"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sweet-tooth's Survival Manual

I used to wonder what would happen if the connection to the grocery store was broken and my family was forced to survive on its ownEarlier this summer we picked up our household and moved to Oregon to find out.

We’ve only lived in our new home for a few months, but every day I marvel at the way the earth provides. At the risk of seeming boastful, I just need to share.

July was blueberry season. A neighbor showed me how to cut gallon milk jugs into picking tubs with a length of clothesline looped through the handle. I hung one around the necks of my two granddaughters and we picked until our lips were purple. We bagged them in gallon freezer bags for winter smoothies. We made freezer jam and gave a lot to friends because it was just too fun to stop picking! (The girls are two and five so the thornless bushes were a big hit.) Full disclosure--their mom and dad helped.

 In late July the wretched brambles that cover the countryside came alive with temporary recompense for their annoying existence. Everywhere I looked I found Himalayan blackberries just begging to be picked. Even though they sport life-threatening thorns, the bushes hung across the road, along the creeks and rivers, juicy berries sweet enough I didn’t need to add sugar to my pies. I started waking at 6:00 A.M. so I would head out to the meadow and fill my jugs with fresh berries for breakfast.

Every time I walked down to get my mail the letters came home stained with berry juice because I couldn’t resist. My fingernails were stained berry blue for a solid month and there was nothing I could do about it. (If there’s a way to pick berries in gloves, I haven’t found it yet.)

By the time I got my hands bleached, the peach tree in the orchard threatened to split under the weight of its bounty. The week we arrived we propped the limbs and thinned the fruit and we probably saved the poor mother-trunk's scrawny life.

By mid-July I peeled the skin off a peach with my teeth and ate it in three bites.

I picked the tree clean in slow stages every time a new batch ripened, an obsessive-compulsive activity that replaced writing for the entire summer. Finally I left a few for the birds and hornets and spread the last batch out on the patio to ripen. And on Canning Day I processed every pint jar I owned with peaches and made the rest into freezer jam.

Praise the synchronicity of nature. God must indeed be a woman because everything came ripe in stages. 

By mid September the apples and pears in our orchard began dropping. My tree didn’t have many, but I found enough abandoned apple trees to make wonderful sunshine-yellow applesauce with a combination of apples that needed just a hint of cinnamon.

I used one of those hand-crank peelers on another ten pounds and fried them in a skillet with a half-cup of brown sugar, a half cube of butter and a shake (more or less) of 6 different spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pumpkin pie spice, allspice, cloves. Easy-peasy side dish for a Sunday pork roast. I froze most of the ringlets in baggies for future roasts.

 Big discovery—pear sauce is better than applesauce! When I ran out of jars, I quartered and peeled  ten pounds of pears and boiled them in two cups water until soft (covered pan), then tossed in a handful of brown sugar and some cinnamon and while still hot, smashed the fruit with a potato masher. To die for.  When it was cool I ladled the sauce into small baggies and froze them flat on a cookie sheet. After they were frozen I slipped them into one gallon-size freezer bag for frost protection. This way I don’t have a dozen small bags sliding around the freezer.

The beauty of using the land’s bounty is that you can slap-dash bake without worrying about “ruining” the recipe. I mean, have you ever tasted a pie you didn’t like? It it’s too sour, add ice cream. If it’s runny, so much the better. If it’s too thick, well, some people prefer it that way. I’m a lazy cook, but I have fun. As the oldest daughter in a family of nine hungry mouths, I learned early that you can’t mess up dessert. It just isn’t possible!

Here’s a couple of no-fail recipes—

Fruit crisp—fill a square or rectangular baking dish with small pieces of fruit. (smaller is better than quartered fruit. Berries can be left whole.) For the small dish, add a cup or so of water, a little (1 tsp.) cornstarch, a quarter-cup sugar and boil until it reaches z full boil. Don't worry if it's not thick. Double for the larger pan. Stir into the fruit. For the topping—equal parts flour, brown sugar and quick oats and ½ cube of cold butter, crumbled along with the dry ingredients. Don’t worry about the calories because you can’t make it crumble without the butter. I add a dash of salt and some cinnamon. Bake until the juice bubbles and the top is brown.

I add left-over pancake batter (gluten free) to a baking dish of cut up fruit and bake it with raisins, nuts and a little brown sugar for 30 minutes or until thick. I love it for tea or breakfast. My grandfather used to pour cream over his.    

Now my counters are lined with pint jars filled with fruit that I got for nothing. (Truth, I bought a few packages of Ball jar lids and a 5-lb. bag of organic sugar for the canned pears because they were a little tart.) Oh, and a few dozen more pint jars, but that's an investment, not an expense.    

As I write, the grapes in my vineyard are getting sweeter by the day. I have no idea what kind they are, purple with seeds, but they'll make juice for winter breakfasts until I learn how to make wine. All I have to do is steam, strain and squeeze.  It’s walnut season. I’ve collected a 50-lb. sack filled with English walnuts and I’m going to spend my evenings in the patio cracking them. In a wet-wood pinch I can use the cracked shells for firestarter--just mix with some dryer lint and a little glue and place in individual egg carton sections. My sister gave me the idea.   

My mom sent me instructions. I’m collecting acorns and I’m going to be making acorn meal as soon as I pick up enough. They stay around because we don't have much competition from squirrels, only the rain.  

My husband's a hunter. The Canadian geese are starting to land in the pasture. The wild turkeys march across the lawn and fill their gullets with our crickets so I feel entitled to one of them when it’s time to think about Thanksgiving. Five does and a couple of bucks have spent the summer stripping everything they could reach from the fruit trees. They wait while I shake the apples from the tree and eat everything I don’t bag, including the trimmings from the peeled fruit. We’ll be having venison for the holidays.

So this is what I’ve gleaned off the land so far. Do I feel better about the end of the world? You better believe I do. If I have to, I can survive on jelly and fruit. I’m waiting to see what the next season brings. I picked up a pinecone to harvest the nuts, but most of them were already open. I got there too late for pine nuts this year, but there’s still firewood in the woods for the taking. And in the spring I’ll find the best spots for miner’s lettuce. 

Anybody else out there a survivalist tiger? Do share.