Beer drinking habits are hard to break. My father, back in the early seventies, when he went out, drank only Guinnessâ€”there was only one bar in town that had it, and it was the only beer in town that wasn’t old-fashioned upper-midwestern lager. Those were dark days. But, it was the early seventies, and home brewing was ramping up, soon to be legal. My father made stout, once a year, in a food grade black plastic 50 gallon barrel. And for twenty years, for the most part, that’s the only beer he drank. Stashed it away in the root cellar, put some age on it, some real age, some of it, (he swears it only ever got better), and quit only when advancing middle age (beer, he says) started to influence his waistline. Unfortunately, this quitting coincided very closely with my own interest in beer, and I never got to taste his as an adult. People say it was the best.
Of course, then it was the early nineties, and the craft beer movement was in full swing. That bar with the Guinness turned out to be owned by another, and considerably more obsessive home brewer, Ray McNeill, for instance, and so I had no shortage of good and diverse beer on which to cut teeth. But still it would be another ten years, almost, before my father would consent to drink aught but dark beers. Habits are stubborn things.
For myself, it took me years, as I outgrew the prejudiced (and slightly precious) palate of my late adolescence, to realize that IPAs were not to be drunk sitting down at table, unless perhaps there was pizza or bar-food on that table. That beer shouldn’t be drunk cold in winter, or for much of fall and spring for that matter. That (a crisp, light) lager has its placeâ€”particularly with Mexican food, with which there is nothing on earth better to drink, I am firmly convinced.
As, in my old age, I have started to drink considerably less beer, having finally realized that not every afternoon does a beer really agree with me, so has my desire for that beer to be the right beer increased. And so, this week, finally, I have come around to the idea (very late in coming) that I ought to keep any number of different beers on hand, more beer collectively than I’ve ever kept on hand, really, at exactly the time I am drinking the least beer of my life since age fourteen.
What a pleasing prospect.
“This is a recipe that my Mother-in-law taught me how to cook ground hog.
Dress and cut it up. Put in pot, then bring to boil.* Break up spicewood branches, and put in pot with meat. Boil until the meat is tender. Remove; then salt and pepper; then roll in flour; put in 1/2 cup shortening, preferably bacon grease. Then put in oven and bake until it is brown.
Mrs. Ennis Ownby”
from Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1957.
*(“boil” is old-talk for simmer.)
Since returning to West Virginia in early April, our best table, a round, four foot diameter blond oak central pedestal antique, typical of my family (my mother, her parents, and myself, at least), has been living in a corner of a difficult room, in an attempt to make that room useful to us. Since April, we’d used it exactly twice (or maybe three times), over the course of one weekend. In its stead, in the kitchen, by a bank of east facing windows, and under a purpose-hung conical glass shaded bulb, we have been eating at a coffee table with a sideboard to keep things out of reach of the baby. I don’t know how this course of affairs continued for so long. It was miserable. Awful. I righted it after seeing the pleasure my young daughter took at her cousin’s highchairâ€”indeed, she is more tractable in her highchair than with her legs on the floor. But having the table in the place of honor, where it belongsâ€”there is a kind of deep rightness to it, like we have righted some perversity which has been quietly poisoning our lives. Perhaps, as I am doing now, set up on that table by these east facing windows, I’ll even write more often. Hell. Who knows.
Here are two homely jugs of happily fermenting homely home-squeezed plum wine. It’s been far too long since I engaged in fermentation projects, and I feel a tear coming on.
This particular project was a medley of expedients. I am bullish on plums, though. One day, perhaps next week, I’ll go land fifty pounds of Damsons and do it right.
Dry beans were the first trick, reasonably fresh.
Simmered them up slow, with salt at the start.
Almost done? Added some canned tomato,
and a couple chopped onions,
and a few tiny sprigs of oregano–
and let finish.
Vegetarian even. For Christ’s sake.
If you’re not already aware of it, the dried-beans thing is a revelation. But now I think I’m souring on the pressure cooker too.
Here is a lovely piece about sugaring season (mud season, really) in Vermont. Makes me homesick. The author is someone I grew up around, and her family figures large in my earliest memories.
The classic in what is hypothetically my field, Old Southern Apples has been out of print for years. Used copies were ridiculously expensive. Now it’s back, and the Times has taken notice.
In honor of this joyous occasion (well, reminded) I’ve added a permanent link to Century Farm Orchards, the main commercial outlet for the author’s collection.
An article in Outside Magazine, titled “Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden.” Lovely things like ten foot long catfish, and peasantry to put us to shame.
Sauteed up some sausage and threw in some bitter greens and some saltâ€”ate with bread and butterâ€”wife says, “why don’t we eat like this all the time?”
Just a quick post, now that it is sugaring season in West Virginia. I made two gallons last year, mostly from one good tree. In the vein of encouraging posts I sometimes post here, I want to encourage you if you have even one decent sized tree somewhere convenient, to go buy a couple three dollar taps from your hardware store, hitch them up to milk jugs or something, and boil off the sap in your kitchen, or on your wood stove. The main thing to consider is, that in the boiling of sap to get a gallon of syrup, you’ll have to boil off some forty gallons of water. This is the reason that even slightly serious sugarers do it not in their home kitchens. But, with just a couple taps, not so much a problem.
The other question is when to stop boiling, but this isn’t so important. If you over-cook it, it will crystalize, and you’ll need to reheat it and add water. If you under-cook it, it won’t be as thick as it might be, and will go bad faster.
Some readers of my blog may notice that I’ve increased the standard size of my images from 450 pixels to 600 in width. I hope this agrees with y’alls screens as wellbetter as it does mine. It’s an old picture but I’m posting it anyway because it’s time again I put up a picture.
So, I am keen on these purple potatoes. At least one farmer in my neck (pain in my neck?) markets a purple potato as a novelty, which is not very reassuring, but I assure you they can be fantastic. First rate. Color aside. I don’t know anything about the ancestry or breeding history of purple potatoes. When I started buying them years ago I thought there was only one variety, but that was before I got smart. Some are, indeed, better than others, deeper colored or better textured, and some are certainly better named, but all I’ve tried have been decent to excellent for roasting.
With that, I present you with one of my favorite I’m-too-tired-to-cook recipes (though I make it as a side sometimes for some of my fanciest meals, too):
dice waxy potatoes
jerusalem artichokes if you got ‘em
that kind of thing;
throw in some unpeeled garlic cloves (or peeled)
so that all the things are roughly similar sized
or otherwise calculated to be done cooking at
approximately the same time,
and put them in a bowl
and slather them in fat
and sprinkle them with salt
and maybe herbs
and put them on a tray,
and put them in a fast oven (hot, fairly hot)
I hope you like it. It’s one of my favorites.
P.S. My mother calls this dish “roasted rooties.” Fair enough. My own name for it is drawn from the title of a book I own but have never opened, “The Transcendental Boiled Dinner.” I forget by who.
Visiting a friend I am overcome with the glory of his walk-in. Situated just off the kitchen, during the day it doubles as his sunroom (wherein he is starting some two dozen different varieties of bean plants, in January, pretty much just because he can), but at night it has been a joy and a pleasure and a great aid in my remembering how to make pie dough using the Julia Child Mastering* method, wherein everything must be kept frosty. Incidentally I love the Mastering instruction and my results from it, and recommend it everywhere. It tells you exactly what to do, finicky-like, but also tells you you’ve got to get your hands dirty and get the feel of it, which cured me clean of any residual ambient fear of pie dough. So.
*…the Art of French Cooking, Knopf 1961.
[**addendum** I thought I might add that the sunroom is just an old porch glassed in with old wooden storm-windows, two by fours and spray foam insulation. Took about a day and a $100.]
A $140 frozen goose is for sale in my home town. In fact, I think the shop has three. Also, indiscriminately labeled “pork fat” for $6/lb. In tiny packages.
In West Virginia, my last attempt to buy a goose ended in “well, if you can catch one, sure.” I wasn’t offered to shoot one, and chances were good it’ve been a soup-bird. And a goose will bloody you in hand to hand combat. So. Before that, I bought my geese in Virginia. For a reasonable price. I’d have to ask my wife. It’s been a while now. Too long.
The last time I bought pork in West Virginia, I was given ten or twenty pounds of fat and a head, and a couple bags of bones, for the asking. Nobody else wanted them. They are not specially priced gourmet tit-bits there. This is an amazing, beautiful, sad thing.
I love to eat geese. I love pork fat. I love limitless amounts of stock in four flavors (pig, goat, lamb, beef) simmering on my stove all winter scenting and humidifying my house and filling my chest freezer for free. My sister’s first sentence was “goose a’bit me,” and I have now my own preverbal daughter. I really don’t know what to make of all these facts.
One must be resourceful.
In West Virginia, I buy my beef by the 1/4 animal, hanging weight, and keep it in the chest freezer. Hanging weight is after slaughter, skinning, cleaning and beheading, but before dry-aging, which evaporates some of the weight. This year, hanging weight of the (tiny) bull we went in on was 472 pounds. So our quarter was 118 pounds, for which we paid $2 a pound, plus a $70 processing fee. This came to $2.60 a pound, call it $2.75 after hanging: bones, chuck, heart and tenderloin. The farmer takes a somewhat better price than he can get from the stock sale, which would otherwise take their de facto organic, grass-fed beef, ship it to Kansas, abuse it, force feed it, pump it full of antibiotics and dump it on the commodities market. So, in West Virginia, my family, we eat a lot of beef.
In Vermont, we wouldn’t. At least not Vermont beef. It’s not beef country: pasture is too precious, what is left of it, land values and taxes too steep and the winters too long. The market, however, the ethical demand, there, will bear silly prices: twice the farmers’ market retail in West Virginia. Thus they have beef.
In fact, Vermont is not farmer country at all, rosy-goggled stereotypes aside. The only thing, that I can see, that a Vermont farmer (barring a dairy producer) has over a West Virginian is proximity to markets that will bear a premium price for premium produce. This is bad politics. If food can’t be produced cheaply, it can’t be sold cheaply, and then poor people can’t afford to eat much local food. I include myself in this category. It’s a shame. It’s a truism: local foodism is an uppermiddleclass phenomenon. The rest of us in a place like Vermont, if we want to eat well, it’s variations on beans and rice. Sometimes it seems like we are the serfs of the second-homers. As I see it, the future of economical farming in places like Vermont only clarifies this relationship: the only land economical enough for economical production will be leased from the rich under the stipulation that production be kept aesthetically pleasing. If that doesn’t make us peasants then I suppose it must make us artists, subsisting one way or another on the patronage of the rich.
Of course, lacking this market, despite all their advantages, West Virginian farmers typically still have to work full-time, outside jobs. And still are broke. But, the market is improving. The quality of their produce is improving. If local foodism escapes the mental clutches of the salesmen to the uppermiddleclass, West Virginia could be a farmer’s, and a poorly funded eater’s paradise.
If I lived in Vermont I’d probably fill a truck bed with coolers and go south every fall for my meat, food miles be damned. Clearly, there are some inefficiencies in the Natural Beef market. Failing that I’d have to pasture my own freaking cow. On borrowed ground. Keep it pretty.