Growing Away

There is a significant thing which is gradually fading away, and not very many people seem to be noticing it. It is dissipating like the morning mist over the lake. I think that of the few people who are even aware that it is going, very few of those realize what it really is that is disappearing before their eyes. It was such a commonplace thing 100 years ago that no one hardly gave it a thought. It just WAS, like the air or the sunlight.

Forty years ago or so, when I first began to be aware of this as being not-everyone's-experience, I grew to understand the implications of this thing on the rest of the country. Yet for all of that, it is a difficult thing to fully describe. I saw it secondhand, but still up close and quite clearly. I don't know if there is even a name for this thing.

What is it? Well, you tell me. It is born of hardship, of the devotion of family, of having a shared history. For the children of immigrants, like me, it is visible in the mix of profound love of America and old world customs. It causes people to long for the good old days even while talking about how they nearly starved. It is seen in a life of backbreaking struggle but still singing the praises of this land of opportunity.

It can be seen when the people of my mother's generation touch on some painful piece of (what was supposed to be) a funny story, and the iron will with which they turn away from the painful part and focus on the humor. It can be seen in the knowing glances that pass between these ones who have loved each other and stood with each other through experiences they no longer wish to remember.

You can also see it when Grandma reuses things that were designed to be thrown away. You can hear it when Grandpa tells tall tales about walking to school for 10 miles. (In the snow. Uphill both ways.) It peeks out in old saws about being thrifty or industrious.

The old ranching family with umpteen kids and each one worked to keep the family fed and sheltered, the immigrant families scratching out a living in some area that others nicknamed "Little Italy" or something like that, they saw this as a land of dreams and a life of work. They leaned on each other. They showed compassion for the tragedies that befell their neighbors, helped when they could, prayed when they couldn't and worked on.

We are losing something, in losing the generations that had those specific struggles. There is something rich and rewarding about being the child of parents who pioneered their own life. Something is lost when children grow up without knowing their grandparents or at least people of that generation. The lessons to be learned from people who survived the Depression, World Wars, immigration or life in a wild place are precious and irreplaceable. But it is more than just the lessons: it is knowing the people who braved those things. We can read the histories, and I can tell my children the stories of their ancestors. That can never be the same thing as hearing the story from the person who lived it. It could never replace the thing that happens to you when you listen to a sweet, smiling, gracious and cheerful old woman as she blesses her life and all that it afforded her, all the while knowing that she lived through hardships no one should have to face.

The history will live on, of course. The stories, and the gift of getting to know the people who made the history happen? We don't have many more opportunities for that. You won't be able to see the look in a man's eyes as he talks about the smell of smoke at Pearl Harbor, or about having met Pretty Boy Floyd. You won't get to have that conversation with a woman who was a war bride and what that really meant for her. You won't see the wistful expression on their faces when they talk about the old neighborhood, or Bubbi's cooking, or growing up by kisses and cuffs.

We will lose the way they used their words, and the look of their work weary hands on the arms of their chairs. We'll lose that gritty laugh (usually at themselves) and the joyful memory of a life well-lived, during a time like no other on our planet.

A First Year of Seasons

Whenever I thought about moving to Montana, one of the things I looked forward to was to see the cycle of all the seasons in their turn here.

I have always enjoyed the seasons of life: the anticipation of the first snow, or warm sun on bare skin, the stages of a child's growing...all those things that bring the thrill of anticipation at the same time as the comfort of having some idea of what to expect.

I've anticipated what living here would mean for me. When do the leaves fall? When do you see the robins building their nests (and crapping all over my porch railing)? When is the right time to start planting, when do you first need to have a fire at night? In our little central Arizona mountain town, we customarily had our first fire of the year on Halloween, so the house smelled of that weird first-fire smell, plus the aroma of roasting pumpkin seeds, underscored by peanut butter cup breath.

I have also been waiting anxiously to see my first fawn of the year. Yesterday, I DID!


This first year in a completely new place is a little bit like a honeymoon phase. There are still a lot of unknowns, still a lot of quirks to be discovered. I expect it will also be like the early years of a marriage in that we will need to learn not to apply expectations to our new home, based on our past relationships. My loved ones in Arizona are about half cooked right now, but I've only had the chance to wear shorts a few times. It's getting close to July and I thought I'd have a tan by now. Montana had other plans. 

And so it is that I am on a honeymoon with my new home. That little dappled bundle of adorableness yesterday reminds me that the whole experience is fresh and new....just like he is.
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My Shaving Cream is Out to Get Me

No, seriously. What is up with shaving cream cans lately?

I don't think I'm getting all Schwarzenegger on my shaving cream can in the shower, but I have had more broken cans of shaving cream in the last year or so than I did for the previous 35 years or so of shaving combined.

The push button breaks and you can't dispense the shaving cream. Or else it does dispense but in any random direction.

The can is still full, but won't dispense at all. Like a car with a completely dead battery: click click click...nothing happens.

Tops that crack, bottoms that rust. I'm starting to feel very frustrated.

Maybe I should just give it up and go for the "natural" look.

Yeah, right. THAT's going to happen.


Father's Day, Francine's Day

There are so many things to think about this Father's Day.

I think about my precious husband, father to our two sons, and what a splendid father he is and always has been. I am so thankful for him, proud of him and still (even after all these years) so very much in love with him. As I sit here, sipping sweet coffee at the table he built, in the house he built, I am always more than a little in awe of his many skills and talents. I also wish he had made this coffee, because he is much better at it than I am. ;-P

Like all married couples should do, we learned from each other over the years. He taught me many trivial bits of practical life information and skills, but more importantly, he taught me about the power of choosing. He chose his life as an adult. He chose his path. And he chose not to allow the lessons of his childhood to be any more than that: lessons. Not a weight, not a drag, not a roadmap...a lesson. I think about the two men who were so influential in my husband's life: his own father, who gave him lessons in work ethics, mechanical things and a lot more, and his Grandpa, who taught him about being meticulous and methodical, about patience and simply being a good man.

Of course, I also think about my own father, gone over 22 years now. He would have loved our place here in Montana and of all the people in my family, I think he is the one who would have "GOT IT" the most. In a way, this little dream is one I inherited directly from him. It isn't surprising that I learned a lot from my dad, but what is surprising is how many of the lessons I learned from him were then reiterated in my marriage. Maybe one of the things that is most special to me about my darling sweet hubs, is that he has so many of the same qualities as my dear father. They each have/had their flaws, like all human beings, but in the final analysis, the flaws don't signify.



And then today would have been my beloved Aunt Francine's birthday. I think she would have been 90 today,  Ah, Auntie. How I miss you! She was the patient, upbeat, comical voice of acceptance and approval all through my life. She was one of the bravest people I have ever known, and one of the strongest.

I think about the troubled times we live in, and about the many fathers who lost children and children who lost a father. I am blessed that I got to keep my Dad for so long, even though it wasn't long enough, and doubly blessed that I found in my loving husband a man worthy of being that very special person to our children: their Dad.

Yeast: The Smallest of Wonders

I mentioned in my last blog post that I wanted to try to capture some wild yeast with which to make a loaf of bread. SO very early in the morning, before the yeast bedded down for the day, I put on my camos, and got out my snares and my skinning knife, and I took to the woods.

OK, I admit it didn't take camos, a knife or a snare. Or the wilderness before dawn. It took a bowl, a cup of flour and a cup of chlorine-free water: well water. I mixed up the flour and water a bit, and set the bowl outside on the picnic table. After a while, I covered it with a towel. Had I caught any yeast? Well, my eyes aren't that good anymore, so I couldn't see any. (har har har...I crack me up.) It just so happens I DID have some yeast. Yes! Some wild, cage free, woodsy little Montana yeast!

But then, what would they be like? How would they behave? The only way to find that out was to take some of that yeasty starter and make bread, so that's what I did. I had never baked bread with this particular strain of yeast, or without using at least some commercially-prepared yeast, so I didn't know what to expect. Also, I am not much of a recipe kind of girl and I cook by smell and appearance, etc., as much as anything. My wild yeast definitely smelled different than Red Star active dry.

Hmmmm. My kitchen took on an odd, slightly tangy smell between the days of the starter perking and the long, long rise times that the bread dough needed. Sourdough starters I had made in the past had a sort of alcoholic smell to them, but this was very different. I was starting to have doubts.

Last night before bed, I shaped my bread dough into 2 loaves, covered them and left them to rise overnight. This morning, they had barely risen, it seemed, but I was losing patience so I baked them up anyway. Believe it or not I got a glorious case of oven spring and got actual, honest-to-goodness, completely delicious bread that was light (even for a whole wheat bread and that ain't no easy trick!), smelled fabulous, wonderfully sour with a crisp-chewy crust and a lovely crumb. I should have taken a picture before I gobbled it down.

I learned a few things from my first foray into this most elemental form of gathering.

  • I think I should have left the bowl uncovered out in the open air for longer. I don't think I captured a very big herd of little wild yeasties. Yes, they reproduce and you end up with more yeast than you started with, but that takes time and time adds more sourness to sourdough starter.
  • A warmer place for the starter to start and for the dough to rise would have been better. It's fine for a bread dough (especially one like this which is only flour, water, salt and yeast) to hang around for a long time: this helps to develop the gluten, due to the glutenin and gliadin having lots of time to hook up and make little baby gluten, and of course gluten is what gives bread its structure and bounce. I'm rambling. What I mean is, I think this all took rather longer than it needed to because my kitchen is chilly. I'm half freezing typing this. 
  • I think next time, I will throw just a bit of baking powder and baking soda in the dough, to give it that extra spring in the oven. What this bread did NOT need was anything else. It did not need fat or sweetener, eggs or cheese or anything else added to the dough. This was a bread that could fully stand on its own and needed no help. A little smear of good butter on the slice is different matter, of course.
  • A loaf pan was the wrong choice for this humble, earthy sort of bread. I should have just let it be a free-form loaf, baked on cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal. Or maybe baked in a shallow bowl. 
  • Leaving the crust bare when I threw the loaves in the oven was just right. I might normally have used an egg wash, or brushed the crust with cream. For this maiden loaf, though, I wanted to see what I would get in its purest, most naked form. Naked, in this case, was just beautiful. The crust was thin, crisp, with a hint of chewiness that added something extra special to the whole business.
  • There is something really.... seriously.... profoundly humbling about this process. Who was that great-great-great(to the 10th power) grandmother who figured this out? Here I am, telling you on the freaking INTERNET for sweet fancy Moses' sake, about my attempt at doing something that people have been doing since they were still hunting mammoth. Think about that. This incredibly ancient skill that some brilliant opportunist had the ingenuity to recognize and capitalize on, which changed our world and our species forever. And I can do it, too. 
  • Then there is the yeast itself. A tiny little single-celled fungus which has the transformative powers to turn something that is inedible into something that is nutritious, delicious and beautiful. A single cell that can accomplish something as grand as that. Makes me wonder what is holding ME back. 









An Omnivore's Contentment

I just finished reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. It was published in 2006, so I am (typically) tardy in discovering it. This was a very interesting read, in my opinion, and much of what the author puts forth in this volume fits right in with my own thoughts about what it means to feed our family.

The book is a "natural history of four meals" and one of those meals is basically the meal of a hunter-gatherer. Near the end of the book, Mr. Pollan writes about what it means to hunt, gather and prepare food in this way, and what he said resonated with me.

If you have been reading my blog for any time, you will know that we have long been a hunting family. We have usually had a garden, have raised chickens, turkey and beef for our own table. In short, we have never been a fast-food family. Mr. Pollan touches on the fact that  such "slow food" has a great personal significance for the cook (and hopefully the diner, too).

There have been many times over the years that we sat down to a dinner consisting of meat, vegetables and bread that each took important labor on our part to obtain.

Meat. Yes. One of us killed it. Somebody killed your steak, too, of course. But when we sit down to a piece of meat on the plate at my house, we are looking at an individual animal which has an identity to at least one of us. It may be the deer that my sweet hubs hiked 16 miles into the wilderness area to hunt, and packed back ON HIS BACK that same distance out. It may be a bit of a heifer we raised, or a turkey we have pictures of when it was alive and strolling about the back yard. Whatever it was, it was not a feedlot-finished, mass-produced, antibiotic- and hormone-laden mass market animal. And that isn't all there is to it. We cleaned it. Whether it had to be skinned or plucked, it's a messy job, no matter what. Most of the time, we also butchered it and packaged it, too. If we're having corned elk roast, I corned it. If we're having chorizo and eggs, we made the chorizo.

Vegetables. We have almost always had a garden, so we have grown a fair amount of our own vegetables. There were times when we had a really big garden and ate from our own patch for at least half the year. We also can, pickle and freeze.

Bread. I've been happily making bread for my family for 30 years. I don't make ALL the bread we eat, though in a perfect world I would love to do that. While we have never grown the grain, or even ground the wheat to make our bread, we do have some notion of the labor involved in putting a buttered slice of this most basic food on the table. My next project in bread making is going to be to try to capture some wild Montana yeast and see what I get.

Those three paragraphs make it sound like a lot of work to get dinner on the table, don't they? Well, it is. It is a lot of work; in many homes it is work done by others, and I get enormous satisfaction out of knowing that WE did so much of that work. It wasn't all accomplished by some faceless industrial machine, by teenagers with shiny foreheads standing over a fryer or someone dumping feed onto a conveyor belt. We aren't the homesteader types, although we do possess a lot of the skills that homesteaders have. We are on the grid, employed outside the home, our kids went to public school and drove cars and we don't go to church. We don't hunt and garden and bake because we want to make a point to Monsanto (exactly). We have learned that we each get a great satisfaction out of being personally involved in obtaining what we eat. We like knowing how our meat was processed, what it ate, etc. We like knowing exactly what is in the apple butter. We LIKE it that the bread can actually get moldy if not eaten within a few days.

More than all of that, it is satisfying to me on a deep, almost visceral level, to feed people I care about. To put my own energy and creativity into trying to make something that will please their palate, nourish their body, support their health and fill their tummy. It is an expression of love and caring. It is also personally rewarding because it does something that my paying job does not do: it yields a visible result for my efforts.

When I finish a long day at work, crunching those numbers or whatever, nothing looks different. You can't stand back and say, "see what she did!". But when I spend the time baking, canning, pickling or butchering, I can SEE what I did. There it is: my hard work in neat rows of jars or tucked in the freezer or sitting pretty on the cutting board. I can take a picture of what I accomplished. This reaches down to the most basic level of being a contributing human being, and is profoundly gratifying.

And that is what Michael Pollan was saying near then end of his book. That to stand back and see the meal in front of you, and to really know what went into getting it on the table, and to be personally responsible for a large part of it being there, is not only enriching, it is powerful and ultimately human.