Posts Tagged ‘Speckled Sussex’

Tuesday, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

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Saturday, October 1:

The weather is unseasonably cold today; if the temperature has risen above fifty degrees, we couldn’t tell. The men who were working outside wore lined jackets all day; S-3, who was mowing at the TOR’s, came in shivering, and with his fingers still clenched as they had been on the steering wheel of the Sisters’ Kubota. S-4 finished building the cages for broody hens which are now installed in the chicken palace. There being no broody hens at present, we have put in them a dozen of the young pullets — the replacements for the Speckled Sussex pullets slaughtered over the summer by our marauding fox – to keep them out of the way of aggressive Rhode Island Reds, but let them get used to thinking of the hen house as home.

The last planting of green beans – made in July with the beautiful Sarah (one of our nieces from Illinois) – is justifying itself, and we have canned nineteen and a half quarts, with buckets more to process when the Sabbath is past. These late plants are just beautiful, vigorous, and with far higher germination than the early and mid-season plantings. They are also much less bothered by our unwelcome visitors from the south, the Mexican bean beetles, which have left only skeletons of leaves on the old bean plants. These we have pulled up, and fed with vindictive pleasure to the ever-hungry pigs; but the July beans, although they have a few beetles on them, are so thick and flourishing it is hard to find where to put your foot as you wade in to pick them.

They are also, we take this occaision to admit, a living evidence of the axiom that a single moment of carelessness may be redeemable only by hours, months, or even years of hard labor. We have the truth of this rule before us in palpable form more often than Mamma, who is its most devoted acolyte, likes to admit. This year, for example, our sauce-making and salsa-making, and we make gallons and gallons of sauce and salsa, have taken more than the normal amount of time due to the fact that, somehow, the tomato plants we started in the greenhouse this year were not, as Mamma planned and expected, Romas and beefsteaks, but romas and cherry tomatoes. Just try peeling and seeding cherry tomatoes by the five-gallon bucket-full, if you want to know what incidental labor is like.

Similarly, the green beans she planted this year, expecting to get all bush varieties, include at least one variety of pole bean. These are the beans in the July planting and despite being trellised, rather late – and that was a bit of extra work – they sprawl pretty freely over the three long beds allotted to them, making it something of a chore to pick the pods.

Last weekend Mamma and Papa went to Pennsylvania to attend the Mother Earth News fair at Seven Springs. Funny – we don’t take the Mother Earth News, associating it as we do with articles on how to save on your electric bill by installing a fifty-thousand dollar solar plant, and we never visit resorts, having no reason in the normal way of things to do so. But we heard good things of this event last year, and when we saw that several of the workshops were cheese-making related, we decided to give the thing a whirl. As an effort to learn more about home cheese-making, the trip was a failure; but as date with spouse, it was a great success.

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August 26: 

Most of the men were from home during Friday working hours. We will not talk of the beginning of the academic year, and its demands of much time away from the work of the farm. We at home tinkered with the small tractor — hoping its problem is not the starter — built the gate for the new pig sty, and brought up the smallest of the sliding poultry pens to the front yard.  Before installing the twenty-five two-week old pullets, we checked the weather forecast. Hurricane Irene has the population of the east coast skidding for cover, but we in eastern Ohio are looking at a forecast of moderating temperatures and no precipitation. A good time to move the chicks.

By nightfall the little birds, half of them a dark terra-cotta, half black and gold, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, are at home in the pen, and huddle under a heat lamp in a corner of the enclosed end to conserve body heat. If the pen were to become too cold they might easily pile up until the chicks on the bottom suffocated, so we are careful to check the lamp before bedtime to see that it is still on and doing its job. We scoop up the chicks who have failed to find their way inside and poke them through the door, then close it to keep them in until morning. We don’t think a coon or ‘possum will come up in the yard where the dogs sleep and disturb our baby poultry, but there’s no need to take chances.

A little more corn was ready, and we froze two and a half pounds, and a gallon of okra. Usually our food preservation is done in large quantities, but the late corn comes in in dribbles, and okra accumulates over two or three days before there is enough to eat or to process. In any case, every little bit added to what you’ve got is just a little bit more.

Have we spoken of okra? Perhaps not. People in the north, by which we mean, north of the Mason-Dixon line, don’t seem to eat okra. You don’t see it growing much around here. People sometimes ask us how it is to be cooked, and from the way they ask we suspect they have never tasted it.

“Is it ready to harvest when the spikes are ten inches long?” we were asked recently, and we winced and assured the lovely gardener that they were, probably more than ready.

“If you can’t easily cut it with a paring knife, it is beyond eating, and should be given to the pigs,” we tell her.

“The compost bin, then,” we concede.

Okra is an underappreciated vegetable and well worth cultivation by the home gardener — because of its value as haute cuisine, of course, but additionally because it is easy to grow, seems to have no pests –except when the cows get into the garden, – produces copiously, and goes right on setting pods until far into autumn. It is also very easy to put up, raw, merely by slicing and freezing; and okra pickled with plenty of garlic and hot peppers is an epicure’s delight.

A little research, which we will not do, would reveal into which food group it ought to be placed – is it a protein, a carbohydrate, a fat? – and at some point the food pundits will undoubtedly get around to building a fad around okra as an unsurpassed source of something absolutely essential you didn’t know you needed.

About twenty years ago a dear friend, a beautiful New York socialite, was looking for some new vegetable to diversify her already large and gourmet repertoire. She inquired of us, her hick Southern friends, as to the qualities of okra. “It’s great,” we assured her. “We love it. The garden wouldn’t be complete without it.” She put it on her shopping list.

Perhaps we neglected to instruct her as to its preparation. At our next meeting she got us in a corner and inquired what was the joke. “How could you recommend that nasty stuff? It looks and tastes like bug eyeballs in green slime!” Following the directions on the package of frozen okra she had bought at the store, our friend had boiled the vegetable. Plain. In water. Ugh. Eyeballs in slime would be just about right.

Another time we would be more specific.

Okra is good prepared a variety of ways, and the one most people seem to know is the deep-fried, battered okra one gets at restaurants known for their Kuntry Chahm. Good stuff, no doubt, but we aren’t fond of cleaning up after a deep-fying episode, and when we fry okra we follow the recipe given us by our beloved Mom D.:

Slice your okra into a big bowl. (Let us say four cups of sliced okra as a basic unit.)

Add some flour. (We use about a half cup flour to four cups okra.) Stir.

Add an egg. Stir again.

Now add about a cup of cornmeal and whatever seasoning you like – we use salt, pepper, and a proprietary creole seasoning which we will name if they pay us to advertise for them. Stir again.

At this point what you have in your bowl will look like a mess. Okra is mucilaginous, which is a nice word for “slimy”, and if you have stirred vigorously you will now have a bowlful of pointy green things stringy with egg and flour and cornmeal. Perfect.

Now heat a big castiron skillet and put about three tablespoons of bacon grease in the bottom. If you don’t save bacon grease, what are you thinking? Get a crock for the back of the stove and save every drop of bacon grease you render. Okay, use three tablespoons of whatever fat you think is good – lard, olive oil, — shortening, even, if you want to die young – and get it nice and hot. Dump in your okra. Scrape the bowl out good, all the dough will fry up delicious. Now give it about five minutes, listening and smelling to make sure your temperature is high enough but not too high, and then stir and turn the okra with a metal spatula. The okra will not be in discrete slices, like the deep-fried stuff you get at restaurants, but will be clumped up like fritters. Don’t worry about that. As they cook, the slices regain their own independent lives, and if they don’t, you don’t care because they will taste the same and they will be delicious. Just fry your okra for about fifteen minutes, stirring once in a while so the bottom pieces don’t burn. It’s done when the okra is no longer really crunchy, and it loses its bright green color. Maybe it’ll take twenty minutes.

This isn’t a fussy vegetable.

Another time we will speak of gumbo . . .

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