Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Confession Issue

Ripe On The Vine

Ripe On The Vine

PART ONE

Forgive me, Reader, for I have sinned:

Last weekend I had the overwhelming urge to go shopping and buy some new clothes.

It really isn’t all that complicated. I had broken my foot at the beginning of July, I had lazed around on my butt all summer while the foot healed, and I had gained weight. I simply wanted some pants that fit. And maybe a nice, bright, stylish top to go with. And some pretty earrings. I was in full-blown consumer mode for the first time in months, and I didn’t even try to fight it. I stumbled. Hard.

To cut myself a small break, I did try to find a Mardens (a Maine-person owned company, not a conglomerate-owned company) on my way to the mall. I heard there was one going in on the site of the old Wal-Mart in South Portland. Apparently, Wal-Mart had deserted one cement-block box and built a new one a few hundred yards down the road. Someone told me they were selling the old building to Mardens, but the site was still and bleak as only empty, big-box retail buildings can be, devoid of personality or charm.

Even a ghost-town would have more interesting architecture.

Okay, I may be projecting my guilt onto the Wal-Mart’s of the world rather than owning up to my complicity with them. For one thing, last month the school sent home a list of supplies my daughter is supposed to take with her to the middle school. She needed folders, pens, dry-erase markers, colored pencils, book covers (whatever happened to covering books with paper bags from the grocery store–and what do the kids do with dry-erase markers, anyway? Do they get their own white boards?), and a three-ring binder plus reams of paper to go into said binder. I bought what I could at the Sanford Mardens (pens, loose paper, sticky notes, tape, gluestick), but Dear Daughter had specific requirements when it came to the design of folders and notebooks, i.e. they couldn’t be plain and ordinary. They had to be cool and colorful and funky.

Off to the new Sanford Super Wal-Mart we went. Dear Daughter found what she wanted . . . and I came home with a bunch of spiral-bound and marble-top notebooks for me. How could I resist twenty-cent and fifty-cent notebooks? My conscience screamed at me all the way home, but I kept thinking about how in a post-oil future I’d be happy for a supply of paper. Uh-huh. Justification. Self-delusion. The Wages of Sin.

Maybe I was infected right then by the back-to-school virus that makes one long for new clothes, new shoes, and the latest shade of lipstick advertised in the September VOGUE. Or maybe one sin leads to another. In any case, I didn’t have the strength to resist temptation. One Friday night, despite thunderstorm (and tornado!)warnings, I headed to Macy’s women’s department and checked out the sales racks where a pretty fushia top jumped into my hand. No sooner did I think “khaki pants” did the perfect pair present itself . . . in the right size . . . on the other side of the rack. On the way to the dressing room, I spied a blue, ruffled top on clearance. And wouldn’t you know it? They all fit. If I were superstitious, I’d have thought a devil was aiding and abetting.

Here’s the worst part: It felt so good to be in an air-conditioned store with a smorgasboard of clothing options, soothing music pumping through the sound system, and an attentive saleswoman eager to carry my three sale items to the register, where, with a quick swipe of the credit card, I bought myself a big, warm slice of American Consumerism. After six months of local buying and doing-without, that twenty minutes in Macy’s felt like coming home.

I walked out into the humidity of the parking lot with its circles of brightness cast from the sodium-light streetlamps and wondered if maybe I should simply give in and live the life I was born to, this energy-sucking, high-speed, overabundant, luxurious American middle-class life. It’s an old issue for me, this tug-of-war between the world that is and the world as it used to be and might be again. I never felt totally comfortable with modernity, didn’t trust that it could last or even progress much further, and yet for my forty-one years it has continued and it has progressed.

I like to read fashion and shelter magazines, romance novels, and chick lit. I watched the entire run of SEX AND THE CITY, and I just ordered the movie from Netflix and hope to watch it this week. This part of me appreciates our instamatic lifestyle–music at the touch of a button, movies at the click of a mouse, travel at the turn of an ignition key. It’s magic, this life we have here at the edge of the century, and I wonder how many of us actually stop to admire the sheer audacity and brilliance of our modern life even as we ponder the possibility of its ultimate demise.

I’d never heard of personal computer when I was my daughter’s age. The internet hadn’t been developed. A mouse was a little rodent you hoped not to find in your cupboard. Talking to someone on a screen was something from the cartoon The Jetsons, and I remember watching the cartoon and thinking “that will never happen.”

As I type this on my laptop, the little eye of my web cam stares at me, accusingly, like the eye of some techno-god irritated by my lack of faith. Maybe technology will save us, after all, as our oil supplies diminish and we continue on with our consumerish ways. Delusion. Self-deception. Sin?

Is it a sin to want the comforts we’ve enjoyed for so long? I just don’t know for sure. It’s easy to plunk down that credit card and walk out of the mall with new clothes when you don’t stop to think of the third-world worker who made them. When you don’t stop to think about your fellow Americans who lost their jobs when the manufacturing sector closed shop here in the U.S. and moved to those third-world sweat-shop hives. When you refuse to think how those dollars could have been spent supporting a local business struggling to make it in a “flat and crowded” world. (See Thomas Friedman’s book.)

Unfortunately, I thought about those things and suffered pangs of guilt.

Farmer's Market Fare

Farmer's Market Fare

As penance, I headed off to the brand new farmer’s market in Newfield the next morning. The market was set up at Willowbrook, a historical village and museum. At nine in the morning, the vendors were just setting up, and I was charmed by the setting, the goods on display, and the nice people. I came away with a loaf of Anadama Bread from the Brother’s Bakery in Alfred, a bouquet of curly, green kale, some cookies from the Boy Scout troop, and a pair of earrings.
Earrings From Farmer's Market

Earrings From Farmer's Market

For those of you in the neighborhood, the market is open at Willowbrook on Saturdays at nine am. There is also a new farmer’s market that has opened up in South Waterboro, just up the street from the Milk Room. This one is also on Saturdays. I checked it out a few weekends ago, on it’s opening day. Vendors were offerering local produce, homemade charcoal for the grill, ice-cream, pottery, and some hot food items. The Shaker Valley Farmer’s Market even had a band on site to celebrate the day. See this write-up about it in the Waterboro Reporter–our local newspaper.

Rockin' out at the farmer's market

Rockin' out at the farmer's market

What have I learned from all this? The obvious lesson, of course, is that we aren’t perfect. All we can do is try to do the right thing . . . whatever we think is the right thing . . . as often as we can. For me, this means putting on my new clothes and acknowledging the sheer luck of having been born in this place at this time. It means regretting an impulsive and possibly selfish decision to do what came easiest rather than suck it up and wear the old clothes until I found a local option. It means vowing to do better in the weeks and months ahead.

While out and about, I picked up a book of sewing patterns which included a pattern for a pretty, wrap skirt. That’s one step in the right direction. The book is called WEEKEND SEWING: More than 40 Projects and Ideas for Inspired Stitching by Heather Ross. Click here to see the book. Ms. Ross has compiled a lovely bunch of sewing projects including table napkins, an apron, a tunic, kids clothes, and even slippers! She has included patterns that can be traced onto transfer paper. I’ve never done that before, but I’m looking forward to trying. It’s definitely time to get out my dusty sewing machine. Back in college, I used to make some of my own dresses, but then clothes just seemed to get cheaper and cheaper in the stores. The cost of materials was more than buying something premade. Not stopping to think about the reasons why this might be, I simply put away the sewing machine and got on with my role as a Great American Consumer.

But if I’m going to be serious about staying out of the Boxes, I need to start making my own clothes again. Wish me luck!

PART TWO

Fiction. It’s been awhile since I’ve tried it, but in keeping with today’s theme I thought it was only right that I tell you about my latest project. I’m writing a confession magazine story. And I’m having a blast doing so. If you don’t know what a confession magazine is, I’ll fill you in. You know those thin magazines with titles like TRUE STORY and TRUE CONFESSIONS you see in the grocery store next to the teen magazine and crossword puzzle books? Those are confessions mags. Each issue has six or seven stories of varying lengths, all in first person, most following a formula that goes something like: heroine makes a bad decision, heroine digs herself in even deeper, heroine suffers, heroine repents, heroine is redeemed.

These stories aren’t as bad as they sound, actually. They may not be what they purport to be–true–but they can be true to life. Since I haven’t had much drama in my own life, I’m forced to take smidgeons of personal stories I’ve heard over the years and to try to morph them into a story resembling truth. And isn’t that what all fiction is–even the most literary of fiction?

I was thinking about the power of story the other day. Here’s a confession: I listen to Christmas music in the summer. Just the instrumental stuff, but still. I don’t quite know why I get the urge to hear O Holy Night in the middle of August, but there it is. So I was thinking about Christmas and the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth, the angels, the star, the whole deal. I’m not a true believer as I once was, but I have to admit there is something powerful about the story, something that speaks to me even though I think the “truth” of the story is about on par with those of the “true” confession stories. A little bit of reality mixed with alot of desire for order out of chaos.

It struck me that we humans have a deepseated need for story, for the order of story, and if we could only realize that the various religions are all attempting to create that order, telling of a universal truth if not an exact historical one, we might be able to tolerate or even celebrate our religious differences. How many religious stories speak of the god being born, usually under mysterious and magical circumstances, growing, and eventually dying . . . and then being reborn. It’s an old, old story found in many cultures and religions, Christianity obviously included. One could argue that the pre-Christian religious stories were only there to prepare the way for the One True Religion and all those that came after are mere peversions of the same, I suppose, but that’s a stretch for me.

So, the big question. Can we fulfull our human need for spirituality, for order out of chaos, if we lack unquestioning faith in one religion? Or can the story itself be enough?

It seems to me that as adults, we are able to filter what we learn of religion. We take what we need from it and let the more disturbing elements go a little fuzzy and bleary along the edges. Kids don’t have that filter. If they hear it, and if a trusted adult tells them it is The Truth, they’ll believe it. Concretely. Think about the kids being taught in the madrassas in the Middle East right now. Think they have a filter for what they are being taught?

I was taught that one of these days Jesus Christ was going to blow a trumpet, dead Christians would rise out of their graves, live Christians would disappear into the heavens, and all hell was going to break loose here on earth. No filter. For years I lived in fear that my salvation “didn’t take” and that I’d have to live through said hell on earth before being thrown into a fiery pit. Lovely stuff for a bedtime story, right?

Now I have to think that the adults in my life just didn’t realize they were using a filter. They were not going to worry about the supernatural stuff. Not really. There was a mortgage to pay and jobs to do and, well, church to go to. Those prosaic concerns filtered out the usuable stuff like the Ten Commandments from the less usuable stuff like lion-headed locusts in the story.

But what about the kids? I wrote a story about this about six years ago. It’s called Second Coming. I’ll post it under my Fiction Corner, but with a warning for those of you who are strong in your Christian faith. It isn’t pretty. There’s stuff in there that will disturb you. In other words, Read At Your Own Risk, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Since writing that story (and, man, it was cathartic!) I’ve come to a more tolerant view of my Christian upbringing. I can see the beauty and power of the Christian story, so wonderfully encapsulated in the music. Birth, life, death, rebirth. Good stuff.

Cooking The Old-Fashioned Way

Bread Pudding

Bread Pudding

Dear Reader:

I wanted to use some version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” for my title because while I’d really like to be down at the canoe landing and staring out across the sparkly lake, I decided I had better make like an ant and work before I play. The grasshoppers have been buzzing in the grasses these late summer afternoons, and the sun has finally ripened a couple of my cherry tomatoes. One of the big beefsteaks was starting to turn color, but something took a big ol’ bite out of it. I suspected a creepy-crawly tomato worm but could find no trace of the sucker last evening. I threw out the two or three fruits he/she had sampled (why not eat the whole darn thing before moving on to the next, I’d like to know?) and decided that pests are simply a part of the big picture.

It’s easy to be philosophical when one’s parents have stopped in with a bag of free produce from their larger and much more productive garden.

I digress.

Summer weekends are a fabulous time to shop . . . in your neighbor’s yard. No, I’m not advocating late-night raids of the blueberry bushes and corn rows. I’m tallking about yard sales. Some readers may remember an earlier entry regarding old cookbooks and my quest for pre-World War II tomes. I scored one beauty at an antique store in nearby Cornish village a couple of months back. It is a musty, solid little book entitled LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE: HOW TO COOK ODDS AND ENDS OF FOOD INTO APPETIZING DISHES by Isabel Gordon Curtis.

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE circa 1901

This little jem was published in 1901 by the Orange Judd Company. The first chapter begins, “Do not throw away scraps of fat” and procedes to explain how to save all the bits of cooking fat and drippings and suet, to clarify them, and to use them for frying ala the ubiquitous vegetable shortening of today. “If only a teacup of fat is added to this supply once a week, it will save the buying of fat for frying purposes, even in a large family.” (pg.1)

The book goes on to give multiple recipes for using leftovers of every type: stale bread, cold coffee, cereals, sour milk, cold potatoes, vegetables, sauces, beef, veal, pork and ham, poultry, stale cake, cheese, and fruit. You know the recipes are old because each one lists only a few simple ingredients and absolutely no canned soup. Take Plain Cabbage Salad for instance: “2 cups shredded cabbage, 4 tbs. oil, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tbls. vinegar. Shred cabbage very fine and leave in ice water for an hour. Drain it and marinate with the dressing. This is a favorite supplement to fried oysters.” (pg. 75)

While the simplicity and lack of processed food products pleased me, I was dismayed by the frequent mention of refrigeration. Isabel Curtis must have been referring to old-fashioned ice-boxes, right? It got me wondering when the first refrigerator was invented. Off I went to cyberspace to find out.

I turned first to Wikipedia. (See here) According to the section on the history of the refrigerator, the first refrigerator coil which condensed aromatic vapours as a coolant was invented in the 11th century. The 11th century! Okay, I just about fell off my chair. Wasn’t that medieval times? The Dark Ages? And yet, in America at the turn of the 20th century, half the population used ice-boxes for cooling food while the other half just used the even more natural method of root-cellaring.

Home refrigerators did not become commonplace until 1927 with the General Electric Motor-top model, long after my 1901 cookbook was printed. Take a look at the frontispiece photograph of young ladies in floor-length dresses and long aprons and little white caps ranged ’round a table at the New England Cooking School of the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Lady cooks from 1901

Lady cooks from 1901

Thinking about refrigeration, or lack of it, one can certainly appreciate the important place of the family milk cow in 1901. At this stage in history, fresh milk meant that morning’s milk, not the stuff in the jug with this week’s date stamped on the side. However, clabbered milk and butter and cheese and sour cream had their place in the home cook’s repertoire. LEFTOVERS MADE PALATABLE includes thirty recipes for using up sour milk, including cottage cheese. (Those of you who read last week’s entry will appreciate this discovery.) “4 Quarts sour milk, 1 tsp. salt, dash white pepper, 4 tbls. cream. Put the sour milk in a large pan and into it pour four quarts of boiling water. Allow it to stand for five minutes, then turn it into a pointed muslin bag like a jelly bag. Hang this up at night over a pan and let it drain. In the morning it will be dry and ready to mix with the cream and seasonings.” (pg. 47)

One of these weeks I’ll order an extra gallon of milk from Downhome Farm and try to make cottage cheese. Maybe when the weather isn’t quite so warm. The old warnings about diptheria and whatnot are hard to purge from the deep, dark recesses of the brain, no matter how much I’ve read on the subject of the nutritive value of raw milk. Is nutritive a word?

Yes. A quick look at the old Webster’s Dictionary confirms it on the page with guide words nuciature – nux vomica. Nux vomica? Sounds just like what I was worried about, n’est ce pas? Or some spell from a Harry Potter book, one of Severus Snape’s conconctions, perhaps. In fact, it is only the latin word for a poisonous seed. See, you never know what you’ll find out here Outside the Box.

Anyway, on the same shelf as LEFTOVERS, I spied another book with the enticing title NEW ENGLAND FLAVOR. Unfortunately, this tome by Haydn S. Pearson turned out to be a charming memoir of a New Hampshire childhood and not the cookbook I was hoping it to be. Fortunately, I also like charming memoirs of New England persons, and so this well-preserved volume with pretty little pen and ink illustrations by Leonard Bosburgh came home with me, as well. It should make for some cozy reading this fall when I sit outside wrapped in the shawl my sister sent home from Venezia this summer and sip Earl Gray from my favorite Monroe Saltworks mug.

So what does this have to do with the formentioned yard sale? I’m getting there, trust me. This weekend on the way home from Parsonsfield to pick up my milk, I noticed a table loaded with cooking pans and decided to check out the yard sale as two of my Reverware lids have recently lost knobs, forcing me to gingerly pick lids off boiling pots with dishtowels in hand to prevent scalding myself at the stove. (Can you imagine trying to diagram that last sentence? Actually, it might be fun. Who needs Sudoku? We ought to turn our kids on to sentence diagrams.)

The Rumford book

The Rumford book

Not only did I find a nice set of stainless steel pots for $5, I also scored a pretty, tatted-edged table runner and a treasure-trove of cookbooks. There’s the RUMFORD COMPLETE COOKBOOK, copyright 1908 in its 43rd printing in 1948. In this book, consomme is made with a quart of defatted meat stock . . . not a bouillon cube. Excellent. The baking powder is, of course, Rumford, which makes me wonder about those Anne of Green Gables books. Was it Rumford baking powder that Ann wrote about? A quick search on the web tells me no. It was Rollins Reliable baking powder. However, I came across this interesting site which gives in great detail how to visit Prince Edward Island and find all kinds of places referenced in the Anne books. Take a look if you are interested in visiting the island.

I may have to revisit Green Gables from the comfort of my couch corner this winter. Funny how this entry on cookbooks into turning into an entry on books-I-want-to-read-this-winter. Must be the Ant in me.

Continuing onward in history, I also picked up Marjorie Standish’s cookbook, KEEP COOKING-THE MAINE WAY. Printed in 1973 by the Maine Sunday Telegram, this book also delivers lovely pen and ink drawings of a girl, eleven or twelve year’s old, I’d guess, stirring a pot, fishing from a pier, canning perserves, and eating cake under the watchful and envious eyes of a large cat. Mrs. Standish was well-known for her weekly recipe column in the SUNDAY TELEGRAM according to the note “About the Author” at the front of the book. At the time of the book’s printing, I was four years old. Here I discover the expected “cans of soup” ingredients . . . expecially cream of mushroom. Flipping through the pages, one encounters “packages of cream cheese” and “packaged stuffing” and even frozen packages of peas. Still, some of the recipes use authentic, whole ingredients, most noteably in the Fish and Shellfish section. The Fillet of Sole with Oysters looks particularly appealing with its quart of fresh mushrooms, sole, oysters, chicken broth, butter and lemon juice. (page 35).

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook

Two other books I picked up but haven’t had much time to peruse were the PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH PEOPLE’S COOKBOOK with the charming bird graphic on the front. This one was published in 1978. Also, the WISCONSIN COUNTRY COOKBOOK AND JOURNAL by Edward Harris Heth with some beautiful woodcuts by Arlene Renken. What is it I like so much about these black and white illustrations and recipes mixed together?
Wisconsin  cookbook

Wisconsin cookbook

I guess they go together like, well, cabbage salad and oysters. This book was written in 1956, but I suspect the recipes may be older than the hills, passed down from one country cook to another before Edward Heth captured them for the printed page and posterity. I will review and share, maybe later this winter after I have tried out some of the Potato Pancakes, Dill Bean Roll Ups, Beef Goulash with Red Cabbage, and whatever Lupscush is. Am I becoming a foodie?

Maybe it has something to do with all this talk of impending peak oil doom, but I’m obsessed with food these days. Not so much the eating as the growing, storing, and cooking of it. I’m thrilled to see the yellow summer squash growing on the vines. Picking the prickly pickling cukes from my boxes is a thrill. I’m going out this afternoon and plant the old green bean squares with a late crop of lettuce. We ate the last of the green beans sauteed in a little olive oil and dried garlic with a splash of soy sauce. Delicious hot and even better cold the next day on top of a salad with some lettuce, onions, cherry tomatoes, and a bit more olive oil.

As for leftovers, a few weeks ago I found myself in possession of a half-loaf of homemade bread going stale,a few eggs from Sarah, and milk that needed to be used up. Remembering bread pudding from my childhood (in the 1970’s, but my mother knew a thing or two or three about real cooking), I hauled out the book of recipe cards she gave me at my wedding shower, and proceded to make a good, old-fashioned dessert. I will share it with you, my constant readers. Bon Appetit!

OLD-FASHIONED BREAD PUDDING
3 cups soft bread crumbs (okay, I took the bread, sliced it, and then cut it into cubes)
2 cups milk, scalded with 1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
14 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
(raisins, 1/2 cup if you have them)

350 degree oven. Place bread crumbs in 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Blend in remaining ingredients. Place baking dish in pan of hot water 1 inch deep. Bake 40-45 minutes or until silver knife inserted 1 inch from edge comes out clean. Serve warm, with cream. (That you skimmed from the raw milk from the local farm, of course. SB)

Still much to do this summer–pickles and blueberry jam, cotton wrap skirts, and finishing my research on “the weed.” What have you been up to in August? What tasks lie ahead. Remember the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, take the time to do the work necessary for a comfortable winter, but don’t forgo the grasshopper stuff altogether. Find an hour or two to sing and play in the summer sun. Make some bread pudding, or get an ice-cream maker and churn some homemade blueberry ice-cream. Check out the yard sales around town. Drop me a line anytime . . . Outside the Box.

Community and Family Elders

late july 2009 006Dear Reader:

I’ve been thinking about my grandparents lately.

My grandparents were farmers. They were other things–journalist, mechanic, painter, carpenter, photographer, County Commissioner, Mason, Granger–but they were farmers, too. My grandmother’s parents had a farm, sold vegetables. My grandfather worked one summer for her father, and that’s how they met and began dating. (I want to use the word “courting,” but it seems too precious and silly.) I recently read in one of my grandmother’s diaries that when he asked her to marry him, she made him wait for an answer. I wouldn’t have guessed that. I wouldn’t have guessed she kept a diary, either. She never mentioned them, and they only turned up after her death. They’d been hidden in her vast accumulation of stuff for, wow, over sixty years. She’d probably be mortified to know I read them. (Note to self: burn old diaries.)

Even though they moved on to other careers, my grandparents continued to cultivate an extensive vegetable and fruit garden on the floodplain of Temple Stream which ran beside their house. In the summer, my parents would load my sister and me and the dog into the car, and off we’d go to Farmington to pick Bampy’s strawberries in the front garden. The next month we’d scratch up our arms collecting the heavy, red globes of raspberries from the patch out back by the old shed. Come August, we’d drive up for a corn feed–eating ear after ear of fresh, sweet corn just picked and quickly boiled and slathered with butter. Corn has never tasted so good since.

In the fall, my grandmother put-up jar after jar of vegetables, some of which went to the Grange exhibit at the Farmington Fair. She did this canning in between stints at the typewriter–later, the computer–writing up that day’s news articles for the Lewiston Sun or the Frankling Journal newspapers. She made jellies and jams, too. My grandfather did the planting and hoeing and weeding.

Lettuce was big at their house. We’d eat it sprinkled with apple cider vinegar and sugar. Beet greens were boiled for a long time and served in bowls with butter, vinegar, salt and pepper. There were green beans and wax beans and broccoli sometimes. Cucumbers for eating and for pickling. In the fall, squash. One year, I remember them putting up a barrel of sauerkraut, but I don’t remember the sourish stuff being served much. When did they eat it? I wish they were still here so I could ask.

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and knew how to make-do. Nothing was thrown away.

Nanny’s mother used to sell butter in town. My mother recently unearthed a wooden cheese-maker (with an ancient box of rennet included) in the varied and voluminous pile of Nanny’s “stuff.” My grandmother knew how to make homemade cottage cheese. One year when she was getting on in age, my mother and I went to her house and cleaned the kitchen. I turned up my nose at a carton of milk left out on the counter and dumped the lumpy, sour mess down the drain. Awhile later my grandmother asked, “Where is my cottage cheese?” She’d been starting the lacto-fermentation process in that milk carton. I felt bad about it. Now I feel irritated that I didn’t ask her to teach me what she knew about curdling milk into cheese.

I’m struck by the disconnect. Sometime between my great-grandparents’ time and my own, we lost the knowledge, the ability to produce things for ourselves. It’s been a gradual loss of knowledge, but if I had to put my finger on when everything shifted, I’d guess it was with the advent of the car and the discovery of oil. Tractors changed farming. Oil-derived fertilizer changed farming. Almost overnight, it seems, the small family farm no longer made sense.

My grandparents left the farm for jobs in town. My grandmother worked as a telephone operator. My grandfather got a job with the John Deere retailer. Even with three children to rear, my grandmother started and maintained a journalism career that spanned fifty years. My grandfather became a County Commissioner. They both were active in various fraternal organizations, rising in rank to the top posts. They were members of the Baptist church. They grew a garden. My grandfather did great carpentry work. My grandmother knitted and crocheted and tatted. But these activities were hobbies, not necessities. The world had moved on.

Their children, my mother and aunt and uncle grew up in the fifties. They grew up with big cars and black and white television. The big war was over, the space race was on, and the country enjoyed a wonderful period of plenty. Some craftmanship was still practiced, though. Take sewing, for example. My mother went to college to be a home-economics teacher. Growing up, I wore clothes she cut and sewed up for me. I loved the bag of scrap cloth and tried to make clothes for my Barbie dolls. She taught me to sew. She taught me to cook, too. My parents always had a garden, canned and froze vegetables, and picked berries for jams. There is nothing better than the June smell of strawberry jam boiling and bubbling in a large pot on the stove.

But in our family, neither of the two generations preceding mine kept chickens or goats or milk cows or horses. Some families did. We’d go to the Farmington fair every fall and watch the teams of horses pulling concrete blocks through the dirt. We’d watch some of the 4-H goat, pig, and cattle shows. Some kids my age were practicing their animal husbandry skills.

The knowledge hasn’t been lost. Not completely. Not here in Maine. Not yet.

Recently, my friend Sandy let me borrow a few FOXFIRE books she’d picked up at the library book sale. These books are compilations of articles written for a magazine of the same name founded in the 60’s, the brainchild of a teacher in Appalachia who was desperate for some way to engage his English students. They students interviewed community and family elders about the culture, traditional crafts, life skills, and stories from the region and then wrote them up into articles to be published in the magazine. Here is a link if you want to explore this further.

I was fascinated by the articles, the instructions (sometimes detailed, sometimes scarily vague) for making soap or medicine or wooden shingles for siding a house, but it got me thinking: who in MY community knows the old crafts and skills necessary for living in a lower-energy world, the world of my great-grandparents who worked a farm for their living? Crafting has enjoyed a bit of a revival. Enthusiasts practice spinning and knitting, pottery and cheese-making. There are herbalists with extensive gardens and woods-knowledge about the gathering and use of wild, medicinal plants. Kids still show livestock at the agricultural fairs. Their fathers still train teams of work horses to pull cement blocks. Some people use horses and oxen for farming and wood harvesting. Bee-keeping is gaining popularity. Chicken coops are popping up in suburban backyards. I’ve seen more garden boxes and raised beds rimming front lawns this summer. Some knowledge has been retained . . . but is it enough? What have we forgotten? What have we forgotten we’ve forgotten?

We might want to consider surveying the community and our individual families to discover who knows what. One individual cannot master every craft and skill necessary for survival, let alone comfort, in a world with less energy than the one we enjoy now, but if enough individuals make a point of learning one or two basic skills, communities will have a knowledge base from which to draw. Skills should be taught to our children, as well, so their generation will be equipped for the whatever future they find themselves in. Perhaps every community should engage in FOXFIRE-like projects, recording the lore and knowledge of the elders who are still with us. In the end, knowing how to milk a cow by hand or how to dig a well without power equipment may be more important that how to run a computer system or an espresso machine.

In conclusion, I’ll share a couple of poems inspired by my grandparents, Stanton and Barbara Yeaton of Farmington, Maine. One I read at my grandmother’s funeral a couple years ago. The other I read at a Grange meeting when my grandparents were both alive. They were an inspiration then, and the memories of them inspire me still.
peas 002

INTO GRANDFATHER’S GARDEN

Should I leave the white house–
green shuttered windows filtering the sun–
and the solidity of old, solid farmhouses?
Should I cross the sandy drive
on tender feet,
painted toes dusted and losing gloss?
Should I feel the grassy wetness,
morning lawn,
sloping downward
toward
my grandfather’s garden?

There the silly, white moths
dip and float and duck
among the pea-blossoms.
They tumble through tendrils,
soft green leaves,
the pretty blossoms
that could be moths if they would fly.

There the earth is dry
and crumbly and my foot sinks
as if it, too, wishes to be planted.
Oh, such order!
Each row straight, and spreading
checked by heel and hoe.
Small peas then tall peas;
shiney, leafy beans
then squash; squat hills of potatoes;
spikes of onions; feathers of carrots;
feet!

I’ll plant them deep in earth,
toes cool in underdirt warming
swiftly to ankles
and me–aboveground.
I’ll let the worms kiss my skin
and converse with white moths
flirting with my hair.
The rain will wash
my fingers
outspread like leaves and the sun
will nourish me.

In autumn, then, I’ll have grown
to outrageous perfection.
What a specimen I’ll make
at country fairs!
If only I would leave
the house and cross the drive
and slip my feet into the earth–
into Grandfather’s garden.
–1990

THE PASSING DOWN OF A RECIPE

Standing in the kitchen
watching, stirring, testing
my gradmother glows in her knowledge
of life’s important things:
marriage & children & gardens & news;
the program for tonight’s Grange meeting
& how to make mint-apple jelly.

There on the windowsill, the wee jars gleam
ignited delicate green by the sun.
And there Nanny stands in an apron–
passing down a recipe.
She learned it from her mother,
how to boil the peels, the cores,
nothing to be wasted,
sweetened with sugar and mint.
“Recipes are family things,” she says.

She dips a silver spoon
into the smallest of the jars.
“You taste it,” she says.
She lifts it to my mouth.
“It’s good,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Of course it is.”
–1989

And there is this poem I wrote after my grandfather’s death.

IN MEMORIUM

A poem about cycles–
how we age
into our parents, then
our grandparents. They are gone,
or going now
a little at a time,
breath by breath
as we are.
And we begin to wonder why
the first wrinkle,
hair without color,
pre-arthritic throb in the joints,
death?
Why death
when there is spring-moist earth
to plant with bright dahlias
and pole-beans?
When there are freshly-cut boards
to plane and smooth
and fit together in sharp angles?
When people love you?
But if there were no death, no harvest,
no dropping of the brown petals
to nourish the spent soil,
there would be no life
in the beginning.
It might nice
never to have pedalled these cycles,
to have enjoyed some other awareness . . .
but then again
to have lived
to have LIVED!
–1992