Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cooking: Corn Meal Mush

This family loves anything that can be called comfort food or peasant food. Foods that are cheap and filling, or maybe foods that bring back fond memories, are sometimes the best food there is. Sometimes we even elevate poor people food to the next level, and to our kids it feels like a real treat. Recently we discovered the joy that is corn meal mush.

My mother seldom, if ever, made cornbread when I was a kid. When she was young, her father (my grandfather) was laid off and the family of 5 had to go on welfare. One of the staples that was provided by the government food programs was corn meal, and it was given in far more abundance than white flour. So my grandmother dutifully fed her family corn bread and corn mush on a nearly daily basis for many months. My mother soon grew tired of this, and she vowed never to eat corn meal again - if she could help it. To her, eating corn meal was a sign of hard times.

We always have corn meal in the house. Mr. Farmer bakes bread frequently, and he dusts the bottom of the loaves with corn meal to keep them from sticking. More recently, we purchased quite a bit more for making scrapple. We love cornbread with our chili. We even use it to fry fish sometimes. Somehow, however, we never thought to make breakfast mush out of it.

Mr. Farmer made some as a midnight snack and it was amazing! Hot cereal isn't all that exciting as a rule, but corn mush has a saltiness that oatmeal can't deliver, and the texture is just slightly heavier than farina (which I really don't care for because of the sliminess). I went to bed that night with a full belly and a satisfied- but not overwhelmed- sweet tooth. I have the leftovers in the fridge chilling to try as fried patties. I can't wait!

The Recipe:

3 cups hot water
1 tsp salt
1 cup corn meal
1 cup cool water

Sugar & Butter (or milk)

Boil the hot water and salt in a large pan. Mix the corn meal into the cool water. Slowly add the cornmeal water into the boiling water and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes and reducing the heat as you go. Cover and cook on low for an additional 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot with butter or milk and sugar.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life Is Good: The Antique Store Years

Back in the late nineties, I used to run an antique store in rural Maryland. We rented the apartment upstairs and in return for cleaning and setting up the store, I got a commission off all the sales I made. It wasn't much money, but setting up the store was a great project for me. I was a young mother of a toddler at the time, and out of school for a while, so I was feeling that I was stagnating and not learning anything new, except perhaps new and creative ways to get a 2 year old to take a nap. Moving into that antique store was the beginning of a great renaissance for me and a foreshadowing of how Mr. Farmer and I would choose to live our lives once we owned our own place.

When we moved in, the entire house was more or less unlivable. The two front sitting rooms in the old farm house had served as an antique store in years past, but they had turned into a jumbled mess of dusty antique storage. The yellow and green, vertical-striped wallpaper in the stairwell was peeling. The huge staircase railing was covered with dust and fine mold. This place was perfect.

We set to work quickly, moving the furniture around and peeling off the ugly wallpaper. We made the house a home by hanging photos and finally putting out the fancy towels we had received as wedding gifts. I spent day after day dusting and polishing small antique pieces and arranging them for display. Every day was an adventure of discovery and an experience in learning to organize a large amount of stuff into a small amount of space.

In the process of this cleanup I made a discovery that would change me forever. In the large hall closet was a heavy box. In that box were hundreds of taper candle stubs, mostly 3-4 inches long and in every color imaginable. From that box, a hobby that bordered on obsession was born. I started by melting down candles of a single color in a small pan that I bought at a yard sale. I removed the wicks with a fork and set them aside to cool for recycling. My very first candles were made by hanging a long wick into a beer bottle, carefully filling the bottle with wax in alternating layers of color, then allowing the wax to cool and breaking the glass off the candle. The results were fantastic, and I was hooked!

The outdoor cleanup lead to my first adventure in the kitchen. A large grape arbor stood overrun in the back yard, neglected for many years. But Mr. Farmer, being how he is, recognized that among the weeds a good, strong grapevine persisted. He cut the whole thing back so far that I was certain it would never recover. It did, however, and before I knew it we had so many concord grapes that we just had to find some way to preserve them. I pulled out the old cookbooks and the inserts from the mason jar boxes and decided to make both jelly and jam. I spent hours upon hours popping grapes out of their skins, cooking, straining, mixing and canning. The jelly didn't set, but it made wonderful pancake syrup, and the jam was perfect. We gave it away at Christmas and still had more than enough for our own use.

We only lived in the antique store for about a year, but what a year it was! We turned a house into a home. We turned antique storage into an antique store. We turned scrap candles into new candles and grapes into wine, syrup, and jam. We even turned our family of three into a family of four (almost, Little Miss Farmer ended up being born back home in PA, even though I carried her mostly in MD). It was a very productive year, with many memories that I will cherish.

"The Antique Store"
by Laurie Basham
Local artist who chose "my" antique store as a subject.
How cool is that?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Gardening: "My Garden" - Part Five, Vegetable Garden 2011

It is fitting that I end the "My Garden" series with the garden that always has been, and perhaps always will be, a pure gift of a garden: the vegetable garden. I am a complete novice at planting veggies, in spite of being around vegetable gardens my whole life. My brown thumb comes shining through when it comes to tomatoes and peppers, so Mr. Farmer handles the whole thing almost exclusively each year. The vegetable garden is "mine" because he gives it to me.

As I mentioned, my brother-in-law gave me the wonderful, if premature, gift of tomato and pepper plants this year. They were so beautiful that we just had to be sure they got into the ground on time. The weather was less than cooperative, so we ended up bringing the plants inside one night while Mr. Farmer and the children prepared the bed. Young Master Farmer brought many loads of good soil to add to the existing bed, and Mr. Farmer turned it over. When all was ready, he planted 8 tomato plants and 6 sweet pepper plants. It is my understanding that some of the tomatoes are Roma (plum) tomatoes, and that one tomato plant should bear yellow fruit!

We are going all out with the tomatoes and peppers this year. We traded the extra plants for some cucumber plants from the next-door neighbor, but we planted the cucumbers in the herb garden to give the tomatoes the best possible chance. Mr. Farmer even plans a series of stakes, connected by strings, for the plants to grow on. I am still a little unclear on how that is going to be set up, but I promise I will share as soon as it is set up!

Isn't it Beautiful?


I decided to write the entire "My Garden" series before publishing any of it. I usually ask Mr. Farmer and the children not to look over my shoulder while I type because it distracts me. And while I may ask him questions about this and that (and when he asks why, I respond simply, "It's for the blog,") he generally does not see my posts until after I post them. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard him tell one of the children to "bring a load of soil for your mother's garden" through the phone while I was at work one evening during the process of writing this series. I thought I heard a smile in his voice when he said it. I thought that maybe somehow he knew. But did he?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Life Is Good: 'Tis the Promise

When I was young, I went to summer camp at Camp Sankanac in Spring City, PA. At dinner we sang for our supper; that is, we sang grace instead of saying it. Each evening we sang, to the tune of "Channels Only":

'Tis the promise of the Savior
Lions' young do suffer need
But His children who receive* Him
He Himself will ever feed.

Thank you, Savior,
For this bounty
Sweet provisions from above
Gratefully** we now receive this
Token of Thy endless love!

Upon finding myself in dire financial straits recently, I really needed this song today. For the past few days I have been struggling to make ends meet, as spring turns to summer and new clothes are needed, end-of-the-school-year field trips and parties require extra funds, and the usual bills still keep coming. I have taken comfort in knowing that the pantry is full, and even if I could not buy food for days or weeks, my children would not go hungry. The freezer is packed with meat. The canned and dry goods are holding up. The chickens keep laying, and since it is spring, we can feed them and the pigs scraps if the corn runs out. Mr. Farmer can bake bread. There's no need to fear.

Even as we stretch for every penny, collecting up coins for gas money and passing on some of the nicer things we would like to splurge on, God is taking care of us. The bills are getting paid (if at the last moment), the tarp on the roof is holding, and we are fed. Each of these are tokens of His endless love, and I am thankful.

  *  Possibly "believe" - I am doing this from memory, and an Internet search did not help.
**  Or "thankfully" - Maybe my sister knows for sure?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gardening: "My Garden" - Part Four, Herb Garden 2011

I had a moderate amount of involvement in the herb garden this year. The herb garden is our oldest and largest garden, and it has had many incarnations. It started out as a huge, nearly wild bunch of mint that threatened to take over the porch stairs. More herbs have been added every year since then, and we even moved the entire garden from one side of the front door to the other since we started. So far this year it has been all me working on it, since Mr. Farmer has been busy with processing and packing pork for the past couple weeks.

The chives, garlic, curly parsley, and oregano popped up as expected when the snow finally melted. I painstakingly removed the dry, dead leaves from these plants and loosened the soil a little so that they can spread.  I removed the oregano to make room for the new Greek oregano, and mixed in some nice soil so that it sets up well. The roots were very bound, so I could not separate the plants, but I was able to spread them into a row that works for us.

One of the rhubarb plants did not return as expected this spring, and we didn't want the dill in the same place, so we saved the seeds. The rhubarb plant I will replace very soon, either with a plant from the store or from a friend who has too much. The dill I replanted just before a strong rain. It seems not to have washed away, so I added a nice layer of good soil on top of what I think are little dill sprouts. Quite a lot of it is coming back up where it was last year as well, so I am waiting a bit to decide where it will be in the end.

There isn't too much left to do before the herb garden changes over to maintenance. Soon we will add the basil plants, which we have always purchased, believe it or not, from the grocery store! The rosemary that I planted from seed failed last year, but I like it so much that I am going to try again from plants. We also planted cucumbers in the herb garden this year, so that we have room for more tomatoes and peppers in the vegetable garden. I'm thrilled about how the herb garden is coming along, and I have great hopes for it!

Partial View of the Herb Garden
(Just to the left would be cucumbers and basil)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gardening: "My Garden" - Part Three, Hosta Garden

I already wrote a post about the reasons behind, and the planning of, my hosta garden here. So let's be honest here: I just wanted to show off how well the whole thing turned out. After all, there is a lot of heart in this garden, and it took me weeks worth of time and two growing seasons to complete.

I finally completed the back walls of the garden. I ran many loads of soil to fill in. And the weather in April this year was just perfect for plants. It was mostly warm, and alternated rain and partial sun frequently throughout the month. The hostas are thriving! Look how gorgeous!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gardening: "My Garden" - Part Two, Annual Beds

There is a certain natural symmetry to the one side of my driveway. That it is natural is an assumption on my part, but it certainly is symmetrical. Two trees of identical height and girth stand parallel to one another. The space between them is just wide enough for a man to pass through with arms spread. The two trees just begged to be part of some landscaping setup.

We always figured that these two trees would mark the entrance to the side yard. We planned for white stone surrounding a stepping-stone walkway. That walkway would lead to an English garden with a bench for relaxing and perhaps sipping iced tea on warm summer afternoons.

The evolution of the side yard, however, has developed quite differently. The English garden has not materialized so far, but a fire-pit has. The resting bench is now beside a fern garden at the base of a big oak tree, and instead of gazing at lavender, we stare out into the woods. The stone walkway is instead a tarp-covered storage tent. But those two trees are still a gateway.

A few years back, my brother-in-law brought us two bronze-painted, five-foot (plus one foot base) Hindu Temple Guard Statues made of concrete. Each has four arms and an ornate outfit. We can't stand the idea of parting with them, unless someone offered a huge amount of money. They fit perfectly at that natural-looking entrance - one in front of each tree.

At the base of each tree, following the contour of the larger roots, is a round annual bed. I built them several years ago out of local stone. With some help, I filled them with dirt and mulch. Each year I choose flowers to fill them. Most years I purchase impatiens, and match the two beds to each other. One year I planted impatiens in one and petunias in the other, but both of the same color.

These two beds were the first that I built for myself. I have maintained them the longest of all our little gardens, even if Mr. Farmer still handles most of the watering. I would have to say that they are the gardens that I first felt were "mine".

Neil (on the Left)
Bob (on the Right)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gardening: "My Garden" - Part One, Overview

Author's Note: I am writing this post as a series due to its length. I have thought a lot about this subject, and to put it all into one article would probably be difficult to read.

I have always enjoyed the garden.  As a child there were tomatoes and green beans to sneak when the parents weren't looking and rabbits to chase out. As a young mother there was a new rosebush to be anticipated each Mother's Day morning to add to the rose garden.  When we bought our own home there were the most wonderful fresh herbs growing to cook with all summer long. Gardens have almost always been a part of my life.

Mr. Farmer has always referred to our gardens as mine. "Go build a wall for your mother's garden," he'd say to the children, or "What do you want in your garden?" and so on. He chose the location. He built and rebuilt the stone walls. He purchased and planted the seeds and plants. He hauled the mulch and sprinkled the slug poison. He watered and fertilized them. All gardens, however, have always been "mine".

Ever since I noticed this trend, or perhaps because I noticed it, it became my ambition to earn the right to call a garden "my garden".

My involvement in the family gardens is continually growing with each passing year. At first my involvement was merely supervisory. I would give input on what I wanted in the garden, or I would chit chat with Mr. Farmer while he watered the garden. Little by little I became more involved in the physical work. First by turning over garden beds or, as I like to call it, jumping on a shovel. Soon I was building and rebuilding rock walls. I was making more informed decisions about the choice and locations of plants. Now, after working up to it for several years, I have planned and executed several flower beds and am very much involved in the all important vegetable garden.

I have grown to love working in my gardens... and they really are beginning to feel like they are mine.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Life Is Good: Mr. Farmer's Rust-Colored Wheelbarrow

I bought Mr. Farmer a rust-colored wheelbarow for his 50th birthday this year. While women don't usually care for gifts that could be construed as "work" (blenders, vacuum cleaners, etc.), men love getting tools as gifts. Mr. Farmer specifically asked for a wheelbarrow for his birthday, and I knew that it really would make the spring easier. So I somehow managed to buy it, keep it concealed, and present it to him on the afternoon of his birthday - in the hands of a snowman that I made just for him. He was very pleased.

I don't understand why they bother to put pretty paintjobs on functional, hardworking pieces of equipment like wheelbarrows. Our old dirt-hauler has not a speck of paint left on it. I couldn't guess what color it was when it was shiny and new. The birthday 'barrow was a shiny orange-rust color. I felt bad about loading it up with rocks and dirt. I hate to be the one to mess up his new tool. So far the paint is holding up, aside for some scratches and such.

Mr. Farmer scoffs at the idea that I use his wheelbarrow more than he does, but it surely feels like it to me. I have relocated rocks with it. I have cleaned up woodchips with it. I have hauled endless loads of soil. But, from what he tells me, this gift is one that he uses every single day.

Personally, I like the gift I use every single day (my remote car starter) an awful lot better. But to each his own, right?

Busy Day in the Herb Garden

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gardening: Tomatoes and Peppers... on the first of MAY?!?!?!

My enabling brother-in-law is up to his tricks again. The call came today that he had bought me a flat of various tomatoes and sweet bell peppers. Mr. Farmer went and picked them up, assuming that we would keep them inside for a few weeks before planting them, just to make sure the weather would be warm enough. There are medium and large tomatoes and sweet cherry tomatoes. There are green bell peppers and yellow sweet peppers. All the plants are at least 10 inches tall, and most of them have flowers on them already!

The size and progress of these plants completely throws off my gardening schedule. My nice, leisurely plan for May was to complete the herb garden, then plant the annuals, then prepare and plant the veggie garden - all over the next 3-4 weeks. Instead, faced with a week of rain nearly every day, I must prepare the vegetable bed immediately. These plants are tall and straight and healthy, but they are surely root bound and need room to set down good roots soon if there is any hope of them ever holding their own weight. 

The vegetable garden needs a lot of work. It is too shallow. The wall needs another course of stone. The soil is compacted and depleted from last year's tomatoes. There are small toys and cigarette butts under the layer of dry, fallen leaves. It is so large that I will probably need to add 4 wheelbarrow loads of manure-soil to fill it up. It is going to take some time.

So, on the first of May, after already completing the hosta garden and planting the new Greek oregano, I started jumping on the shovel and turning up the vegetable garden. Let's just hope my exhaustion turns to delight by the end of the season.