Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter 19

May 16th --I think for the first time in a long time I’m starting to do what Daddy always talked about, “Work smarter, not harder.” He also used to say, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.” That’s the way I want to be. I feel really, really good - like something has changed. I’m happening to life, not just life happening to me.

Before I went to bed last night I washed and laid out all of the stuff I would need for today. There was the big speckleware canning pot and the jar rack that fit down inside it; several pails of water (so that it wouldn’t be as cold as when it came out of the pump and take more wood to heat up); a couple of cases of pint jars, rings, and seals; a pound and ounce food scale; a jar funnel made just for canning; a jar lifter, a timer, big glass mixing bowls, a pitcher and several wooden spoons. I even put a bib apron out like we used to wear at the diner.

I was so excited this morning that I didn’t even mind Fraidy the Alarm Cat going off so that she could get her water dish. I jumped up and got my morning chores done real quick. The cows aren’t inhaling the grass as fast as I can throw it over so I hope that means they are learning that it’ll be there and they aren’t starving quite so bad any more.

I needed to wait for some of the dew to dry before I started to pick the berries, but I couldn’t wait until it got too hot, so I hurried up and built the fire pit. I used the hole I keep dug out but I added a layer of bricks around the hole like a ring. Daddy had kept all the extra bricks that weren’t used on the exterior of the house – they are solid Georgia brick and should hold up to being around a fire better than cinder blocks would. Daddy had also kept the heavy rebar grate that we used on our fire ring when we were building the house. That thing is heavy (and dirty) and I had to roll it from the barn to the back of the house because it was too heavy for me to carry very far. After I got the ring of bricks leveled out I removed a brick on each side so that I could add wood to the fire without have to move the grate and to give the fire air … not enough air, not enough fire.

The grate was way bigger than I needed for the canner but I just centered everything to make best use of it since I didn’t have anything better. It didn’t hurt anything and it gave me room to put a coffee pot of water on the outside to heat up water with. I also set up a hard topped card table with some towels on it so I would have a workspace outside so I wouldn’t have to keep running in and out. I threw some extra towels in a plastic lounge chair nearby so they’d be handy when I needed them.

I started the fire and then let it burn down so that the flames wouldn’t touch the bottom of the canner … I wanted heat, not necessarily flame, just like when I was cooking the beans. Then I put the canner on and filled it half full of water to let the water start heating up. I’m glad I started it when I did and next time I’ll know I can’t have the canner so far from the coals ‘cause it took longer to heat the water than I planned and I got ahead of myself in some of the other jobs.

From there I grabbed a bucket and ran out to the orchard where I picked a mess of ripe blueberries. It only took me a couple of bushes before my bucket was full. I took them back to house only to find the water in the canner was nowhere near warm enough yet. I set the berries in the relative cool of the summer kitchen and then went back for more berries. After three loads of berries the water was still just barely simmering so I stuck some more wood down into the fire and I figured by the time I finished preparing the berries the water should be hot enough.

I remembered just in time that I would need to get my jars hot even though they were already clean so I used the jar lifter to put them down in the canner to heat up while I fixed what was going to go in them. The problem for me was that a lot of Momma’s canning recipes call for a lot of white sugar. There are some that use honey but not a lot of them. Looking at my inventory sheets last night I tallied up that, between what was in the stuff Daddy bought and the stuff Momma canned plus what I found and what I earned, I have about two hundred pounds of white sugar. That sounds like a whole lot only Momma’s notes say that a pound of sugar only has two cups in it. When you look at it like that, and read how much sugar it takes to can stuff, that isn’t much sugar at all. So for my first try at canning I decided to use a recipe that didn’t require any sugar.

I washed and picked over the first bucket of berries and then measured eight pounds using Momma’s scale. I dipped out a pitcher of the now boiling water and poured it into another pot that I carefully put the eight pounds of berries into. I left them in the water for 30 seconds. I started hauling the jars out of the canner as quick as I could and dumping the boiling water back into the canner and sitting them on the towel on the card table. I had my seals and rings in a mesh bag that I set into the boiling canner at that point.

Using the jar funnel I filled each pint jar with berries, leaving what is called “head space” of one-half inch. That means that I filled the jars full but left a half-inch empty space at the top. Then, using the water I had boiled the berries in, I filled each jar with the purplish water up to the same half-inch mark, making sure to wipe any drips off the jar rim when I moved the funnel to the next jar. When all the hot jars were filled with hot berries and hot liquid, I drew the mesh bag out of the canner and dumped the contents on my work surface. I had to move quick cause those rings and lids burnt my fingers. I put a sealing lid on a jar with the gummed side down and then put a screw ring over that and tightened it down.

Next I used the jar lifter to set the pint jars down into the canner. Momma’s notes said not to pack the jars too tight or they would knock against each other and crack while they were boiling. The canner I was using was Momma’s smaller one and it holds nine pints which was good because that’s how big the first batch of berries were. I had to add a little more water from the coffee pot to make sure that the water covered the top of the jars plus one extra inch. I put the lid on the canner and then had to wait until it came back to a boil. While I was waiting on that to happen I got the next batch of berries ready. Once the water in the canner was boiling … not fake boiling where you only see oxygen bubbles but real boiling that makes the top of the water move around real strong … I set the timer for 15 minutes.

Today I got four batches of berries done and I am pooped. You wouldn’t think it was so much work … Momma always made it look so easy. The first two batches I made like I just described, then next batch was blueberry pie filling (that used three cups of sugar to get five pints of filling), and the last batch was blueberry preserves.

The blueberry preserves were really easy to make too. It was five cups of blueberries, two teaspoons of cider vinegar, two and a quarter cups of sugar, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, half a teaspoon of ground allspice, and a quarter teaspoon of ground cloves. Cook everything together until it thickens. Then ladle into jars and go process in the canner same as with everything else. The recipe only made five half-pints but the work was worth it.

Momma always said she liked making preserves better than jelly ‘cause it was less work, less mess, less waste. I remember one summer vacation her and my aunt making these on my grandfather’s farm. When all the jars for a bath were fixed and there was a small piece of a jar left, it would be given to us kids to spread on my grandmother’s homemade biscuits. Yum, yum. I felt good about accomplishing stuff today but I remember when the family was all together it was so much fun. Aunt Wilma and Uncle Charlie were always too busy to do stuff like that and too out of touch with the rest of the family. I guess that one of the reasons that I like Rand’s family so much is they really seem like a family and not just a bunch of people living under the same roof.

I did find out that preparing to can is half the battle so tonight I cleaned everything back up and laid it out for tomorrow. I don’t think I did half bad. I haven’t had much time to do anything else today but can and gather wood; keeping that fire going takes more than I imagined.

As each batch came out of the canner I set it on towels in the kitchen and then laid a towel over the top of the jars too. Momma said that was to prevent a stray breeze doing something to the jars it wasn’t supposed to. I’m not sure if that is an old wives’ tale or not but I followed Momma’s written instructions to the letter just to be sure. As the jars sealed some of them would make this neat “pop” sound. And tonight I used a permanent marker to label and date all of the jars. I can’t put them away until they cool and that won’t be until tomorrow. I’m only waiting on one jar of preserves to seal and if it doesn’t I’ll just keep that one and eat it myself with peanut butter for my lunches.

It came to me while I was making the preserves that I’m missing an important piece of the puzzle for me. I don’t know how much of everything to try and can. I’ve got a lot of jars and lids, but how many of them do I use to can different things. One way I thought about it is that there are 52 weeks in a year, if I have blueberries once a week then I need to fix 52 jars. Right now I have 18 pints of whole blueberries, 5 pints of blueberry pie filling, and 5 half-pints of blueberry preserves. That’s 28 jars which means I still need 24 jars of blueberry stuff. I think I want more blueberry pie filling and more blueberry preserves too but the whole blueberries use less sugar. I want to can blueberry juice too because I like to make blueberry lemonade. Blueberry syrup would come in handy for drizzling over biscuits or pancakes but I have to draw the line some place.

And on top of that I have to figure out if I have enough blueberries to do what I want to do. Momma and I planted twenty blueberry bushes but only sixteen of them have survived because I wasn’t here regularly enough to take care of them the way they needed. Momma tested the soil all over until she found just the right place to put the blueberries. I need to read Momma’s notes again. There is some special blueberry fertilizer in the shed but I don’t know what to do when that runs out.

Now if I’m understanding Momma’s notes I should be getting about five pounds of berries per blueberry bush. Sixteen bushes times five pounds means that I should have ninety pounds of berries or thereabouts when all is said and done. I figure I probably used 24 or 25 pounds up today … I think. And there are still tons of berries out there. I’m afraid they’ll go to waste before I can get them all preserved. Some are already falling on the ground which is gonna draw mice and rats if I don’t hurry up.

After thinking about it, tomorrow I am going to can five more pints of blueberry pie filling, five more half-pints of blueberry preserves, six pints of blueberry syrup, and if there is any time left I will make blueberry juice. I’m also going to have to build a second fire ring so that I can cook the stuff that is going into the jars; it was too crazy trying to cook over a single fire today.

If I had a refrigerator I could spend one day picking berries and the next day canning them instead of having to pick them for each individual batch. The few that I picked this morning that didn’t get used are already mushy so I mixed them in with some cornbread mix and had cornmeal flapjacks for dinner.

Gee whiz, Fraidy just started crying at the window and she scared me to death. I nearly fell off the window seat. I didn’t know what was going on until I heard a coyote and then a couple of others join in. My cat isn’t stupid; she knows who’ll keep those big ol’ mean coyotes from snacking on her. As soon as I got the screen out and the shutters open she shimmied in and ran over to my dad’s bench and crawled under it. I hope she doesn’t make a mess again.

It’s my bedtime anyway. The sun has been down almost half an hour and I want to get up before first light so I can get ready and get the cows fed early.

May 17th – Terrible start to this day and a rough ending. Fraidy woke me up walking all over my head telling me she wanted out. I let her out the window and shutter and was tempted to go back to bed but I could hear the birds waking up so knew that was a no go. Morning chores were fine and I didn’t even have to make breakfast because there were left over flapjacks for me to nibble on and all I wanted to drink was water.

Everything was fine until I went out to feed the cows and found only six of them; the carcass of the seventh was visible over in some leafless and dead bushes. I don’t think coyotes did it. The belly area was all hollowed out so it was probably the dogs again. I am so mad. There wasn’t anything I could do. God will use it to feed other, smaller creatures but I just wished that I could save the cows that were left. I even prayed about it but I’m not too sure I’m happy with the answer I got.

I went back to canning and got the preserves, syrups, and pie filling done and was picking more berries when I heard the cows making a whole bunch of noise. I grabbed the rifle … who knows what I thought I was going to do with it but it seemed like the right thing to do … and go running to try and save “my” cows. There were men there on horses herding them away from the watering hole. They were poking them and shoving them ‘cause they didn’t want to go. Six men to one of me, even being upset I knew that wasn’t good odds. Then I heard one of the men shout, “Mr. Henderson! You want us to do anything with this carcass? It looks fairly fresh!”

A man who looked to be a little older than Uncle George rode up on a big black horse and said, “Bring the wagon around, we’ll give it to Peters for tanning.”

So I figured I had to be looking at the Henderson man that Rand told me about. He was smart too because he rode up to where you could tell I’d been feeding the cows but he was slow and watchful. That’s when I stepped out of the bushes. He didn’t even jump but his horse jingled around a little bit. He got more careful as he looked at me … not like I was dangerous careful but like he was gonna handle me careful. All I did was stand there.

“You been feeding them?”

“Yes sir.”

“Are they yours?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that one but I had to be honest or get in trouble. “Not really.”

“Then why were you feeding them?”

“’Cause they were hungry and pitiful and a little grass and palmettos wasn’t going to hurt me any.”

He smiled a bit and said, “You may look like your momma but you are your daddy on the inside ain’t ya girl?”

That shocked me and he said, “Yes, I knew your folks. They bought this land from my brother. I was sorry to hear of their passing. Your aunt and uncle about?”

I knew I was treading on dangerous water here. “No sir.” But that is all I said and kept my mouth shut.

“Hmm. Like that is it? You be careful, Julia Winston has run her mouth a bit. I heard it from my granddaughter that Rand Joiner was helping ‘a little girl and her family’ over this way.”

It took a lot for me not to spout off about who was she to call me a little girl when she wasn’t but a couple of years older than me but I just gritted my teeth. Mr. Henderson spit from where he’d dipped some snuff and winked at me like he knew exactly what I was thinking.

“You know these cows need to be looked after better?”

Again, what was I supposed to say? “Yes, sir.” Then I got my courage up and asked, “Can you keep the dogs from getting them?”

Mr. Henderson scrunched up his face like he was thinking and then asked me, “What dogs?”

“There’s a pack that has been getting to them. There used to be ten but sometimes when I come out in the morning there is one less. I feed them but a cow can’t protect itself against two dozen big dogs and I don’t think I can either.”

“How do you know it’s dogs and not something else?”

I went on to tell him how I’ve watched them come across the field in the early morning hours and the direction they go and how I found one less cow this morning and he could see what it looked like. Then I asked him again if he could keep the dogs away.

“No dogs get my cattle … and no girl, you can get that look off your face, we ain’t gonna eat them either. They’re too scrawny right now and besides they’re dairy cows not beef cattle. We need more breeding heifers.”

I watched them lead the cows away and then Mr. Henderson left telling me to not wander around loose because he could vouch for his men and their morals but there was some in town he couldn’t. He also told me to make sure I locked my doors and windows at night. I got the message, it was the same thing that Rand told me … behave and be careful and stay out of trouble. I swear, I’m sixteen not six. But I guess they mean well … I have to figure people like Mr. Henderson aren’t comfortable with a sixteen year old girl raising herself but are independent enough themselves to let me try and prove myself. Whatcha wanna bet though somebody from the Henderson place checks up on me every so often now.

Stupid cows. There was no reason for me to cry about them but I cried like a baby while I picked a bunch of blueberries to make juice with.

It’s a good thing making blueberry juice is so simple or I probably would have made a huge mess. You just put the blueberries in a pot, cover them with water and cook them just below the boiling point … the way you do when you are heating milk on the stove top … for thirty minutes. Then I poured the berries into Momma’s jelly bag and the juice dripped through the colander and was caught in another pot. For every gallon of juice I made I added a cup of sugar and heated it until the sugar was dissolved then poured it into pint jars and canned it the same way I had everything else. I wound up with two gallons of juice or eight pints.

I had settled down and had all the jars put inside and was cleaning up my mess for the day when I jiggled when I should have joggled and really hot water came splashing out of the canner before I could get out of the way. I got a lot on my left foot, some on my pants and a good splash on my left hand. Man oh man I was hopping and around and kicking off my shoe and skinning out of my pants right there in the yard. Mmm mmm mmm, talk about stinging bad. Then I ran to the bucket of water that I keep handy when I’ve got a fire going and just stuck my whole foot and hand in it until the burning stopped.

I suppose it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been and at least there wasn’t anyone around to see me strip right out in the open like that. My foot and leg aren’t even red anymore; my hand seems to have gotten the worst of it. The top of my hand has all these tiny blisters on it. I wrapped some gauze around it because the first aid book said not to use any cream or anything but gee whiz I sure do wish I dared to use some of that burn cream that was in the kit. My hand is itching like crazy where the baby blisters are touching the gauze. I also took some ibuprofen since the first aid book said that would help.

It was a stupid accident and I didn’t mean it to happen, but I suppose most accidents are like that otherwise they wouldn’t be called accidents they would be called something else. It was slow going making sure everything was clean up after that. How I’m supposed to can tomorrow I don’t know.

May 18th – I’m getting a little sick of blueberries. I know I shouldn’t be but I am. For every bucketful that I pick there seems to be a hundred more still on the bushes. I made sixteen more pints of blueberry juice and canned nine more pints of plain berries. Not much more to say. Hit my hand picking up wood and I nearly said a curse word. Had to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” loud enough that I could stop myself from even thinking one. I’m sure the birds watching me dance around thought it was being silly but it helped me feel better.

Saying cuss words – and I confess that I’ve said a few – always makes me feel so guilty. I heard Daddy say a couple every so often but never when he thought brother or I were around and always under his breath like he didn’t want people hearing him say them. I never heard Momma say a curse word at all … I can’t even remember her saying “dang” or “shoot.” Mr. Henderson is right; I may look like Momma on the outside but I’m not near as sweet on the inside. I know I should work on that but I’m not sure right now is the time to do it.

May 19th – If I never seen another ding blasted blueberry it will be too soon. I’m being ungrateful. I know I should feel blessed to have all these berries but it’s like some bottomless basket; every time I think I’m coming to the end of them the next day there are more and more and more. And I can’t just let them go to waste. Every time I get tempted to I hear Daddy saying, “Waste not, want not. I taught my little black-headed baby better than that.”

That’s what Daddy used to call me, his “little black-headed baby.” He called Momma “Punkin.” He used to call my brother “Shadow” or “Barnacle” depending on how close he was trying to follow Daddy around. I can still hear Daddy’s voice, Momma’s not so much. Momma was more soft spoken and sweet. I don’t guess I’ll ever stop missing them.

Today I made another 18 pints of juice and 18 pints of plain berries and I am calling myself done. Tomorrow is the farmer’s market and I’m going to take two big buckets to see if I can trade them or … heck, I’ll give them away if someone looks hungry enough. If I don’t have enough berries canned from all the work this week it’s not for lack of trying. I only have me to feed after all.

I’ll get up early – I can’t believe I still miss those stupid cows; all they did was cause me work – pick two buckets of berries and then walk back towards town. My hand doesn’t hurt as much so it shouldn’t be a problem. The farmer’s market isn’t actually in town but in the parking lot of an old strip center right on the city limits … the center of town is a mess. For sure I’m glad I don’t have to walk any further than the city limit sign.

I found another place I need to weave in some potato vines. A small pine tree died and it dropped its needles to the ground suffocating the grass underneath. Now there is a bare patch that is thin enough to easily get through. If it wasn’t so close to the house I would just let it fill in naturally but from the road you can now see the barn and that defeats the whole purpose of the other lattice I built.

Fraidy opted to stay inside again tonight. Wonder if she knows something I don’t?

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