Saturday, November 22, 2014

It's All About the Weather

Does anyone remember those days when you left home completely oblivious to what the weather had in store?  Not only didn't we have second-by-second reporting and predicting, we really didn't give a hoot - because we were invincible!  Thinking you're invincible tends to kick you in your not so invincible butt - but (or butt if you want) thinking you're invincible is such a grand ride unless you crash.  Most of us didn't crash to the point of elimination but most of us did crash enough to learn a few lessons along the way.  The weather lesson is one of them.  I do think you must be a geezer to really embrace the weather lesson fully.  And with that bit of pondering over, let's talk about today's weather:

We've had an early and very cold spell setting records here in Illinois.  Those poor folks in NY have frozen their off brand tomato sauce and shared some really awesome and frightening photos.  Today it's warmed up and we're getting some significant rain.  To this we will see a flood (pun intended) of complaints over it being gray and wet.  At that point I want to say, "REALLY do you not understand rain in the late fall is a good thing?"  Here's the deal from the weather geezer (and don't call me that to my face - thank you.)

Plants need - I mean really need - lots of rain in the fall to take them through the winter.  Especially in summers where we have edged towards drought conditions.  Trees are especially needy.  Occasionally they're temperamental but in the fall they are just plain needy.  To survive the cold blowing wind, they must take in enough water.  This is especially true of trees and bushes that don't loose their leaves in the winter.

If the ground is not deeply frozen, the rain will be beneficial to all your plants.  Rejoice you aren't out there watering or watching a treasured perennial die from lack of moisture.  Celebrate the gray of the day and be glad it's not in the form of snow or ice.  We'll see enough of that before winter's finished with us - trust the geezer weather forecaster on this one.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pie in the Sky

From an old recipe book
I was raised in a farm family where we had homemade pie three times a day – sometimes more.  It was so commonplace; once I left home I figured I’d be all right without pie the rest of my life.  I then learned what I had taken for granted was actually, "My mom made the best pie I had ever tasted."  And she did this every week.  

Most of us are familiar with traditional fruit pies:  cherry, raspberry, apple, and the like.  What we don’t normally think of is the old pioneer pies.  They were pies made from what was available when you had to rely on locally grown food or starve.

Pioneer women were geniuses at turning everything this side of poison into foodstuff.  I sometimes wonder about the poor person who tried new things and realized too late “No, we shouldn’t make a salad from that funny three leafed green vine.”  But, back to pies: 

As our taste buds are manipulated by processed foods, we become ill at ease when diving into an unusual ingredient.  As generations move away from gathering and preserving and more into grab and go, these pioneer recipes get lost or are only a collector’s item. 

Some of the ingredients for pioneer pies may be hard to find in the grocery freezer section.   But as gardeners, we may be exposed to some delicious options right in our own back yards.  And our pioneer grandmothers were experts at unusual flavoring to enhance the most mundane of garden produce.

I thought of all this after reading an old version of the “Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook”.  Not only are there ingredients we should perhaps consider again, there’s history of how women had to cook.  When recipes call for lard, heavy cream and forty-five steps, you know providing meals for a family was more involved than the freezer section of the nearest quick stop.

Crab Apple flowers
Old recipes also tell much about where those pioneer families migrated.  Old house yards often tell the same.  Since my home was build by Bishop Hill Swede, Edwin Hedlin, I wasn’t surprised to find currents growing in the woods.

Most families (both farm and city) had their own fruit trees such as applies, cherries, peach, pear, apricots and plum.  Included were patches of grapes, strawberries, rhubarb, and berry bushes.  These ingredients were preserved for use all year.

This old cookbook has recipes for pies made with:  grapes, boysenberries, gooseberries, plums, crab apples, cranberries, burgundy berries, sweet potatoes, dates, elderberries, pears, black walnuts and mulberries.

In those few instances where imported ingredients were available, pies were made with oranges, pineapples, bananas, lemons, coconut, chocolate, limes and exotic seasonings.   These items are so easily accessed today we forget they weren’t typically part of pioneer cooking.

Walnuts holding tight
For the woman who knew how to make a perfect piecrust, it immediately became a receptacle for savory pie ingredients as well:  beef mincemeat, fish, rabbit, cheese, onion, tomatoes, foul (both domestic and wild), pork, and of course eggs.  Custards and meringues were essential to pioneer pie making.

Farmers had their own milk and city folk had delivery.  No one would have dreamed of not using the butter, cream, buttermilk, and cottage cheese from fresh milk. No hardy working family would have considered not topping their fruit pie with a wonderful ingredient such as cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, cream, ice cream, sweet custard meringue, or caramel.   

Current bush blooming
Because sugar might not be available all the time, Midwest housewives used molasses, sorghum and honey in many recipes including pie.  These sweeteners provided a deep richness.  All these are gleaned from the land.  Seasonings such as vinegar and mints were used when expensive imported seasonings were not available.

I won’t lie, pioneer pie recipes are not quick or easy to accomplish.  I won’t lie, they are perhaps the best bite of pure joy you will ever give yourself.  Rich, hardy, and decadent from an era when food, even pie, was meant to “stick to the ribs.”