Welcome to Apple Season!

I’m glad to stock my pantry shelves with a few jars of apple goodness.

The seasons are slowly beginning to change.

The horrid heat of summer is now just a memory, and there is a tartness in the morning air. Fall is on its way. We’ll still have plenty of hot and humid days, but you can feel the difference. Especially at night, when the air is softer and there is a gentle stirring of a cooler breeze.

As the seasons change, so does the food on offer at the farmer’s markets. I bought 12 pounds of apples on Saturday. Preserving apples was a welcome break from the craziness of Tomatopalooza. I still have a few more tomato projects I want to complete (I haven’t made salsa yet!). But I’m eager to try a few new apple recipes — if the apples hold out. Apples are small this year. I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised considering the amount of heat we’ve experienced. What they lack in size, though, they are making up in flavor.

Before Saturday, our pantry shelves were completely empty of apple products. Last year, I didn’t make any apple recipes. We’d just started building the new kitchen, and we were busy dealing with construction decisions. I completely missed apple season. Usually, I make applesauce, apple butter, and apple pie filling, so I’m eager to restock.

Homemade applesauce is the easiest thing in the world to make. And the best part? You don’t have to add any sugar.  Generally, I cook down the apples, and then put them through my food processor. No chemicals. No additives. Only apple goodness. I use jelly jars for my applesauce so that my college kids can take a jar (or two) back to campus with them. Warm applesauce on a cold night is the best hug substitute that I can provide them, especially when they’re fighting colds. Warm applesauce on granola — to me it’s the breakfast of champions. You can get fancy with applesauce by adding your favorite spices like cinnamon or nutmeg. But I like just good ole, plain-Jane apple sauce.

I like to see bits of fruit in my apple butter.

Apple butter is so simple that it should be illegal. For years, whenever I had apple butter at restaurants or at my sister’s house, I would marvel at its mouth-watering goodness.  This is one recipe that you can truly make your own as everyone makes it differently. In other words, there is no right or wrong. I like the taste of the apples without a lot of anything else. I also like to see bits of the apple in my butter. But it’s all personal choice. All you need is a slow cooker. Core, slice, and peel about five pounds of apples (I prefer to mix sweet with tart apples). Put in a slow cooker with two cups of sugar, 1/4t cinnamon, 1/4t nutmeg and 1/4t salt. Cook on high for the first hour. Stir. Turn on low for 9-11 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste test for sweetness. Depending upon how tart your apples are, you may want to add more sugar — or you can add more sweet apples. I like apple butter that is less sweet. Once the butter is cooked to the consistency that you desire, pour into jars. Then put in a water bath for 15 minutes to seal the jars. Done!

While we’re on the subject of apples, I tried this recipe for Spiced Apples from Mrs. Wheelbarrow a couple of years ago. It’s a perfect pantry item. Several times, I made a quick crust and used a jar of filling for pies to carry to potlucks or when having dinner with friends. They’re perfect on a crisp fall evening.

This weekend, from my 12 pounds of apples, I made six 8-oz jars of apple sauce and 18 jars of apple butter (six 8-oz jars and 12 4-oz jars). I didn’t use all the fruit that I bought because my son loves Gala apples, so I saved some for him to snack on. He’s been grabbing them three and four at a time. They won’t last long.

Want to make dried apple slices but don’t have a dehydrator? Check out The Kitchn’s post on drying them in the oven.  Vince loves apple chips. This may have to be my next project.

Thoughts I Can’t Swat Away

It’s been a really good summer for canning. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I missed yoga.

Have you ever had a recurring thought that you couldn’t swat away?

The other night we were watching TV together when I propped my leg up on the couch. I glanced down at my thigh, and it totally confused me. Whose thigh was that? I wasn’t mine. And yet, it was attached to me. But it wasn’t familiar. After all my thighs are plump and lumpy. The thigh that was propped in front of me–wasn’t. It was smaller and had a defined shape other than a cream-filled eclair.

That was the first time I noticed a change in my physical being.  Don’t get me wrong, that thigh was far from anything perfect. But it just didn’t look like my thigh. In the past few weeks, I’ve been surprised by other little changes occurring to my body as I’ve taken control of my sugar addiction.

Since March, I’ve lost just over 30 lbs thanks to giving up soda and making a conscious effort to reduce processed sugar in my diet. For the first couple of months, I was faithful. I went to a few Pilates classes and had private yoga practices. I did yoga during lunch. I even changed my Pandora station to Yoga Workout music. I watched every gram of sugar that went into my mouth. Then I began to hate it all. I felt restricted and deprived. If I heard another song with a sitar again, I was going to scream.

I wanted to be able to eat chocolate occasionally. I wanted to be free to eat whatever I wanted like the old days. I watched people consume processed food, soda, and even dessert without thought. Did they know or care what they were eating? I hated waiting until after 7 pm for Pilates. I hated committing to 8 am yoga on Saturday mornings. I hated having my life so structured. Work is structured enough. I couldn’t handle having my downtime structured too. The reality was that it wasn’t really all that structured, but it felt it. Nobody made me feel this way. My teachers were completely supportive and nothing but encouraging. Instead, I did this to myself.

So I took a break from the physical stuff but stayed on the diet, with fewer restrictions. I allowed myself to have a glass of wine. I ate some peanut M&M’s. I even had a small chocolate milkshake (it took me two nights to finish it). I tried to find my boundries. And I still lost weight. I easily fit into my “skinny clothes.”

All of my pantry cabinets are full.

This summer I have a busy, busy beaver with canning and freezing. My freezer is full. My pantry is full. If I finish my Tomatopalooza goals, I’ll have to start storing filled jars in our guest bedroom like my sister does. Its been a fabulous summer. I am thrilled with what I’ve accomplished. I’ve tried new canning recipes, and I’ve gained a few new skills. Take today for instance. I have 14-day pickles working, apple butter is in the slow cooker, and I have apples waiting to be made into applesauce. My beloved has a batch of home brewed beer ready for bottling. As Martha would say, “It’s a good thing.”

In the past few weeks, there has been a nagging feeling that I couldn’t swat away. I missed my yoga mat. In July, Balance Yoga began offering new classes. Several times, I nearly committed but changed my mind. I wasn’t ready to get back to my mat. I was eyeball deep into canning tomatoes. I told myself that I didn’t have time. Besides, I had to know for sure what I wanted from yoga this time.

Yoga has never been about weight loss for me. It’s about building a strong and flexible body, to realize my physical potential even if I’m approaching 50 years old. It’s an intense practice, not because of the physical demands, but the mental ones. Granted, the physical aspects are challenging for a middle-aged fat chick with breasts. But to me, yoga is about courage and mind control–reaching beyond what my mind believes what my body can do. Can I touch my toes? My mind says, “heck no!” And yet, during a yoga practice, I can. Can I touch my toes and exhale a breath at the same time? Sometimes.

It seemed that every time I logged onto Facebook, someone was talking about or sharing about yoga. No matter where I put my mat, it was always in the way. I finally put it in the trunk of my car. Then I bought all those cucumbers and three cases of jars when I went home to make pickles with my cousins. What’s the first thing I saw when I opened my trunk? My mat.

My Pilates teacher announced a Pilates Wake class starting in September. The class would start at 6 am on Monday mornings for four weeks. Perfect! Surely Pilates would scratch the itch. So I happily signed up, thinking that I would be content with waiting until after Labor Day, and began looking at apple jam recipes. But it didn’t scratch the itch. The enticement of the approaching apple season couldn’t hold my attention. Yoga was not content to be ignored any longer. Still unsure why, I took drastic measures and signed up for Hot Yoga.

There are a lot of people taking Hot Yoga right now. Hot Yoga, is a practice of 26 poses taught in a 105-degree room. Extreme. A few of my friends are involved in a 26-day challenge, where they attend class six days a week. They would post things to Facebook about it being the best thing they’ve ever done. More than once, I considered them to be off their rockers. Then one friend posted that she now knew why Satan was so fit: hell had hot yoga. I contacted the teacher and explained my situation. I wasn’t sure if I could it, but if I could come sweat out what was going on in my head, then maybe I could finally resolve it. She completely welcomed me. And so did her class. Ironically, I chose the class that started at 7:30 pm.

I arrived to class excited and scared to death. Before I left the house, I lingered on the goodbye kiss to my Beloved in case I never saw him again. I knew that I was going to die from a heart attack. I must have kissed our son four times before he kicked me out of his room. Even the dog got tired of me saying goodbye. So I drove to class. As I walked up the stairs to the studio, I could feel the intense heat and pondered what I was doing. I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding the need to sweat. Didn’t menopause teach me anything? I hated hot flashes. And yet, here was I paying someone to completely ignore energy-efficiency standards. Surely, I had lost my mind.

The teacher, Marcy Snodgrass, and I agreed that my first goal was to stay in the room. I could try the poses, but I wasn’t to push myself, and I wasn’t expected to keep up with the class. (No worries there!) It was unlike anything I have ever done. The heat is completely unlike being outside on a 100-degree day. This was a hot and humid room, like after a hot shower. No sun or bright light, only a floor lamp casting shadows in the early evening twilight.

I could tell from the faces of the other students that they love the practice. Decked out in their yoga gear and cute tank tops, they were eager to get going. I could feel the buzz. Marcy found a spot for me on the back row in the corner, next to the wall. Perfect, I thought. If I fall down, the walls will catch me. I recognized the music from my Pandora station. Thanks to all the sweet smiles and welcoming waves, I knew it was going to be okay. They didn’t look that crazy.

That first night, I achieved my goal. I stayed in the room. I didn’t pass out and I didn’t throw up. I tried about half of the poses. (Okay, 30%). I was wobbly when I got home because I didn’t eat much that day. But my skin felt electrified. I had sweated gallons despite the fact I laid on my back and concentrated on two knots on the wood-paneled ceiling most of the time. I refused to think about what I wanted from yoga or if I was ready to climb back on my mat for good. I simply wanted to live through it.

My sweat-soaked tank became my red badge of courage.

The second night, I rocked it. I had eaten a small lunch and drunk plenty of water. I didn’t get dizzy. I attempted middle-aged fat-and-lazy chick adaptations of every pose. Although I fought to stand on one foot, I tried. For the first time ever, I used my core muscles to lie down on my mat. (Look Ma, no hands!). I actually did the power sit ups, again like the middle-aged fat chick that I am. When I got home, I felt amazing. My body was tingling, and once again I had sweated buckets. I was thrilled that my t-shirt was soaked. It was like my red badge of courage. That night, I slept better than I had in weeks.

On the third night, I wasn’t mentally prepared when I got to class. Too much stuff had happened during the day, too many things were going on, I had rushed from work to get there on time, I was nervous about making it to the football game–it wasn’t my best effort. I struggled. I couldn’t focus. It happens. If you aren’t focused, you aren’t going to have a good practice. But you try and make the most of it. As I lay on my mat at the end of class, I allowed a single thought to bubble up.

I want more.

Rejuvenating a Smile

Pickled beets are NOT Cheyenne’s favorite snack.

Last Wednesday night, a hurricane arrived on our doorstep.

With a rare break from college, work, and an internship, our niece Cheyenne came home mentally and physically exhausted. And fighting a cold. She tries really hard to eat right, but like most Americans she gets caught in a trap between what’s really healthy and what’s convenient. It’s a Catch-22. When you’re a busy college student, it’s an impossible battle to win — especially when campus food services are catered by hospitality organizations that don’t share your aunt’s obsession with real, whole, and organic food.

The trip home, which usually takes three hours, had taken her seven. She left campus late after training all day for a new job. Between detours, pit stops, quick visits, and making a couple of deliveries, it was after 11 pm by the time she walked in the house keyed up and running on adrenaline. The storm surge that occurred after welcoming hugs left a puddle in the middle of the floor in the shape of Cheyenne. She had held it all in as long as she could.

It’s been a tough year.

Thankfully, I was clued in to the fact that our typically bubbly girl was at the end of her rope and needed to completely recharge her spirit and her body before heading back to Memphis. I had exactly one week to turn her world around and get her ready to face the new semester. We sent my Beloved off to bed. Then Cheyenne and I sat up until 2 am talking and crying. Crying and talking. We’re chicks — it works. Because she was so stressed, if she didn’t cry it all out the first night she would continue to hold everything in.

Once the stress-induced tears subsided, it was time to implement my Recovery Plan. I knew she needed to untangle her muscles, ridding them of the toxins that were being held in her tissues. I had bought her an unlimited pass to Balance Yoga Studio, and I told her that I expected her to go to at least one class every day. Yoga works differently than any other form of exercise. It stretches the muscles and stimulates the organs. The mental aspect is as important as the physical strength that it provides. Thankfully, she likes yoga, so she agreed despite the fact she just wanted to lie in bed for a week. There was no way I was going to let that happen. When you’re tired, depressed, or stressed, the worst thing you can do is lie in bed. It goes against everything your body was designed to do. Granted, it feels good to crawl under the sheets and hide, but it’s the worst thing you can do for your muscles and your brain. Unless you just want them to turn to mush.

I had told her before she came home that I planned to provide her a steady diet of wholesome foods that would help her detox. But at 2 am, no one cares about detoxing. So it didn’t take long for her to realize that there was no junk food in the house. No chips, no ice cream, no chocolate, no soda — nothing that her body was craving. Instead, I popped a nectarine in her hand and gently smiled.

Before we went to bed, we mapped out her days. We planned which yoga classes she would attend and added in the other things she had planned to do while she was in town — hair appointment, eye doctor, and visits with friends. I laid down the law. For the next seven days, her plate had to be 50% greens and veggies — no breads, no fats, and no sugars. Most especially, nothing processed. She was to drink nothing but water and green tea. And most importantly, she was to sleep on a regular schedule and have a shot of wheat grass every morning to wake up her blood cells. With a hug and a quick kiss on her forehead, I sent her to bed.

Bless her heart, she listened. She went to yoga. She ate her veggies. She drank buckets of water and green tea. She avoided sugar. I slowly reintroduced healthy fats once the bad ones had been eliminated. On Friday night, we watched my favorite documentary, Hungry for Change. This documentary changed my world. It explains why diets don’t work and the importance of eating whole food. If you have ever been on a diet and then gained the weight back (plus a few extra) then you must see this movie. Go to the website. Buy the download. And watch it — repeatedly. You’ll thank me later.

By the time we pushed “play,” she had been home 48 hours. Her system had been hydrated with good nutrition. She was already feeling better, and the fog was lifting from her brain. We stayed up and talked. And talked. And talked. Again, we’re girls — it works. By the time we went to bed, we had solved the world’s problems. Or at least a few of hers.

On Saturday, we went to the Downtown Farmer’s Market, had breakfast, visited with friends, and then headed home. That afternoon, we took the boat out and went swimming. We soaked up the vitamin D and relaxed. On Sunday, we took the boat out again. By then, her skin was glowing, her eyes shining, and the crinkled forehead was smoothed. It was time to kick her detox up a notch by adding veggie juice to her new diet. Juicing improves blood and oxygen flow to muscles and organs.

I had gotten an email a couple of weeks earlier from The Weekly Juicery, a retail store in Lexington, Kentucky, that makes and sells veggie and fruit juices. Occasionally, they make deliveries to Murray. Kimmye Bohannon, owner of The Weekly Juicery was coming to town and bringing juice. I order two cases (16 portions per case) of freshly pressed juices, one for Cheyenne and one for me. I love The Weekly Juicery’s drinks. Pure, healthy, and fresh, they add a direct boost to my diet. Their Green Lemonade is a powerhouse of nutrition. When we came home from the lake, we went and picked up our juice. Then Cheyenne, Vince, and I headed to a yin yoga class together. Yin is a slow stretch yoga that just feels good, especially after an afternoon at the lake.

Fresh veggie juice fuels a healthy body.

Cheyenne did everything right and her body responded. Smiles and giggles replaced brave faces and tearful pouts. I literally watched our niece go from gray to technicolor in just a few days. She’s always been beautiful, but she became radiant in every aspect of the word. It was amazing to watch her respond to my hippie-new-age conditioning. Others might not agree with how I handled her diet. My mother would have filled my plate with mashed potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, fried chicken, and chocolate pie. Comfort foods do not provide any nutritional comfort to your body. Instead, they clog your arteries and build fat cells. Well-meaning fat cells, but they don’t enrich your blood stream or stimulate your colon.

It was gratifying to see her accept the peace that good nutrition and healthy exercise can provide. We watched her transform, like a rose blooming after a morning dew. She headed back to Memphis refreshed, renewed, and with a backseat full of frozen juice. They will continue to work their magic, getting her off on the right foot for another challenging semester. The hurricane had calmed and a rainbow of peace had taken its place.  New dorm, new job, new classes — she’s going to need all her strength. But she’ll do it and then take on the world, Green Lemonade in hand.

Aunty Am’s Recovery Plan

Exercise at least 30 minutes every day (preferably yoga for the stretching of muscles and organs)

Establish a regular sleep routine that includes at least 8 hours of rest

Watch the documentary Hungry for Change

Eat a healthy diet of whole foods (preferably organic)

  • 50% of your plate filled vegetables and fruit. Choose lots of green leafy vegetables first.
  • 25% protein (nothing fried)
  • 25% whole grains

Stay away from processed foods which can be loaded with salt and sugar.

Start Juicing!

If You Really Knew Me

I’ve seen lots of these posts floating about the blogosphere for awhile now. At first, I resisted the urge to participate. After all, I’m pretty open. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of blog inspiration, but I’m here and I’m ready to spill.

If you really knew me…

-you’d know that I own several pairs of shoes, but I only wear two pair.

-you’d know that the same thing goes for earrings, necklaces, purses, jackets, and scarves.

-you’d know that I can’t read directions. Rooted in dyslexia and reading comprehension problems, its why I never follow a recipe or assembly directions.

-you’d know that I hate it when other people pack my dishwasher. ANYONE is welcomed to unload it, but leave the packing to me.

-you’d know that my new guilty pleasure is the WWE thanks to my son. My favorite superstars? Triple H and CMPunk.

-you’d know that I never return unwanted merchandise. It will go to Angels Attic before I ask for my money back, even from Wal-mart.

-you’d know that I have music always playing, unless I’m in the car. Then I want my local NPR station – WKMS.

-you’d know that my oven always needs to be cleaned.

-you’d know that I hate my new haircut despite that fact that everybody thinks its more becoming.

-you’d know that I tear up whenever I hear Racer Band play 2001 Space Odyssey. Every. Single. Time.

-you’d know that I’d wear a turtleneck everyday, but Steve Jobs ruined it.

-you’d know that while I love canning tomatoes, I don’t actually eat them.

-you’d know that I hum to my dog. And he hums back.

-you’d know that I buy whisks despite the fact I already own several.

-you’d know that I don’t collect anything. But I have exceeded the acceptable number of roosters and rabbits in my house.

-you’d know that I love movies with subtitles.

-you’d know that I can’t do anything without Vince.

-you’d know that I am completely blown away that you are reading this.

There’s a Science Experiment in the Closet

Sneaking a peek won’t hurt anything, will it?

“Don’t contaminate your samples!”

Last week, I had a flashback to Amber Howard’s high school chemistry class at Henry County High. I was mashing in my first attempt at brewing beer, and the instructions cautioned against contamination. Between trying to keep the mixture at just the right temperature, remembering to stir, washing and sanitizing everything, and trying not to make too big a mess — all while wondering how in the world this was supposed to be done with only a soup pot and a one-gallon glass jar — contamination was the least of my concerns. Still, I could just hear Mrs. Howard telling me “If your sample isn’t pure, you’ll answer a different question and have to start over to answer this one.” Back then, the answer had something to do with oxygen, as I recall. Now it had to do with producing a decent drink. In either case, I got the idea: contamination was bad.

This whole thing started when a friend mentioned that he brews his own beer. That piqued my interest. Then Lynn Rosetto Kasper of APM’s Splendid Table talked with an author in New York who has written about homebrewing small (one-gallon) batches. Suddenly, this was something I had to try. My latest hobby. My newest contribution, however questionable, in our quest to live sustainably and locally. An effort to save money on my infrequent pints. A guy thing.

Brooklyn Brew Shop sent everything we needed including pre-measured ingredients and a lab thermometer.

Like my darling’s canning, brewing was once a home activity that was taken for granted. Apparently, every family had their own way of making the stuff using whatever was available locally. There are hundreds of American recipes from families, inns, taverns, cafes, and the like. They survived Prohibition, and many are now making a comeback along with new experiments in craft brewing.

So Mary Anne found and ordered a small-batch brewing kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop. They have any number of flavors and styles that ship with all the equipment. You supply the soup pot, water, and stove. When you’re ready to go again, just order a new packet of grain and yeast. It’s like the Betty Crocker of beer making. “If you can cook oatmeal, you can brew beer,” the box says.

Well, not quite. For one thing, I’ve never spent an hour boiling oatmeal while carefully keeping the temperature between 144° and 152°F. And I’ve never spent another hour pouring water through the mash and then boiling again to reduce it before adding yeast to get the whole thing turned into alcohol. And I’ve certainly never taken a month to do the whole process. But I take their point.

While the mash was cooking, though, I started thinking. (What else was I going to do while watching the lab thermometer and stirring?) I wondered who were my last ancestors who actually brewed their own beer? Certainly none of my mom or dad’s generation that I know of. Nor most of the generation before them, although there were a few possible bootleggers in that bunch. Somewhere back down the line, though, back past the Temperance Leaguers, I have ancestors who made their own homebrew as a matter of course. I wonder what it was like? What ingredients did they use? How was it different before the family moved to the Colonies? How often did they make it? Do any of the diaspora of cousins have one of their recipes? Or was it something that was so common they took it for granted and never thought to have it written down?

Okay, so it’s not really a closet. But it’s a quiet, dark, cool, out-of-the-way place for the yeast to do their job.

In any event, I now have a gallon of wort happily bubbling in its glass bottle. I want to see how this goes and try a few more pre-packaged brews before I get creative. But I can’t wait to start working on original flavors. Maybe even revive some old family concoctions.

And I will definitely keep my samples contamination-free.

When Cousins Make Pickles, It’s Not About Cucumbers

Cousins are simply brothers and sisters — once removed.

My Hailey cousins all descend from the tiny lady in the rocking chair. Lelia Hailey, lovingly known as Nanow, was our great-grandmother. With her is my sister, my father, and my grandfather.

I lucked out in the cousin department. Because my parents were only children, we didn’t have aunts or uncles to provide us with any 1st cousins. Thankfully, my grandparents’ siblings provided us a slew of 2nd cousins. Our father had five 1st cousins that filled in as siblings. He was the youngest of the bunch, and he loved them completely. He often said that no man could love anyone more than he loved his cousins. Four of those cousins became my “uncles.” While not technically correct, they took on the role without hesitation. The families were close while my siblings were growing up. By the time I came along, though, each family was busy raising teenagers and had full lives. For the most part, I saw them at funerals. But I always knew they were there.

My sister Rita with our Hailey/Dickerson girl cousins at one of their lunches.

Recently, my Hailey girl-cousins have been getting together for lunch once or twice a month. Because they get together during the week, it’s impossible for me to join them. After each get-together, my sister Rita regales me with their antics. My brother has started joining them and often laughs so hard attempting to retell some of their stories that he simply has to hang up the phone.

I recently asked Rita if she thought the Cousins would be willing to get together on a Saturday. Noting that some have family obligations, she said “But you should ask.”  So I sent a Facebook message:

“Dear Cousins, I’ve begged Rita to clear her calendar on Saturday, so that we can all get together and make a batch of Mamaw Vivian’s Bread and Butter pickles. I’ve missed all the cousin lunches and long to see you. Of course, I’m sure that the pickles won’t be any good, but the fellowship will be great!!!”

I’m sure they thought I was crazy, as none of them can or pickle anything. But they eagerly agreed to come.

After work on Friday, I drove home to Brown Road in a car packed with cucumbers and canning jars.  All the way home, I thought about the fact that, of our generation, I am the only one who doesn’t live in Hopkins County. It use to bother Uncle Morton that I left. Every time I would visit, he would remind me that there were houses for sale on Brown Road; surely one would be perfect for me. I would agree, but would then point out the obvious: It would be one hell of a commute. He’d just shake his head and change the subject, perplexed that I could possibly want to live anywhere but Brown Road.

The evening’s last rays of sunshine dapple my sister’s front porch.

When I arrived at my sister’s house, they weren’t home. I have to admit, I was glad to have a few minutes just to sit on their front porch and soak it all in.

Its been a busy, busy summer.

Between home, work, and Tomatopalooza, the summer has slipped away.  Before I knew it, the dog days of August were upon me. August is one of those months that I look forward to and dread at the same time. I love the first day of school.  I love the sidewalk sales. I love that first crisp morning.  I love hearing Roy Weatherly’s voice booming thru the loud speakers telling me that “It’s Football Time in TigerTown!”

However, August also brings a melancholy ache that sometimes makes me feel like my heart is going to explode. My father tragically died in a single-fatality coal-mining accident in August 1987. That is part of the reason I wanted to visit with my cousins. I’m tired of mourning his death. He was a fun loving prankster, and I can’t help but believe he would be disappointed that I’ve grieved this long. It was time to celebrate the things he loved: his family and my grandmother’s pickles.

August is the height of canning season. Jars are everywhere in my kitchen and pantry. At my sister’s house, the bedroom that I use is also her extra pantry. Stacks of jars filled with green beans, soup starter, ripe tomato ketchup, and apple butter surround the bed. Before winter, jars will be under the bed, beside the bed, down the wall, and piled inside the closet. It’s a guest room befitting the reigning Canning Queen of Calloway County.

On Saturday morning, we got up early and went to the Hopkins County Farmer’s Market. We got there just after it opened, and many of the vendors were still arriving and setting up. We walked through the booths and made a few purchases. Then it was time to head home and start getting things together.

It didn’t take long to slice 70 cucumbers, even if Vicki insisted on cutting them by hand rather than using the slicer.

As I washed 70 cucumbers, Rita made the brine. Just as we finished setting out the cutting boards and knives, her doorbell started ringing. The party was starting. Within minutes, we were laughing as Vicki Jean, dressed in a snazzy apple apron, danced her way into Rita’s house, nearing hurting herself in the process. Cheryl, Pam, and Rita started slicing cucumbers using vegetable slicers. Vicki insisted on cutting the cucumbers by hand. Before long, we had half the cucumbers sliced, and it was time to start slicing the onions. Since everybody was happy cutting up cucumbers, that left me to deal with the onions. By the second onion, tears were streaming down my face, and they were laughing hysterically as I attempted to carry on. It took no time to get everything sliced, including the onions. I packed the crocks layering cucumbers, onions, and sea salt until they were full. Then we waited for the cucumbers to “weep” their juices.

While we waited, we explored Rita’s canning stash. We’ve all made fun of her hoarding green beans. But who could blame her? If you’ve ever eaten freshly canned green beans, you’d hoard them too. Rita showed them the guest room where I’d slept the night before. With stunned faces, they walked in and stared at the stacks of jars. Unless you’re a canner, you can’t comprehend the space it takes until you organize your stash. We were delighted as Rita started handing us jars of her precious green beans, ripe tomato ketchup, and newly made apple butter. SCORE!!!

Then the doorbell rang again; Cathy had arrived. Cathy is the Hailey cousin that I was closest to growing up. Four years apart, she never made me feel like I was a pest. She always had time for me. She and my grandmother were big buddies.  We both cherished my grandmother Vivian’s adventurous spirit and were greatly influenced by her. Cathy recently took a big tumble out her garage door, and just like kids, we all had to inspect the bruises and offer our “expert” medical advice. Then the cucumbers were ready to start cooking.

My precious cousins easily learned how to make Bread and Butter pickles.

We all landed back in Rita’s kitchen and declared Vicki Jean the designated “pickle cooker.” After all, she had the apron. With each of us having an assigned duty, we got down to business.  Cheryl learned how to use the jar tongs (it was touch and go there at the beginning when she handed Pam a jar upside down.) Pam filled the jars perfectly, then would hand the filled jar to Cathy for the 2-piece lid assembly. Since Cathy’s right hand has 10 stitches, it was decided that Vicki would take over putting lids on the jars. Then Rita would wipe the jars and hand them to Cathy for tightening and cooling. Just like children, they picked and snapped at each other. Then they would collapse into fits of laughter. I stood back and soaked it in. My cousins were learning how to pickle on a perfect summer day because I couldn’t mourn anymore.  My heart swelled with love for them all. It isn’t ever easy to give up a Saturday. But they did because I asked them. And they were having fun and were planning another canning adventure with green beans.

As we sat and waited for the last jars to sterilize, we taste-tested some of Rita’s other pickles. Vicki and Cheryl quickly consumed two jelly jars, digging in with their fingers to grab the last pieces of sweet pickles.  Then Cathy’s daughter and son-in-law knocked on the door. Hailey and Nathan told us that the house smelled like pickles (from their tone, they didn’t think that was a good thing!). They’re expecting their first baby. Another cousin on the way, a new life to join the family.

Vicki insisted that we label the jars as Cousins Bread & Butter pickles. Cathy insisted that they wouldn’t last long enough to have labels.

In the end, we made 35 pints of Bread and Butter pickles. We divided up the lot and set back jars for Brenda, the one girl-cousin who couldn’t be with us.

After lunch, we kidnapped my brother Bill and visited our great-grandparent’s farm. The log cabin they lived in (that had belonged to our great-grandmother’s parents) still stands surrounded by the fields that my great-grandfather tended with a team of horses. That cabin is a strong reminder of the hard life they experienced and the strength of their character. From the farm, we went to the cemetery. The day couldn’t end without us visiting the graves of those who have gone before us. We each retold the story of how, when Daddy died, Mother bought 16 lots. Then she called Uncle Morton, who bought 32 lots. Then he called Uncle Jim, who bought another dozen over by Uncle Ink and Aunt June’s lots. In death, as in life, they wanted to be close to one another.

As I stood on the hill behind my father’s grave, I looked across the hundreds of stones that surround Providence Rural United Methodist Church, many of which belong to one side of my family or the other. That sight has always given me solace, even when I was a child and played in the cemetery during Young Adult Sunday suppers. I know where I come from. I know who I am. I know the sacrifices that were made for me and for the generations to come. It is not a sacrifice that I take lightly. And while I may live away, my heart will forever be a part of this place and these people.

I think Daddy would be proud of how I chose to celebrate his life. Even if it took me 25 years to finally get it right. Before we each headed home, we visited Uncle Morton. At 95 years young, his brilliant blue eyes have watched us all grow up and have families of our own. With obvious delight, he welcomed his nieces and asked about the pickles, chuckling at the thought of us canning together. But then he, more than any of us, understands what cousins can accomplish. After all, we’re really just brothers and sisters — tied together by the hearts of those before us.

For the Love of Chickens by Mary Jo Wallace

Our dear friends Blane and Mary Jo Wallace, live in a big red barn nestled into a quiet corner of Calloway County. There is no place more peaceful than their front porch swing, surrounded by the gentle hills of Wallace Pack Farm. If you’re looking for a place to board your horses or want to meet their chickens, visit their facebook page.

Blane and Mary Jo Wallace own Wallace Pack Farm where they have horses, chickens, and a ill-tempered donkey with wanderlust.

My first career goal in life was to be a farmer’s wife.  It was the early seventies and everyone was talking about ERA, but the news hadn’t hit my small town yet. So it never occurred to me that I could be a farmer in my own right.  (I spent most of my young childhood looking for a farm boy that I could marry.)

Aunt Sarah was my role model and I spent summers with her.  It was here that I learned about all kinds of farm animals, but it was the chickens that really caught my eye.  I fed them and collected eggs several times a day.  All this was overkill, but Aunt Sarah loved the passion with which I pursued such things, so she indulged me.

My husband never liked chickens, much preferring the company of mules.  At the tender age of fifteen he was flogged by a rooster.  He ran to get away from him and attempted to jump an unlatched gate.  The gate swung open and Blane lay on the ground, trying to get the breath to return to his lungs.  At this point he tried to buy the chicken from its owner.  The owner informed him that he could never part with his prize chicken.  Blane assured him he only need a few minutes alone with the creature and would return him when he was done with him.

Seven years ago when we moved to our farm I had to beg Blane for some chickens.  He gave in and his Uncle from Dover, TN brought us five hens and two roosters, one of the roosters was a bannie (a smaller breed of chickens.)  We named the hens for my aunties on my mother’s side because they did enjoy a good hen party.  Edna, Louisa, Eloise, Sarah and Bessie proved to be good mothers.  Soon our little flock had risen to 25 feathered friends.  We did nothing special, no incubators or brooders; we just let nature take its course.  Every chicken hatched on the place has stayed here until it crossed chilly Jordan…sometimes with the help of a coyote or a chicken hawk we suspect.

Blane loves sitting on the front porch swing, feeding grain to the chickens.

So, Uncle Dewey  brought us these new chickens.  Blane kept calling them my chickens, but I noticed how he would speak lovingly to them when he thought I was not around.  He began to instruct me in their care and feeding.  Our Internet history was filled with all kinds of chicken sites that I had not visited.  He counted the chickens everyday and would grieve when one came up missing.  Blane had crossed over.  He had become a chicken lover.

My husband and I are not gardeners. (I’m sure the Medlocks are secretly disappointed by this. Lol.)  Even if we were, I am sure the abundance of wildlife on the place would interfere with our efforts.  I can’t stand the thought of raising pigs or cattle and sending them to slaughter.  I am too soft hearted and don’t want to know my food that intimately.  For now, our meat comes from the freezer section of Kroger.  Our vegetables come from Kroger, the farmer’s market and friends.  Our eggs, however, are fresh.

There is nothing I like more than cracking open one of those country eggs and seeing that deep, dark yellow.  I could eat eggs for every meal. No longer am I satisfied with the weak, pale yellows of city eggs.  I want my country eggs and all their eggy goodness.  I like them fried, boiled, poached or scrambled.  They’re good alone or with toast, biscuits croissants, bacon, ham…

There are so many ways that you can enjoy eggs.  If you get bored with the same old fried eggs try them scrambled with cheese and salsa or green peppers and wrap them up in a burrito.  Another great idea is an egg with bacon on a grilled cheese sandwich.  In a hurry, try the scramble and cooked in the microwave.  Add any of your favorite ingredients and you will have yourself a delicious, puffy omelet in just a matter of minutes.

Some anti-egg activists, and I use that term loosely, would have you to believe that eggs are not good for you.  How dare they!  Eggs are only seventy calories, and you get your money’s worth for those seventy calories.  They are a source of high quality protein, unsaturated fats and antioxidants.  Further more, they are a natural source of thirteen essential vitamins and minerals.

Anyone who suffers from a vitamin D deficiency, like me, should give eggs a second and third thought.  If for some reason, you are unable to spend time in the sun there are other sources of vitamin D such as artificial sunlight, cod liver oil, store-bought vitamins, beef liver, or cheerios.  Better, more natural choices include eggs and milk.  Now which would you rather try?

Eggs are wonderful because a chicken doesn’t have to die to put food on your plate.  Maybe this is why a hen crows so loudly when she lays an egg.  Perhaps this is her way of saying, “Come and get it.  Look what I’ve done for you.  There’s more where that came from.”

Speaking of the sounds a chicken makes, get rid of that romantic notion that a rooster wakes you up at dawn by crowing a beautiful tune.  Sometimes they wake you at the crack of midnight.  They get confused during the full moon or sometimes they just can’t sleep.  Our current rooster, Chanticleer, ensures that if he cannot sleep, no one will.  Sometimes, especially when a rooster is very young, the crow is more like an off key saxophone or a squeaky set of bagpipes than a full-bodied trumpet.

Do I sound like I’m complaining?  I don’t mean to.  I love every obnoxious sound the little critters make.  I half believe they are one of God’s little jokes.  What looks more ridiculous than a a flock of chickens running from a small child or a cat?  The squawking noises and running amass like…well like chickens with their heads cut off. Attempting to soar like eagles and then reaching only six foot in the air but sticking their breasts out in a proud gesture as though they penetrated the first layer of the stratosphere.

The best is when they come running for their feed all anxious that they might miss out on something.  If a grain of corn should happen to land of a chicken instead of the ground, he’ll take off running like the sky is falling.  There’s a reason they are called chickens.

Red the Rooster

Not all chickens are chicken.  One time Blane’s favorite rooster, Red, failed to report to the roost one evening.  We assumed he had fell prey to one of a chicken’s natural predators.  Two weeks went by and we saw him limping up the driveway.  He was quite a sight.  Raw skin showed through places the feathers were missing.  Blane ran to him and he limped to his arms.  I’m not kidding either.  I know it sounds like poetic license, but it really happened.

Something interesting we found out about vets:  most vets will not treat individual chickens.  That’s because in vet school chickens are treated like livestock rather than pets.  It’s not that they don’t want to treat them as individuals; they don’t know how.  They’re used to treating them by adding a certain number of cc’s to each gallon of water.  Blane found this out after calling every vet in a twenty-five mile radius.  So, seeing there was no other hope, Blane gathered Red up in his arms, made him a special bed in the barn and lovingly fed and watered him twice a day all the while talking to him in soothing, cooing noises.  Red recovered.

There’s something special about living on a farm and the intimacies you share with the animals.  I love all my animals, but the chickens are special.  They were the first farm animals I ever loved.  They make me think of my childhood and simpler times.  They remind me of Aunt Sarah and her cooking fresh eggs for my breakfast.  They remind me of my first love–farm life.