowds will be hunched into their windbreakers, the fireworks will light the sky over the Old Courthouse in July....these waning days of the season are always bittersweet with loss in a way that no other sport can be.  Who feels regret in June when professional basketball finally gives up a the ghost?  Or tunes in for the Pro Bowl...or cares?  The end of baseball always sneaks up on me; superstitious to the last, no one mentions magic numbers until they are single digits just like a no hitter is that which shall not be named until at least the seventh inning.

Fall is chock full of magic numbers.  They regulate our life.  Four is the magic number until the mums run out.  Noah's crew boarded their vessel two by two but the trailers of mums count the tables of four.  Early in the season, fifty pots fit in the loft (12 trips, plus one handful) and 75 fours on the floor.  But by October, we are trying to deflate those fragrant orbs of bloom in an attempt to fit JUST FOUR MORE, telling them to INHALE as we close the door, as if they were sentient beings.

Each truckload brings us closer to picking up an irrigation line.  Each line holds something under 200 mums.  By October we are loading hundreds of plants of the same variety, marching from bottom to top, calling out our count, knowing that each truckload shrinks the gallons of water we must pull out of the ground.  From six hours of watering for 3 people, we are under 2 hours for two.  But who is counting?

Baseball may rule my nights, but mums rule the day.

With the mums in new homes, the lines rolled and stacked, the ground cloth bundled securely under concrete bricks, its time to face the really big numbers.  Two combines, two eight row corn heads, one 20'and one 25'grain table, two good sized auger wagons, four or five semi trucks and trailers, two long augers and at least one pickup per farm family....this armada is what it takes to conquer the rolling sea of corn and beans spread over the northern part of Atchison county.  The numbers, I apologize, are imprecise because some piece of machinery is always on the disabled list.  Some days the harvesters seem to glide effortlessly along the long rows of the river bottoms and the intricate ballet of trailer, auger wagon and combine rivals any computer aided design as the grain piles into the trucks and flows out of the trucks according to the laws of physics and the variables of shape, moisture, and slope.  We used to count trucks coming off the field, or being dumped into a bin, but now the mighty machines do the math for guesswork in the numbers, no cheating allowed. Unless the yield monitors lose their brains.

Other days I come into the field to see the mechanical equivalent of open heart surgery taking place...or a tell tale pile of grain detritus under the machine....or the hit or miss of plug and play as farmers and technicians try to decipher some cryptic electronic error message. Minutes grind into hours lost and a general constipation of the harvest process.  When we trudge home dust caked and smelling of grease and oil after days like this, we do the math and watch our magic number fade into the mists of the future like the oracle of Delphi.

Corn and beans: 150 days plus
Mums and asters: 135 days plus or minus
Baseball: 162 games.

Long seasons.

It takes optimism to begin, persistence to make it past the obstacles and through the inevitable mid season slump and grit to make the necessary adjustments and finish strong.

Gentlemen, start your engines.
Red, white, yellow, orange..the colors of the autumn rainbow stripe the hillside.
Play ball....

Let's go CARDS!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Don't Pick on Me, Chipotle

“Tom, don't let anybody kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of s*** every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it's personal as hell..."
Mario Puzo The Godfather

That's my reaction to the new Chipotle cartoon/video game.  Not subtle, but then, there is nothing subtle about the advertisement either.  Winsome but troubled knight with a peg nose and straw hat rebels against the 'Man'...or the 'Birds'(Hitchcock anyone?) and forges his own way, finding true happiness and the moral high ground simultaneously.  This general theme is no more original to advertising than it is to literature.  It finds its way into commercials quite often;  the latest incarnation being the Infiniti 'Factory of Life' assembly line. These appeals to our independence and individuality enlist us to be 'we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.'; which of us sees himself as just another guy waiting in line for his 100 percent beef-ish?  Whose life long dream is to belong to the Machine?

Well, trust me when I tell you that my friends, Romans, countrymen out here in outer rural Missouri see themselves as the rugged hard working independent minded stewards of God's green earth and practitioners of sustainable husbandry for the plants and animals under their care.  When they see the label 'BIG FOOD' and the derisive and ironic billboard proclaiming

they will be dismayed, offended, and wonder why a BIG FOOD company like Chipotle is picking on them.  We can't all be local providers as Chipotle would desire. And we don't have to squeeze into the narrow  but deliberately nebulous definition of an acceptable type of agricultural operation to be real farmers and ranchers contributing not just food and fiber to our society, but stability, tradition, and yes, initiative and  even entrepreneurship. Some of us are indeed bigger than others, but even farms with sales similar to the average Chipotle restaurant.(1.8 million dollars) are operated overwhelmingly by family farmers, not whatever shadowy boogieman BIG FOOD is supposed to be.

Don't get me wrong: Chipotle has attracted gobs of attention from all sorts of media outlets.  The site garnered 450,000 views in its first day.  And that's big business in anyone's book.  Goodness knows this little screed won't measure a blip on the Scarecrow's radar.  Nonetheless, I would like to rebut the idea that we are faceless nameless Crow-bots out here.  I don't have a production company but I do have a camera.  So here you go:  

PeeWee showmen at the county fair

Keeping the greenhouse safe

Helping Grandma seed

New piggies arrive
Production manager and smiley face

View west, summer sunset
Family farm circa 1980

Where mud is a toy I

Hand labor

A boy and his wheels

Short crop 2013

Suppertime harvest style

Typical bean sunset

Heading to the garden

Quality family time

Where water is a toy

Winter maintenance above ground

Flower child
View west winter wind

Where mud is a toy II
April showers


Birthday party in the field, October

Whistle while you work

A teaching moment

West view with cornflowers 

Sure, I know its nothing personal.  Its just business. Still....

Don't pick on me, Chipotle

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Family Jewels

It has been a busy but productive two weeks in the family kitchens.  
The cucumbers are gigantic, yellow and bloated on the fence, but we've canned our fill of bread and butters and refrigerator dills and can shrug off any recurring guilt. A generous picking of blackberries was distilled down to 14 jars of jam.  Not to be out done, the four grape vines on the corner of our yard produced six ice cream buckets and a 2 gallon pail of little purple and marble sized green grapes. Then the late summer, early autumn apples began to drop, requiring yet more containers: 3 gallon pots, 5 gallon buckets and a couple of honest to goodness bushel baskets were pressed into service.  The apples are tasty out of hand, but there are so many wonderful ways to preserve them for fall and winter!  

Then...finally, the tomatoes come on. 

Right at the peak of a late summer heat wave, the vines I've been resolutely watering yield their bounty.  More pots, a milk crate and a couple more 2 gallon rubber buckets are piled high with Celebritys, Romas, not-so-Early Girls and whatever other orphans I couldn't bear to let wither away in June.  The slugs have taken a few bites, but for the most part, the fruit is smooth, firm, not mushy and perfect for canning.

From the depths of the basement, to the tall shelf in the kitchen closet, from the back of the utensil drawer to the tangled hardware of the crockery in the corner: out comes our version of the family jewels to be drawn into service for another summer of tomato seeds, pungent vinegar, and the royal purple of the brambles.  As steeped in tradition as any family recipe, as worn as any tarnished silver brooch, as indispensable as a spare set of keys, a fresh battery, an the stainless steel canner I bought from Spiegel after burning out two enamelware pans in six years; the jar lifter and jar funnel are original equipment.... is the 3 1/2"quart Revereware pot my mother gave me for my wedding shower.  It has boiled corn, pasta, and simmered more pots of chili than I can count in these 36 plus years.  It shares the cupboards with Grandma Eunice's deep and wide 14"skillet and Grandma Froerer's 1 and 1 1/2 quart saucepans.  There is more than a century of feet to the fire for those Revereware copper bottom pots and even boiling some tea bags dry but dimmed their stainless steel luster.  The next generation can try its luck....

How many cooks do you know still using their 1970s orange Tupperware measuring cups?  Or spooning the flour out of their 1978 faded metal canisters (purchased from goodness knows which defunct discount store with the aim of keeping varmints out of the baking supplies if not the rest of the porous household)? This measuring cup set has the oh so important 3/4 cup, something I use in nearly all my baking recipes.  For instance, the 3/4 cup is part and parcel of the 2 3/4 cup flour used to make a loaf of white bread in my ever so antique bread machine.

Blake and Ben bought me that refurbished, reconditioned West Bend bread machine many years ago.  When you are married to a farmer and your birthday falls in mid October, you had better plan on a steady diet of gifts from either a hardware store, NAPA, or the local equivalent of a Pamida or Dollar General.  In this case, when Blake asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I had just been to Pamida and had an appropriate answer....  I have ordered but two small replacement parts for that thing over the years.  A loaf of bread from that machine is considered a treat by the grandkids, especially slathered in butter and honey or peanut butter and home made jam.  The recipe is in my brain and the ingredients always on hand.

Ahhh, I do, of course, have more than one set of measuring cups.  These sturdy stainless steel cups and a matching set of spoons (my spoon set had shrunk to a quarter and a half teaspoon)were from Ben and upgraded my equipment one Christmas morn.  But that big yellow Rubbermaid batter bowl?  That I bought for myself.  Also many years ago.  I am rather daunted to find it for sale and listed as "vintage" on numerous Etsy sites.  

Alas, here is a casualty of long life and the multi tasking!  Millie gave me a big green Tupperware bowl when we were married along with the recipe for her Christmas morning Bubble.  I treasure the recipe card itself; it is well worn, though I will admit that, were a family vote taken, most would forego all gifts on Christmas and even Christmas dinner for a plate of Grandma Millie's bubble.  And the big green bowl?  One year someone used it in a remodeling project...after holding "mud"for sheetrock, it was honorably discharged from the kitchen.

Oh, all right!  You can say what's on your mind.  The kids have pointed it out more than once.  Yes, these utensils are SHOT!  As a matter of fact, they might even be hazardous to one's health.  The melamine (yes! melamine!) handles are faded (a classic harvest motif) or busted or both.  The chromed finish is history; only a matter of years before oxidation is complete and the spatula and soup ladle match the slotted spoon for liquid holding capacity.  The wooden spoons range from full to gibbous waning moon with the toothless grin befitting their relative antiquity.  But Laura gave me the utensil set and...I am loath to dispose of wooden spoons with such a patina of experience.  At least as long as there's room in the crockery.

Despite appearances, there is also room in my recipe box.

There is room for Granny's Brown Bread, chock full of raisins and baked in either a cranberry sauce or pork and beans can. The little round slices were just so darned cute and just the right size for kids to pack in their lunch box with their sandwich and apple.   I have a recipe card for her Favorite Fried Chicken too, even though its been years since I pan fried chicken  But Granny had Grandpa write that recipe card for me in 1977 after he had suffered a stroke and just seven months before he passed.  It is part of the family heritage.  Grandma Froerer could fry a mean chicken too, but the recipe she wrote out was for the pineapple upside down cake she had waiting for us every time we came to visit...whether it had been six months or six days since we'd seen her.  I still use the 9"cake pans she gave me....the white enamel is visible just below the rim. Guess we've probably ingested the rest over the years!
My mother's tiny cursive appears several times in the recipe box on random pieces of paper, notecards or index cards, but those are just pennies to the doubloons in the treasure chest of taste and tradition she has passed along.  Some recipes rest untouched, committed to memory and familiar by use, like the teriyaki marinade for chicken or steak, stir fry or grill.  

Others I read each and every time I make them, like this dog eared copy of Ma's Coffee Cake, so there will be no missteps, whether I'm making gooey rolls, crusted with sticky brown sugar and syrup topping as I tip them out of the 9x13 pan, or pulling out those same faithful paintless 9" cake pans and forming two fruity struesel topped coffeecakes.  These coffeecakes are labors of love tied by the apron strings of the past to the taste buds of the present.

But...enough flipping through the pages of memory. Today's tasks await and that means turning these:

into these:

using these.... oh wait, those are the old ones.....

Ah....that's better...newer, non rusty Wilton loaf pans from Ben and Kenz

To make these...

Apple Crunch Bread loaves...what passes for legacy around here...