A Cicada Summer

cicada

Cicadas are benign to humans under normal circumstances and do not bite or sting in a true sense, but may mistake a person for a tree or plant limb and attempt to feed.

Western Kentucky is drowning in the sound of 13-year cicadas, as they’ve returned above ground to lay their eggs. For we humans, the early days of summer have been deafened by their sound or grossed out by their exoskeleton remains, which are everywhere unless your dog enjoys them like popcorn.

I haven’t been too bothered by the cicadas. Yes, a couple of our trees have been covered by them. Yes, I’ve accidentally stepped on one or two. Yes, two actually managed to drop down our chimney. Yes, the sound is annoying — but it also has the benefit of drowning out the constant droning of the leaf blower down the street. No leaf, stick, or cicada remains has a chance with that guy.

My Facebook feed has been full of people’s photos and reactions to the cicada bloom. I feel sorry for the exterminators in town, whose phones have been ringing off the wall. The cicadas have moved even the most god-fearing gentlefolk to murderous thoughts.

“I’m completely grossed out. How do we kill the things?”

My favorite Facebook posts have been from my friend Ellis who, every few hours, posts what note the bugs are singing.

“F sharp.”

That’s all, nothing else on the post. Just the tone. It’s pretty hysterical. And of course, we all understand what she’s talking about. She’s also reposted cicada recipes that were earlier shared from common friends who no longer live in Western Kentucky. She’s reposted stories from newspapers and radio stations. But the thing I love? She hasn’t threatened to set off an A-bomb to eliminate the species. She’s used the bloom to mark the passage of time (as well as sound). When the bloom first began, she posted a photo of her wedding day, noting that these cicada’s are the children of the ones that emerged just after their wedding – 13 years ago.

When, on another post, she noted that the next time we see these cicadas, her son will be graduating from high school, I took it even further. Her daughter will be in college. Her sister Megan’s newborn baby girl will be 13 years old. In 26 years, that precious baby girl may be heading down the aisle at Murray Woman’s Club, looking as beautiful as like Ellis and Megan both did. When I envisioned myself at 77 years of age sitting at Amelia’s wedding, that’s when it hit me. The best way to embrace the cicadas is use them to mark the passage of time. What were you doing 13, 26, 39 years ago? What do you hope will be happening in your life 13 years from now? 26? For me, I hope to be retiring from the job I love in 13 years. I have 13 more years to accomplish everything I want to do, 13 more years to make a difference. Thirteen years, a mere speck in the cicada time continuum.

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The juneberry, or saskatoon berry, is a tasty and nutritious berry native to North America. The flavor of the fruit is similar to sweet black cherries or a mild blackberry, with a hint of almond in the tiny, soft seed.

During this year’s cicada bloom, we discovered that the apple serviceberry bush that is planted beside our bedroom window was covered in tiny maroon/purple berries. While the shrub has bloomed before, it’s never produced berries. So after a few minutes on the internet, we discovered that the berries had a name (Juneberry) and that yes, they were edible, but most importantly, the internet claimed they made glorious jam. Once I read that, I practically dropped my iPad as I went in search of a bucket.

In about 30 minutes, my Beloved and I picked 10 cups of berries, which produced the best jam I’ve ever eaten. Literally. The Juneberry tastes like a cherry and a plum and a apple. Their tiny seeds look like sesame seeds and give the jam a deep nutty flavor. We’re talking perfect jam that has plenty of its own pectin and doesn’t require an unholy amount of sugar. You won’t find Juneberries at Kroger, because they are too labor intensive to harvest commercially. But if you happen to have one of these shrubs in your front yard, you have a gold mine. The next day, we picked more and I made another batch of jam. By that point the tree was nearly bare. The birds, spiders, and ladybugs who had been munching their breakfast were angry at our invasion. But the one thing we didn’t see were cicadas, as they were too busy working on the Bradford pear tree. We picked what we could and decided to leave the remaining berries for the wildlife, who wanted them as much as we did. An hour later, I added 13 glistening new jars of jam to the pantry.

When I opened our drapes this morning, I saw that there were still a lot of berries left, despite the fact we left them a week ago. Determined not to lose any, we went back outside to pick them. As a soft, soft rain fell, we reached through the branches, bending them to get to the berries that neither we nor the birds had collected. Each time we moved, a shower of rain droplets drenched us. I looked at my husband, determined to save the memory of him picking berries off a bush (while it rained) in our front yard, just so I could make more jam. My heart was full of love. Then I came face to face with an annoyed cicada who began chirping his displeasure, two inches from my nose. His friend on the next branch joined in as if to say, “You tell her, buddy!”

That’s when I flicked the first cicada off the branch.

His buddy sat there watching me with his five eyes, as if pondering what was going to happen next. So I flicked him off his branch. I swear, he screamed. All the way to the ground.

“AAAAAAaaaaaaaeeee!”

That cicada should have emerged in Hollywood, because he could’ve had a career. We knew he wasn’t hurt. He was just dramatic.

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While waiting to pick up my son, I noticed him swooping down to the ground. When he got in the car, I asked what he was doing. He said that he saw a cicada flipped over on his back, and that since it really didn’t live that long, he didn’t want it to spend its remaining days laying on its back.

And there it is. No matter how annoyed or grossed out you may be, the cicadas are God’s creatures. They have hearts, minds, and yes, dramatic personalities. But they’re apart of our lives every 13 years. Honestly, I doubt we really understand why they exist. I’m sure there are proclaimed experts who have dedicated their lives to their study. Not to discount their life’s work, but I don’t care why they exist. I’m just glad they do, and sadly I’ll miss them when their gone, which newscasters have predicted to be in a couple of weeks.

So long, gang. I look forward to meeting your kids in 13 years.

“B sharp.”

 

 

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When the Blackberries Ripen

Cheyenne's robin eggs

Photo: Cheyenne Medlock
Our niece Cheyenne found a robin’s nest while blackberry picking. To me its a perfect summer photo.

I love measuring the summer by what’s in season.

To me, fruit tells the story of summer. Strawberries introduce us to warm days, followed by blueberries at summer solstice. When the blackberries ripen, summer is at its peak with its long days and heat. Followed by the dripping sweetness of peaches and watermelons until crisp days when the apples begin to fall.

When I was a child I hated picking blackberries. The weeds, the heat, and the total discomfort of chiggers bites meant that I was completely miserable. Being the youngest of the bunch, I loudly proclaimed my discomfort and annoyed everyone. The louder I complained, the more angelic my siblings became. Finally, my mother stopped taking me along on their adventures. I thought I had won the lottery when she made declared me an unfit laborer.

I gladly marched across the road to be babysat by my grandparents or my great aunt and uncle who shook their heads at my rude behavior. I am sure my mother instructed them to keep the good times at a minimum while she and my siblings were off picking blackberries–hoping that I’d realize I was missing out on the fun. But I was strong-willed and determined not to ever pick another blackberry again. So when it was announced there were green beans to snap, weeds to pull, or a basement that needed cleaning out, I would take on whatever challenge they presented like it was the best thing ever.

Thus began my dislike of blackberries. Until I was 40 years old, my inner child declared them – yucky and gross. I avoided them like the plague. Then, a few of summers ago one of the vendors at the farmers market had organic blackberries for sale. I bought a quart thinking I’d surprise my poor, blackberry-deprived husband with his favorite cobbler. You would have thought that I had given him the moon – he was a happy fellow. So happy in fact, that I broke down and tried a bite. I was completely unprepared for the delicious nectar. My taste buds went wild and my Beloved had to pry the cobbler from my hands before I ate the rest of his favorite dessert. Over the next few days, I filled our freezer with blackberries from the farmers market so that I could make a cobbler whenever we wanted.

When I started making preserves, it was the blackberries that I found to be the easiest and the most delicious. The night I made my first perfect batch of preserves, Vince was sound asleep in bed. Sometime after midnight, I woke him up with a spoon in my hand demanding he eat. Bless his heart, I think I scared him with my insistence because he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to eat whatever I was cramming down his throat. But then, he woke up enough to taste what was on the spoon. He sat straight up and declared my preserves the best he had ever eaten. A perfect recipe was born.

My blackberry preserves are simple – which is why I think they are so good. Its literally 8 cups of fruit to 4 cups of sugar. But not just any fruit or any sugar. I still insist on purchasing those organic blackberries I first found at the farmers market and I use organic sugar. The combination is glorious. And unlike fickle strawberries, blackberries have plenty of pectin. So all you have to do is simply cook them down enough until they set.

Last year, I completely missed the blackberries. I was obsessed with Tomatopalooza when the berries arrived at market. Then the next week, they were gone. When I realized that I had missed the blackberries, my heart was broken as there weren’t any berries in the freezer and only three or four jars of preserves in the pantry. My brother loves my preserves, as does Vince’s Uncle Gene. I love giving them jars of preserves whenever we see them. Obviously, their wives can buy blackberry preserves from the grocery, but its not the same.

Determined not to miss blackberry season again, I’ve been watching the roadsides for wild berries. I’ve discovered that my grandmother’s blackberry bush still produces, so I’ve been texting my brother for ripeness updates. I told Vince that if we missed the berries again this year, I was heading back to the fields and ditches where my mother took us to see if they were still there. Living in Murray, we’re about a week or two ahead of the growing season than that of my beloved Brown Road, where I grew up. Then a few days ago, we saw a sign for a You-Pick Blackberry Patch. We weren’t able to stop, so I declared that we’d go back while we were both off for Independance Day.

For the three days I was giddy with the thoughts of going blackberry picking.

The horrid memories of blackberry picking now forgotten, I focused only on the good memories. The memories of my mother in her summer dresses leading the three of us off for an adventure. Feeling the warmth of her hand in mine as she talked about the secret places she had always gone to find blackberries. In my mind, the now paved roads were once again dirt and gravel. The creeks we crossed were wide and clear. My heart and head were full of her memories.

With our niece Cheyenne home for the holiday and our sweet neighbor Peggy joining us for the adventure, we headed off to look for blackberries. Peggy told us of another you-pick that she visited every year. We headed there first but unfortunately struck out, as their patch was ending their season. All remaining berries had been pre-purchased. So, we headed to where we had seen the sign just days before.

As we drove up the grass path from the highway, we were amazed by the farm. Rows upon rows of blackberries were planted, some of the rows had been there for years. Some were newly planted. A sign was posted on the rusted tin barn barn – “organic farm, do not spray.” We had found the farm where the berries I had once bought at the farmers market where now available as a you-pick farm. We grabbed our buckets and each wandered off to find a row to ourselves.

group photo

Together we picked nearly 18 pounds of blackberries.

Most of the berries weren’t ready yet, but if you looked closely you could find berries perfect for picking. With the morning sun shining on my back and the birds singing, I quickly got to work. With each berry I picked, the world easily slipped away. At one point, I stood and watched each of my fellow pickers advance across their rows. Each deep in their own thoughts and memories. My heart exploded with love for them: the neighbor we adore. The precious niece that has filled my heart with pride and joy. And my dear Beloved who attracts swarms of bugs and chiggers by simply going outdoors – were there because I didn’t want to miss blackberry season.

While we were there, a young mother and her two daughters arrived. As they approached the rows, the mother softly told the girls that they only wanted to pick the berries that were black. Don’t pick the red ones as they aren’t ready yet. Her voice echoing the instructions my mother often gave me decades ago. Their voices carried across the field mingling with the voices of my mother and siblings. Not long into their efforts, the youngest began to complain. None of the berries she could reach were black, her shoes were wet, and a bug had landed on her leg. Her distress refused to be comforted. I understood her and smiled. Sooner than they wanted, they ended picking, and  left the field.

This summer has gone by so quickly. Now that blackberries are beginning to ripen, its as if Mother Nature is saying enjoy these remaining summer days. Because soon they’ll be gone.

My Very Non-Scientific Berry Preserves
You can use blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries with this recipe.

8 cups of blackberries
4 cups or 1 box Sugar in the Raw

In a large saucepan, combine berries and sugar over medium heat. Stir until sugar melts. Bring up heat to achieve a hard boil stirring frequently until mixture thickens to a splatty boil. Check for gel stage by dipping a spoon into the mixture. If the mixture drips off the back of the spoon, continue cooking. If the mixture slips or falls off the back of the spoon – then its done.

Ladle mixture into clean jars, leaving a 1/4 headspace at the top. Remove any air bubbles by stirring the mixture around with a knife or chopstick. Clean the top of the jar put on lid and twist ring until finger tight. Place jars into boiling hot-water bath canner, making sure jars are covered in water. Put on canner lid. Boil for 10 minutes, then turn off heat. Wait 5 minutes, remove lid, wait another 5 minutes, then remove jars from canner, letting cool on counter overnight.

Making the Perfect Sweet Pickle

In in an effort to understand the difference between 7-Day and 14-Day pickles, I needed empirical research.

It never fails. When people discover that I like to can, they ask about my pickles.

“Do you make dill pickles?”

“No.”

With polite curiosity, they listen as I try to explain that my mother didn’t make them, so I don’t know much about them. But I soon realize that they don’t really care, so I’ve adopted the response, “I haven’t found that perfect dill pickle recipe yet.”

“Then what kind of pickles do you make?”

“Bread and Butter Pickles? They’re a sweet pickle made with onions and cloves.”

Nobody is impressed that my Bread and Butter Pickles won second place at the Calloway County Fair. Once they hear the words “sweet pickle,” they shake their heads yes, they’re familiar with Bread and Butter Pickles. But their mother or grandmother or great aunt or next door neighbor made sweet pickles that were “out-of-this world”  due to their sweetness and crunchiness. I’ve always known that they were describing a 14-Day Pickle as there is nothing else like it.

The Pickle Queens are decked out in their summer sundresses. My great aunt Jo Nell, my grandmother Anna Mae, Mother, and my sister Rita are with my great-grandfather Elbert.

Among the women in my family, the 14-Day Pickle was considered to be the perfect sweet pickle. Don’t get me wrong, they loved Bread and Butter Pickles, but those could be prepared in a day. There was no finesse. No challenge. Growing up, I didn’t care what kind of sweet pickles we had. All I wanted was to sneak off with a warm jar, straight from the canner. If I was careful, Mom would never miss it, especially if she was making a big batch. But then she figured out that every time a jar went missing, her youngest daughter had become suddenly quiet. I was busted.

So she started making me a small jar to curb my pickle enthusiasm, but there was one condition. I had to share. I’ll never forget sitting with her eating warm pickles with our faces and fingers getting sticky from the sweetened brine. The year she began to add a cinnamon stick to each jar was a transcendent experience. I’ll never forget the fireworks that went off in my mouth. I think I ate another four jars by myself before she threatened my life.

My mother was the pickle queen. Her sweet pickles were simply the best. Made from cucumbers she grew in her garden, an intensity would take hold of her in the dog days of August. Once she started a batch of 14-Day Pickles, nothing kept her from completing the task. Like clockwork, everyday at the exact same time, she’d do the required work associated with a batch. It didn’t matter what else was going on, her pickles came first. She made many trips to Murray with a churn full of cucumbers in the backseat of her car. It didn’t matter if she came for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, the churn came with her.

Maybe it’s because I’m paying more attention, but my favorite blogs have been featuring recipes for 7-Day Pickles. I’ve thought, “Hmm. What’s the difference between a 7-Day Pickle and a 14-day Pickle?” So I went to my experts.

First, I called my sister (you know, the former home economics teacher and 4H Agent). “What’s the difference between a 7-Day and a 14-Day Pickle?” As I waited for her answer, I settled back for a long conversation discussing the merits of each recipe.

“I don’t know,” she said. “They can’t be that good if they’re only worked seven days.” Then she changed the subject.

Strike One.

I asked my friends, “Do you know the difference between a 7-Day and a 14-Day Pickle?” I got blank stares.

Strike Two.

I went to my favorite internet search engine and typed,”What’s the difference between 7-Day and 14-Day pickles?” I got the internet version of a blank stare. It gave me thousands of links with the word “pickle” or “7” or “14” in the document.

Strike Three. I was on my own.

I decided that I needed to pursue empirical research. So I went out to the garden and collected enough cucumbers to make a small batch of 7-Day Pickles because I had never tasted them.  I followed the recipe that I found at Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. I made the pickles in a clear glass jar, so that I could watch the process. It was rather exciting to watch the cucumbers transform. After a week, with baited breath my beloved and I tasted our first 7-Day Pickles. They were so sour we both choked. Bless his heart, my beloved questioned if I had read the instructions. I knew better than to fling back an insult because, as I checked the recipe, sure enough, I had missed a step. So I went back out to the garden and collected several more cucumbers and started another batch. I pitched my first attempt into our compost pile.

The second batch was much improved. Tart and crunchy, the 7-Day Pickle was made with brine made from apple cider vinegar and pickling spices. Its a sweet pickle, but to my southern taste buds it just didn’t do the trick.

After the cousins’ pickling party, I came home with enough cucumbers to make a big batch of 14-Day Pickles. Surprisingly, I didn’t jump right in. Attempting Mother’s favorite pickle recipe wasn’t going to be as easy as I expected. I questioned my skills as a pickle maker. I became consumed with doubt. “What if I can’t do this?”

I began to realize just how important that recipe was, how important that taste was. Surely it wasn’t something that I could truly duplicate? (After all, I don’t follow recipes.) Faced with a stack of softening cucumbers, I resolved to at least try. After all, I was only making pickles (even if they were the most treasured taste of my childhood.)

I copied the recipe onto my kitchen blackboard, making  a checklist so that I would know where I was in the recipe on any day. The first 4-5 days, I faithfully worked the batch at approximately the same time everyday. Then I got bored. Then I completely forgot about day 9. Then I lost count. I just wanted it to be over.

On day 12 we taste tested the batch, and I was pleasantly surprised. They tasted great! Days 13 and 14 called for extra cups of sugar, but I decided that the batch was sweet enough and skipped the extra sweetness. I called my sister to tell her what I had done, and she laughed and admitted to doing similar batches. She even complimented me, saying that I was a true pickle maker now because I had let the soft cucumbers soak in alum an extra day to insure their crispness. I had followed my instincts.

I’ve been trying new pickle recipes all summer. Pickled beets, squash, tomatoes, tomatillos, as well as my bread and butters and 7-Days.

A true pickle maker? Goodness. I nearly cried.

I didn’t actually put the pickles into jars and process them in the canner until day 18 or so. In an homage to Mother, I added a cinnamon stick before putting the lids on. I think she would be proud and tell me that occasionally her 14-Day Pickles were actually 18-Day Pickles or 12 Day-Pickles. (I’m sure they weren’t, but she’d tell me that just to make me feel better about it.)

So here’s my hypothesis regarding the difference between a 7-Day Pickle and a 14-Day Pickle.

Seven-Day Pickles aren’t sweet. They are lip-smacking tart. They have a robust flavor thanks to the apple cider vinegar and pickling spices. These are the perfect pickle for roast beef or salami. They might be more at home in New England.

Fourteen-Day Pickles are very much a southern taste, like sweet tea. They have a unique blending of spicy tartness suspended in a sweet brine. If you add a cinnamon stick, it skyrockets the flavor into the outer atmosphere.

Now that I’ve made the 14-Days, maybe I need to finally look for that perfect dill recipe and make a batch. That way I’ll have an answer the next time somebody asks.

If you’re lucky enough to have the Providence Rural United Methodist Church’s Countryside Recipes from the 1960’s, then you’ll see the original recipe from Mrs. A.W. Oldham. This cookbook is filled with recipes from the Women’s Society of Christian Service and Young Adult Group. Reading the lists of membership for each group makes my heart swell with love and fondness. They were my Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School volunteers, and the my parent’s dearest friends. I treasure this cookbook.

Chuck Sweet Pickles

1 gallon cucumbers
1 c salt (not iodized)
1 1/2 T powdered alum
9 c distilled white vinegar
4 1/2 c sugar
1/2 c pickling spice
3 1/2 T celery seed
2 gallon water
Cinnamon sticks

Boil 1/2 gallon of water with salt and pour over cucumbers. Let stand a week, skimming each day. Drain and cut into chunks on the 8th day. Heat 1/2 gallon water and 1/2 T powdered alum. Pour over cucumbers and let stand for 24 hours. On the 9th and 10th day rinse and drain cucumbers. Make a fresh mixture of hot alum water and pour cucumbers.

Day 11 – Drain and rinse cucumbers. Make a pickle mixture of 3 c vinegar, 2 1/2 c sugar, 1/6 c pickling spice, and 1/2 T celery seed. Heat and pour over cucumbers.
Day 12 – Repeat, adding an extra cup of sugar
Day 13 – Repeat, adding an extra cup of sugar
Day 14 – Fill jars with cucumbers and brine, adding a cinnamon stick to each jar. Seal jars by using water bath method for 15 minutes.

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.

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.

A Helpful Pair of Extra Hands

Megan provided a helpful pair of hands for canning tomatoes.

Megan provides a welcomed pair of extra hands during Tomatopalooza.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a note on Facebook with an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The note was a from my friend Megan Schell Burcham, a beautiful young woman who just celebrated her first wedding anniversary. She asked if I would teach her how to can tomatoes and offered to help on her next available weekend. She’s a registered nurse at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, which means she doesn’t maintain bankers hours. She works long 12-hour shifts and commutes an hour each way. How could I refuse such a charming companion to join me during Tomatopalooza? After a few emails back and forth, we settled on canning whole tomatoes.

Whole tomatoes aren’t a pantry staple for me. I prefer sliced/diced tomatoes that I can open and pitch into the crockpot when I’m making homemade soups. One reason I prefer sliced tomatoes is that ultimately, I’m lazy. I don’t like to blanch the darned things. I’m perfectly happy to whip them around my food-processor after coring, thus using as much of the tomato as possible–especially the nutritionally packed skins. But for Megan, I was more than happy to roll up my sleeves and start blanching.

My usual source for tomatoes, Hillyard Field Organics, didn’t have any tomatoes this week. The heat has been dreadful on all the crops. So I went to the Farmer’s Market on a mission to find beautiful fruit, grown responsibly (if not organically), at a good price. We have several new vendors at the Downtown Farmer’s Market this year including a quiet young man who attends the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is leasing land from Paul of Earth’s Bounty (our favorite bread maker) to grow a garden and produce for the market. He’s been showing up with some lovely Vegetables.  A few weeks ago, we purchased purple heirloom carrots from him. I’ve only seen them in catalogs and on the internet, so I was eager to try them. I wasn’t disappointed –they were perfect.

When we arrived at his booth, he had a nice display of vegetables including purple hull peas, squash, and tomatoes. Since we’ve only put up a couple quarts of purple-hull peas, I decided that I couldn’t bypass his gorgeous pods. We purchased just over seven pounds. Then I asked him about his tomatoes. How many did he have? He glanced in the back of his truck and said that he had a good supply with him. Knowing that it typically takes 20 pounds of tomatoes for a 7-quart canning, I asked to purchase 20 pounds. But then I quickly changed my mind to 40 pounds because his tomatoes were perfect. The expression on his face was priceless as he reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a couple of boxes to hold our bounty. We told him that we’d go visit some of our other vendors and be back to collect everything.  We went on to purchase our bread, two dozen ears of corn, a couple pounds of onions, and a few other odds and ends. We took our stuff to the truck, then went to fetch our tomatoes and purple-hull peas. For the $50 he charged us, we walked away with three boxes stuffed with beautiful produce and we invested in a young farmer.  It was a win-win situation.

When we got home, I started getting ready for Megan’s arrival. I was thrilled to have the chance to spend some quality time with her. She grew up across the street from us in our old neighborhood. I loved watching her and her sister grow up. Their family were more than neighbors; they were all special friends. Now that the “girls” are married and busy with their careers, I don’t get to see either of them often. Facebook is just about our only method of communication these days.

Today wasn’t our first cooking adventure together, by the way. A few years ago, Megan and I spent a winter’s day making homemade chicken noodle soup together. She is avid cook and pastry maker who was raised to believe in sustainable living. You can see why we’re kindred spirits.

She quickly caught onto the art of ‘smooshing’ the tomatoes into the jar so that they are overpacked.

As I puttered around, I noticed a text message from my brother. His family and several of his in-laws were camping nearby and were going antiquing in Hazel, Ky. They would be passing by our neighborhood and wanted to stop in for few minutes. I quickly called him and told him that I would be thrilled to see everybody. Within 30 minutes our house was full of family–it was great. After they left, Megan and I got to work on the tomatoes and my beloved started shelling purple-hull peas. In between steps canning tomatoes, we helped shell peas. At one point, we all laughed when Megan realized the amount of peas that we had purchased; they just kept coming out of the box ready for shelling. It was as if the box were bottomless.

With a pair of extra hands, it didn’t take long to blanch, core, and get the tomatoes ready for cold-packing into freshly sterilized jars. As usual, I forget to add the 1t of salt and 2T of lemon juice to the first couple jars. So we had to dump them and start all over again, after getting them stuffed full. I believe in stuffing and stuffing and stuffing tomatoes (sliced/diced or whole) in jars and pulling the extra juice off, thus overpacking the jars.  Overpacking helps reduce fruit float and creates a more technically-correct jar. During the process, Megan mentioned that she used tomato juice for her husbands’ favorite dish. So we put all the juice we were pulling off into quart freezer bags (measuring 2 cups per bag) for her to put in her freezer. There were several bags, so she’ll have an ample supply of fresh juice.

I love it when its time to take the jars out of the canner. The colors are so vibrant.

Forty-five minutes after putting the jars into a water bath, we were all admiring the beautiful jars of whole tomatoes — that were pretty easy to prepare. I love how the seeds artistically arrange themselves. And of course all the colors of the tomatoes are stunning. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I’ll take the jars over to her house later today, after they cool. Knowing her, she’ll use them to whip up something special for dinner. They’ll keep for years, just like the memories of our afternoon together.

Go there. Do that. Get the Free T-Shirt

Get the Tomatopalooza tshirt by sending us your photos and/or stories!

We love hearing your stories.

Since we started blogging, people often stop us and tell us about their canning projects. Or garden projects. Or to remininse about growing up as a farm kid.   We’ve heard some great tales about exploding salsa jars, escaped bovines eating corn stalks, and all the wonderful times they’ve shared with their mothers or grandmothers in the kitchen.

We want to celebrate these wonderful experiences by featuring them here at Despite Everything. Starting today, until August 1, 2012, anyone who would like to share their photos and/or stories will be featured in an upcoming post about the importance of storytelling. For your efforts, you’ll receive a really cool Tomatopalooza t-shirt, designed by us.

What we’re looking for: original photos from our readers that tell a story.  Show us what you’ve been canning or growing in your garden.  The best photos (in our humble opinion) show happy faces.  Provide a brief description (250 words or less).  Also, if you’re a writer and would like to submit a blog post for us to consider, leave us a comment below!

To get the t-shirt (while supplies last!), submit your photos and/or stories email us at tomatopalooza@gmail.com. Make sure to identify everyone in your photo and provide us your address and phone number.

Come! Join the fun and get a Tomatopalooza t-shirt while they last!