Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A heaping helping of stuffing balls and nostalgia

When I was a teen, Thanksgiving took place at Ma-Ma's home.

Ma-Ma was my paternal grandmother. She shared a gigantic second-floor apartment in my home town, living there until the end of her life with her youngest son and, for awhile, his son—her oldest grandson. The place had to be nearly 3,000 square feet. It had tall ceilings, and a ridiculous staircase at both the front and back entrances (where both doors sported multiple locks, always securely locked). Running down one side of the length of the place was a spacious but dark hallway that could easily have been divided into three or four decent-sized rooms; off this hall there were several bedrooms, and a bath, with another half-bath accessible from the dining room. A cheerful sun porch faced the back parking lot, crammed from top to bottom with the bulk of Ma-Ma's bounteous plant collection. Anchoring the other end of the place was a huge living room complete with decorative fireplace. The living room conveniently faced the street, so you could sit in Ma-Ma's favorite rocker by the middle window—if you were lucky enough to land such a prime seat—and there you could watch the comings and goings of the entire town. You could look up the hill to a nearby park, to the college campus housed there, or you could look down the street toward the middle of Main Street (High Street, as it is named in that small town).

When we arrived, others were almost always there already—aunts, uncles, cousins of various ages, all wandering to and fro and getting in the way at times. The turkey was roasting, the potatoes were being mashed to perfection, the corn pudding and green bean casserole were warming somewhere safe... and the stuffing balls were likely being fussed over by my grandmother. Generously portioned, not too wet and not too dry, she formed them all by hand, and they were never baked to perfection inside a bird's carcass! Absolutely not. They were wonderfully browned on cookie sheets, I think. She was always very concerned about their safety, or at least that's what I recall. Would they dry out? Become too hard? We didn't want to bat them in a sports event, we wanted to savor their crispy-tender wonder. The stuffing balls must be protected. The gravy was very important, too; it was another delicate delight to be nurtured and watched.

The dining room in that apartment was grand, right out of the 20s I suppose, with beautiful woodwork, double glass-paned doors leading in from the grand hallway, and my grandmother's table in the center of the room as its stupendous crowning glory. I seem to remember that the big wooden table was always pulled out to its full length, even when the holidays were done. The room was large, the table almost as large, and we filled it and still required a kids' table; I think that was a card table at the end of the room opposite those swinging double doors.

When the meal was ready, we all took plates and filled them, or had help filling them in the case of little ones. We sat, we usually remembered to say a grace and ponder the things we felt thankful about having, and then we ate like the hungry, fragrance-teased people we were. The food was always fabulous. The whole experience was loud, confusing, a bit crowded, and immense fun.

When the meal was done and the kids long gone from the room, the adults lingered, eating more, talking more. I think I lingered most of the time, perhaps realizing even in my spoiled youth that these were precious moments, that some day I would be penning a memory as I am right now. Talk of family, of the people in town, of political developments, all swirled around the warm room. And then, everyone gathered dishes and carried them to the kitchen, and the great food preservation and dish-washing events began in earnest.

I do remember being expected to help wash or dry dishes. I think I usually dried, probably not yet trusted in my girlish giddiness to handle Ma-Ma's pretty China when fully submerged in soapy suds. I don't recall us ever breaking into song or anything, but the mood even while we worked was festive and upbeat. I've never minded getting up and doing something immediately after a big meal, so the clean-up was a welcome chance to move around and remain standing instead of folding my stuffed belly into a soft chair. (That still just impedes my digestion, truly.)

Then it would all be done, or at least the main meal. Maybe we delayed the pies; I really can't remember. I feel as if we held off on desserts and enjoyed them a bit later, after people had squeezed in a rest. When everyone had eaten, that vast living room was like a morgue, bodies everywhere, the couch and recliner always occupied but also large portions of the floor; people everywhere were flung in the half-joyful, half-suffering poses of the gorged. The room was never silent, though; that was the decade of MTV's birth, those early days when the station actually played music videos. My lucky grandmother had a cable subscription, something that we country folk couldn't even fathom, and a day at Ma-Ma's was one of my only chances to absorb as many videos as possible. I never napped, but I did jockey for a position on the floor in front of the television, so I could stretch out on my stomach and gaze, in my overfed stupor, at the musical mindlessness before me.

Now, I am about the same age that my aunts and uncles were at that gathering. Now, my child is small, and my nieces and nephews are teens and young adults. Now, that apartment is inhabited by someone else. My parents are the grandparents. MTV has become something unrecognizable; indeed, much of this culture is unrecognizable to me—strange and empty. Ungrounded. Shallow.

I am realizing, in my old age, that there are scenes and people that you will never stop missing.

Happy belated Thanksgiving. Remember it all, cherish it. Take photos. Write it down. It will fade, and change, and then suddenly it will be part of the past.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wholesome family activities

Well, I told you last time around that I'd share some information regarding our household supply of meat. So, here goes.

My husband hunts. I have no moral dilemma about this, because I know he is a responsible adult who has been trained properly in this arena by other responsible adults. Plus, I know he respects life of all kinds, and the creator of life to boot. Additionally, he does his best to prepare himself and his weapon so that when a hunting opportunity arises, he is ready and can aim with practiced care and accuracy so as to make the animal's death quick and as free of suffering as possible.

(I also know that my little son is not with him while he engages in this pursuit, and I am more than a tad relieved that the kid has not yet shown serious interest.)

Anyway. We try to be honest with our child, and that involves talking openly about hunting, wild animals, death, humane treatment of life, and our food supply. (Most kids can handle the truth; it's the adults who turn away and get squeamish.)

So, my hunter was successful on one of his recent archery forays, and he made an excellent, quick-kill shot on a very large buck. For the past few years, thanks to some knowledgeable hunting friends from church, my husband has begun to process his own animals. I won't lie; this freaked me out at first, mostly because it happened in our garage. Yes, my father hunted also, as did many of the people (kids, too) in my hometown. I'm comfortable with that, as long as the people who hunt are cautious, mature, and respectful of life. I'm not so comfortable with animals being skinned where the station wagon should be... I'm also not so comfortable with large pans of flesh, or with an electric grinder making a horrific racket in my basement. But? I'm getting there.

The whole experience, now that we've been through it more than once or twice, is actually very informative. I've learned a lot about different cuts of meat on grazing animals—which ones are typically tender, which ones are tough, which ones require a full day of roasting in juices but deliver wonderfully when granted patient, proper cooking techniques. I've learned how deer carry their fat in a totally different way than beef (the fat is layered just under the skin, not marbled throughout muscle... although most of the heavily marbled purchased meats are coming from cows that were fed corn, a totally unnatural and harmful food product for them...) I've learned that honestly, doe meat tastes better than buck. I've learned that a whole lot of garbage can be hidden in any purchased sausage product. (Don't say you haven't been warned! Some of those sausages could make hot dogs or gelatin seem pretty harmless, folks...)

Anyway, mostly I've learned that butchering is bloody, messy work, and that for all my concerns about our garage and basement, they're likely just as (if not more) sanitary than a typical butcher shop.

It's hard to ignore the fact that you're eating animal flesh when you watch the stuff getting ground up and mixed with other stuff, emerging like little worms from a loud machine. There's pretty much no getting around that image. You're eating meat. But hear me on this: Any time you eat meat, even prettily packaged plastic-wrapped store-bought meat, you're participating in this procedure in some way. You're funding it. For anyone who's labeling my family and me as barbarians right now, I ask you only this: when did you last eat a burger? a pepperoni pizza? a good steak? The more marbled the steak, the more likely that the cow it came from was close to death from corn consumption even before it was slaughtered. Fish? Yes, it too had a face once. Not cute and fuzzy, not pretty and big-eyed, but a face nonetheless. For all the people who are shaking their heads at us right now, ready to dial CYS to save our child from this horror, I say to you that you are part of it, too, every time you go out to dinner and watch your children happily, mindlessly consume chicken nuggets.

If you eat meat, any meat, then some creature had to die, in some form or fashion.

I'd rather know what I'm supporting than not know. I like helping to determine exactly what goes into our meat supply regarding flavors and source foods. This deer was fat, healthy, and happy; he had a good life. And frankly, I'd rather participate personally in his death this way than support some of the cruel, sick, and unusual practices that are rampant in modern feedlots. If I ever have the acreage, I like to think I'll try to raise my own chickens and turkeys.

That's how we spent a few hours during the past week or so. And I like to think that in the big picture, we're no worse than anyone else. At least we're informed. We know where the food came from. We know how it was prepared. Yes, we all washed our hands repeatedly, and sterilized the necessary surfaces with bleach. But I have peace of mind about it all.

Do you?

P.S. I hope I didn't scare anyone away permanently. It's a topic worth pondering, I assure you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Posing porcine...and a public service announcement of sorts

Here's my latest painting, created from a photograph taken on a most awesome farm north of Pittsburgh.

Isn't this inquisitive piggy adorable?

The farm was still making final decisions about its name, last I heard, but I've already named this cutie: Berkshire Beauty. You can read more about the pigs, piglets, and other animals on the farm if you click on the Paleo Habitat link over there on the left. (I'll put Berkshire in my Etsy shop tomorrow, if not sooner.)

The people who run the farm are awesome; it's so neat, and inspiring, when you hear stories of and from people who are taking big steps, and some risks, just because they believe in a cause. That's what these folks are doing. In addition to running a household, taking kids to activities, working, juggling all the same things that most of us try to manage daily...they're also taking care of a couple of small herds of livestock. If I understood them well, then the biggest reward is just seeing these lovely creatures doing exactly what they're supposed to do. The family behind Paleo Habitat takes pleasure in the farm experience itself, the contented animals in their natural settings, even the struggles and hard work that must be endured to care for their charges and keep them well.

The result of all the effort is happy creatures being themselves. Will the animals still come to the end of their lives on a dinner table? Yes, some of them will. This farm isn't a retirement home for the animals. But until that day comes, these beasts will relish carefree days in relative comfort, some of them mowing the grass, others rooting for nuts and pieces of apple with their grain. At least, I think it was grain... And when one of these animals arrives at that final day, I'm convinced from the dedication and commitment I've seen that these animal owners will ensure a quick and humane end.

My point is this: These pigs and cows (and whatever else comes to that farm) will live in fields of grass, not small squares of mud and filth and fecal matter. These creatures will not be forced to subsist on a diet of corn and corn derivatives until their stomachs ulcerate simply because corn is cheap and plentiful. These folks have read the same books I have and more, they've studied the big, awful meat producing operations in this country, and they've decided they're not having any part of it anymore. They believe in what they're doing and they want to do it well, for themselves and for the animals in their care.

And I respect that. Very much.

If you haven't read it yet? The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you haven't seen it yet? Food Inc.

Inform yourself. Farmer's markets and small farms are growing quickly in this country because people are finally getting a whiff of the crap that our meat supply has eaten, stood in, and been forced to survive until it's killed in an often horrible, painful fashion. It doesn't have to be that way.

P.S. Stay tuned: more information about the meat supply here at our house to come in my next post!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Easy like Saturday morning

A sunny Saturday did dawn
And, unlike every other morn,
There was no rush, no lunch to pack,
No bus to catch to school and back.

Instead, the sun, so cheery, leaked
Through curtain slivers, where it streaked
The bedroom walls with happy light
That beckoned so a person might
Be moved to climb from underneath
The cozy nest of downy sheath.

But no—instead, that person (me)
Lay warm and dreamy, drowsily
Devising what the day might bring:
Some pancakes, fresh air, songs to sing...

For now? The covers would stay snug.
But wait! My son's insistent tug!!!*


Okay! I'm up!

* Actually, he didn't tug on covers this morning; he was so absorbed in Legos that I was able to lounge in bed for several minutes and get up when I was good and ready. That doesn't happen often here. The above scenario is more common. Either that, or he climbs all over my bed and jabs with elbows and knees until it's downright uncomfortable to remain, and I end up removing myself gladly.

Happy weekend!