Sunday, July 24, 2011

Under Pressure

Yesterday I canned green beans. On a cold winter evening when I'm tired from working all day, I'll be glad I did. But yesterday, canning beans was just more work on a stifling July afternoon. That's the thing about raising a garden: it won't wait. When a vegetable is ready, it's ready. If you wait until it suits your schedule and/or your mood to preserve it, chances are it will be too late. Since I'm not good at last-minute changes to my plans for the day, gardening has a tendency to bend me out of shape a lot this time of year.

Temperatures have been in the 90s here for the past week, along with enough humidity to make the laundry stay wet on the clothesline until supper time. When it's that hot and humid, my brain turns to fuzz and about the only thing I can accomplish is a good nap. The thought of having the stove eye on for several hours in that kind of heat was daunting. Thank goodness Robin did the picking and snapping. My dad always said that you shouldn't pick beans while the vines are wet because it will cause the remaining beans to have rusty spots. That meant Robin couldn't start picking until almost noon, since we had rain the night before. He snapped the beans while I washed dishes, which helped a lot. Then I washed jars, washed beans, and packed them into the jars. At last, into the pressure canner they went. It takes about 30 minutes to get the pressure up, then 20 minutes to cook, and then almost an hour to let the pressure reduce so the canner can be safely opened. Finally the hot jars, usually with contents still boiling, were set out on the counter to cool and seal. All that is for one batch; I had to do two. It was after 6:00 before the beans were all done. By that time, everything was hot through and through: the kitchen, the house, me, ugh.

The good thing about the whole process was that after sundown, the air cooled and I sat on the screen porch reading a good book for a couple of hours. After I've put out the effort to get the garden produce ready for winter, I don't mind treating myself to some well-deserved rest and relaxation. Kind of like the beans in the jars: they're under a lot of pressure, then the pressure lets up and they get to rest a while. In the end, they come out of the jar better than they went in. In the grand scheme of life, with all its pressures,  I hope I do the same: finish up a better person than when I started. That would be sweet indeed.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In A Pickle

I do not like dill pickles, but give me a sweet pickle of most any kind. My favorite sweet pickles are the ones my mother always made every summer. I just finished making this year's batch and I'm basking in the glow of accomplishment. These aren't just any 'ole pickle, you know.

When I share Mom's sweet pickles with folks they often ask for the recipe, but shy away when they see that it takes 11 days to make them! Most other pickle recipes take anywhere from a few hours to 3 days max, so you can see why 11 days sounds a bit extreme. I don't know where Mom got her recipe, but it is an old one.  I can tell by the way some of the ingredients are measured: "salt brine strong enough to float an egg" and "2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut." When boiling the pickles on the 7th day, there is no amount of time given to boil them, just "until the slices become clear."

There is a bit of work to these sweet slices, but they are worth it. The first 6 days are easy. After you wash whole cucumbers, they soak in salt brine for 3 days. Rinsing them is a bit gross, as the water gets slimy, with some gunk on top. You can pour the whole business into the sink, getting rid of most of the yuk, and it doesn't take long to wash each one. Then they soak in clear water 3 more days. On the 7th day you need to set aside some time to slice the cucumbers, which now seem kind of rubbery. I haven't yet figured out how long you have to boil them, since some slices do get rather clear, while others don't change at all. I just boil them about an hour, and it works just fine. The syrup is easy to make, but the secret to these delicious treats is in draining the syrup off the slices and reheating it, every day for 4 days. Then, on the 11the day, it takes a while to pack the pickles in jars, cover them with hot syrup, and boil the jars in a hot water bath. Now you see why I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when those jars are finally lined up on my kitchen counter.

Early on I figured out one way to make this pickling project a little easier than it was for Mom. She always used crocks for the whole process. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they were the only thing she had that was big enough (sometimes she made a double batch). Then again, maybe she used crocks because they were what her mother used. I found out very quickly that I couldn't handle crocks. They are just too heavy, even when they're empty. And they can break. I use plastic buckets. They're not nostalgic like crocks, but they sure are a lot easier to handle. When you soak both the whole cucumbers and the slices, you must weight them down with a plate and something heavy on top to keep everything submerged in the liquid. Another improvement I made on Mom's method is using a quart jar filled with water to weight the pickles down. She use half of a brick, which was dedicated solely to this purpose. Even though it was clean, it seemed a bit out of place sitting in something we were going to be eating.

I have fond memories Mom's sweet pickles. I recall watching her slice what seemed like mountains of round discs. Once the reheating stage began, it was my job to dig around in the crock after she drained off the syrup to find the spice bag. The best part, though, was snitching slices from the crock. Even though they weren't "done" yet they were especially delicious because they were stolen. I got a scolding if I got caught. Now I know it was not because Mom didn't want me to have them, but because making them was a lot of trouble! I thought I was pretty good at getting my fill of the forbidden unnoticed, but as I look back, I think she probably knew I was making regular stops by the crock on the back porch table. I haven't reformed my ways much. I still make regular stops by the back porch table during pickle season.

Once the pickles were canned and stored in the fruit room of the basement, they were a gold mine for our kitchen. As a kid, I always put ketchup and Mom's sweet pickles on my hamburgers. I didn't discover the wonders of mustard, onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo until I was well into my teens. When I packed my lunch for school, sweet pickles turned a cold cheese sandwich into a yummy main course that I was not willing to trade. I got a lot of practice with a paring knife as I chopped up pickles for Mom's potato salad and I think the only reason I ever tried tuna salad was because it had Mom's sweet pickles in it.

Now you know all the ins and outs of my mom's sweet pickles. If you think you'd like to try your hand at making them, here's her recipe with some details added by me. I hope they make life a little sweeter for you!

8 pounds whole cucumbers
Wash cucumbers. Arrange tightly in a large crock or clean plastic bucket. Make a brine of water and salt, strong enough to float an egg. Pour over cucumbers and weight down with a plate and large jar of water. Soak three days. Rinse and wash cucumbers. Return to bucket or crock, cover with clear water, weight down, and soak for three more days. On the 7th day, drain and rinse cucumbers. Slice thinly (about 1/8 inch). Place in large kettle and cover with a weak solution of 1 part cider vinegar to 2 parts water. Add 2 pieces of alum the size of an English walnut. (I use 2 heaping tablespoons of powdered alum.) Boil until slices become clear, about an hour. Drain. Put hot slices into a smaller crock or bucket. Make syrup of 3 pints vinegar, 7 pounds sugar, and spice bag of 1/3 ounce (1 heaping TBSP) whole cloves and 1 large stick cinnamon. Bring to a boil and pour over slices; weight down. Each day for 4 days, drain off syrup and reheat to boiling, making sure to include the spice bag. On the 11th day, drain syrup off slices. Pack cold slices into clean pint jars. Heat syrup to boiling and pour over slices. Remove bubbles with a table knife. Boil jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Makes 10-11 pints.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lost Dogs and Answered Prayers

I hate looking for lost dogs. It brings back sad memories and makes me sick at my stomach. My mind runs away with me, thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. But oh, the joy when the lost dog is found! And all the more joyful when the finding is the direct and instant result of prayer.

Let me explain. If you read an older post, (click here to read this post) you remember Leah, the Kelpie puppy we got in April after a 2-year search. This afternoon, around 4:00, Robin returned from a trail ride and unloaded horses. We stood around visiting a few minutes with the other riders, and their dog was visiting with our three. But as we talked, we realized Leah wasn't around. Not to worry, though. We were all right there, and the other dogs were right there, so she would show up momentarily. Didn't happen. The friends left, and no Leah. We walked to the neighbor's. Their guest's dog was safely in her portable pen, but no Leah. We called and waited. No Leah. We looked in all her usual spots. No Leah. Then we looked everywhere else we could think of: the basement, the horse trailer, the cab of the truck. No Leah. After about an hour, we drove up and down the road, looking. No Leah. Heartsick by now, I was consumed with worry and pleading with God to bring her home safe and sound. Robin went to check on his dad and look there, at the adjacent farm where he works, and at our other place just up the road. We used the walkie-talkies to stay in touch. Our message was the same: no Leah.

I try not to be a worry wart, try not to jump to conclusions. I believe we should be able to trust God and rest in his care, knowing that He will give us the strength to endure whatever comes. I believe that.  But when it comes to a lost dog, I have reason to worry. You see, we've lost dogs before. And they weren't our dogs. They were dogs we were taking care of for friends. If you think it's hard having your own dog lost, try losing someone else's! I could write a short book on those two experiences, but we'll say for now that I do not ever want to go through that kind of anguish again. And then, I've lost my own dog, too. Way back in junior high my beagle, Bojo, left one morning and never came home. I've not forgotten what that felt like.

So, while Robin was out looking, I sat at the computer, trying to keep my mind from thinking about the sleepless night ahead if we didn't find Leah before dark. Over and over in my head ran the phrases, "Please bring her home safe, and soon." and "Where did she go? Where could she be?" And then I did a childish thing. I stopped and very deliberately prayed. "Dear God, please send Leah home safe and sound very soon. Before dark. Or show us where she is. In Jesus' name, amen." And almost instantly, I heard Leah bark! Only twice. But I was out the door in a flash, radio in hand, calling and running in the direction that bark came from. I called and called, but didn't hear another bark, didn't see even a glimpse of her. And then for some reason, I walked over and looked in the horse trailer. Robin had already looked there. But there Leah sat, looking up at me as if to say, "It's about time." She'd been locked in there almost two hours.

To my mind, the reason I walked over and looked again in the horse trailer was because God sent me there. I didn't hear a voice telling me to look there, but I had prayed not 5 minutes earlier for God to show me where Leah was. And He did! Just like that! He answered my heartsick prayer instantly. Life doesn't get any sweeter than that.
Living proof of answered prayer: Leah home safe & sound!


I often wonder what it would be like to live without stuff. You know, the stuff we move around all the time, like books, knick-knacks, furniture, dishes, bed linens, family heirlooms, appliances, gadgets, mail, and such. I remember when I graduated from college, with my life before me, wanting to live one of two ways: either being able to put everything I owned in a backpack, or having a house complete with all the stuff. Guess which one I got!! Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by stuff. It seems like I'm always moving stuff, putting away stuff, loading stuff into the car, unloading stuff out of the car, sorting through stuff, organizing stuff, throwing away stuff, giving away stuff, deciding whether to keep stuff or get rid of stuff, cleaning stuff. Stuff, stuff, stuff!!! It doesn't help that Robin and I have had to dismantle two households after an elderly aunt and uncle died, or that both sets of parents have loads of stuff to pass on to us and our siblings. And we can't forget that we humans actually buy stuff with our hard-earned money. There comes a point when one just can't handle any more stuff. I'm almost there.

I recently spent a couple of days with my two sisters at my dad's house. He's 91, and since Mom died a couple of years ago, stuff has been weighing on his mind. He'll say something like, "What are we going to do with all these books? You all need to go through them and take what you want," or "We need to get those old trunks out of the basement before they ruin. You all should take them if you want them." We three daughters are determined not to empty the house around him, but let's face it: a house full of stuff can be a burden to a 91-year-old man. Contrast that with the descriptions of moving into a new home in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her family of five could pack and load all their possessions in a morning, and unpack and settle into their new abode in less than a day. The thought of having to pack up our house after filling it with stuff for the past 20 years scares me silly!

Life, however, does require some stuff. The basic need of shelter means we need a house. And with a house comes at least the bare necessities of furniture: beds, tables, chairs. Another basic need is food, which dictates a kitchen and all the appliances and gadgets that make cooking possible and easy. Water is another requirement, which gives rise to our convenient bathrooms.  Once the basics are in place, then comes the smaller stuff that makes them work: dishes, pot and pans, linens, lamps, etc. Most folks like to put their own personal touch on their surroundings, so in come the pictures on the walls, the figurines that reflect our interests, the books we love to read. Add to that the gadgets for entertainment, the family heirlooms (that may or may not mean a lot to you), and the tools and supplies we need to fulfill our responsibilities to family, work, church, and community. First thing you know, you have a house chock-full of stuff! It doesn't take very long to accumulate it, but down-sizing or disposing of years of stuff is a monumental task.

This need to get rid of stuff has created an interesting event known as the estate auction. When the older generation has passed on, there usually remains a houseful of their stuff. Everything is displayed in the yard, people come and look it over, and bid on and buy items as they are auctioned off. I used to wonder how families could put out such nice antiques and vintage things in an auction - the tangible evidence of life and living - to be looked over and bought by strangers. Didn't they want to keep these reminders of family and days gone by? The answer is yes and no. You can and do keep some things, but there's just no way you can keep everything and cram it into your own house, which is already full of stuff. In my opinion, deciding what to keep and what to let go is one of the biggest challenges of  life after 50 (I'm 51).

As I sit at the computer writing this post, I can turn in my chair and see a lot of stuff. Right now, most of it can stay put, but some day I, or someone else, will have to deal with it. That reality gives me pause: just how important is all this stuff, anyway?  I certainly hope I can leave a more valuable legacy for others than material things. How I treat people, how I've shared my faith, and values like honesty, kindness, and compassion are far more important than any thing I could leave behind. Although I am thankful to be blessed with stuff that can make life a little sweeter, I don't want to be burdened and overwhelmed by it either. All my contemplations about stuff have led me to a resolution. When I turn 75, I will start giving something away every day. But then again, maybe I should make that 55???