Country Folks Can Survive

Well, COVID-19 has officially hit Guadalupe County. Whatever we may think of the social distancing measures being put into place by businesses and governing officials in our area, they are here now, a reality to be dealt with. Of course we want to be prudent, and do what we can to help the elderly and the immunocompromised among us.

Amid the uncertainty and the bleak goings-on that we’re all well aware of, there is much to be thankful for. The H-E-B where I usually shop may be running low on some items I’d like to buy, but they appear to be working hard to restock. The available pickup dates for Curbside service are a few days out from when I order, but Curbside is still being offered, and encouraged, with the usual $4.95 fee being waived. The husband’s business has slowed down, but that gives him a chance to catch up on some work around the house. Last week he went out and got some baby chicks from the feed store. The chicken coop is mostly built, and a real beauty it is, too; all it needs is some decking on the porch and a little ramp for the chickens to run up. In the meantime, the chicks are residing in a high-sided watering trough in a corner of our living room, with a lovely brass lamp for warmth and ambiance.

A few weeks back, the husband planted two persimmon trees in the fenced area behind the yard where the chicken coop is already standing. Chickens and fruit trees are a natural combination, and we’ve planned for years now to have an orchard of native or hardy-to-Texas varieties out there. The chickens will eat bugs; the trees will provide cover and shade.

The persimmon trees didn’t look like much at first, just a couple of sticks in the ground. But today one of them started putting out some tiny baby buds.

I stay home so much that my daily routine hasn’t changed much. I spend most mornings in my quiet study with one or more dogs, drinking hot tea and working on the new book, or going over edits for Hill Country Secret, which is still on track to be released in September. I take a walk, do a little strength training. Afternoons are for housework, errands, special projects, and clerical work, and evenings I cook dinner and relax with the husband.

I’m concerned about the health and well-being of family and friends, and about the economic repercussions of all the social distancing. But I’ve got plenty to do and am not at loose ends enough to brood. Work and prayer are good antidotes to worry.

Like many country folks, we stay well stocked on essentials in case we aren’t able to go to town, and we aren’t suffering shortages of anything vital so far. But today we did hit a glitch. Early this morning, we lost water at our taps. I put on my Ropers and went out to the well pump armed with an old plastic toothbrush. One of the weirder aspects of rural life in our part of the country is that fire ants sometimes crawl into the electric workings of the well pump, get themselves electrocuted, and then gum up the little contact thingies. Every so often I have to go out there and brush their little anty bodies away. Usually there’s a a spark and a click and a lovely gushing sound as the tank starts filling again.

But not today.

The husband took a look and said something inside the electric box appears separated. I’m no electrician, but that can’t be good.

The well guy can’t come out until Monday. In the meantime, we’re not bad off. We’ve got plenty of water in the gravity-fed filter, and if necessary we can drive over and get water from my in-laws’ place.

In the meantime, the husband went out in search of more fruit trees. While he was away, I thought why not see if I could make my own hand sanitizer, and maybe some arnica ointment. I did a little internet research and found some recipes. Serendipitously enough, I already had the ingredients on hand, but both the recipes called for sterilizing jars and utensils, so I figured I’d have to wait until I had running water again.

Just some odds and ends I had lying around.

The husband returned with eight new fruit trees: loquats, pomegranates, lemons, and limes (or possibly pineapple guavas, which apparently look a lot like lime trees when they don’t have fruit on them).

That’s the chicken coop in the background.

By now, it was raining. Inspired, I put my three stock pots out on the porch steps beneath the eaves of the metal roof. Within a short time I had enough to fill one of the pots. I used some of the rainwater to sterilize the jars and made the hand sanitizer. The arnica salve is still in the infusion stage. And the other two stock pots are back outside, collecting more rainwater.

In a little while, I’ll start some chicken and rice for dinner and finalize my next H-E-B order for ourselves and my in-laws. Tomorrow I’ll join my church family via YouTube for worship. Weather’s supposed to clear up, so maybe I’ll walk down the road a couple of miles to check in on the neighbors. The man has been in this area since my husband was a child; he knew my husband’s grandfather. He stopped and chatted with me the other day as I was taking my walk. I had two dogs with me, and he had one in his truck. I wish now that we’d thought to exchange contact information while we were at it, but things had not escalated so much then.

Stay well, all y’all.

Imaginary Conversations

I was in a seafood restaurant on North Padre when “Rocket Man” started playing, and right away a whole train of associations started in my mind. “Rocket Man” made me think of “Space Oddity”—David Bowie’s “ground control to Major Tom” song. And Major Tom made me think of Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

I’ve watched this movie at least ten times. I truly love it, and its hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. I could (and might) write a whole piece on it, but for now I’ll focus on just a couple of scenes.

Initially the Bowie song’s significance in the story is a negative one. Ted Hendricks, the jerk character tasked with overseeing the downsizing involved with LIFE Magazine’s transition from print to digital (Adam Scott in an unsympathetic role, with aggressively overgroomed hair and beard), taunts zoned-out employee Walter: “Ground control to Major Tom! Can you hear me, Major Tom?” before flicking a paper clip at him. It’s a pretty low point for Walter, witnessed by his love interest, Cheryl (Kristin Wiig in a not-particularly-comedic role).

Up to this point in the story, all we know about Cheryl is that Walter is attracted to her and that she seems nice enough. We like Walter, and therefore we want him to succeed with Cheryl. Not much has gone his way so far. But then something happens that turns Cheryl into a character we like for herself, not just someone seen only in relation to Walter.

“I wanted to tell you,” she says to him, “that song ‘Major Tom’ and that beard guy… he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That song is about courage and going into the unknown. It’s a cool song.”

She didn’t have to tell him that, but she did, adding a drop of sweet to the bitter, and showing herself to be generous, insightful, and kind.

Later, through a strange concatenation of events, Walter finds himself in Greenland, trying to save his job by locating a missing photograph. He doesn’t have much to go on. It’s a desperate venture, and one that the unassertive, daydreaming Walter doesn’t seem up for. The big question in this scene is whether Walter will get into a helicopter with an inebriated and emotionally unstable pilot, in stormy weather, in order to reach the fishing vessel that’s currently his only link to the photo. It’s a terrible idea and undoubtedly dangerous, and initially, Walter says no.

And then his imagination concocts a new fantasy: Cheryl with a guitar, singing and playing the song, and dedicating it to Walter.

All of Walter’s fantasies that we’ve seen so far have been pure escapism—wildly unrealistic wish fulfillment, a kind of defense mechanism against the tedium and frustration of his life. They don’t help him in any practical way; in fact, they usually hurt him.

This fantasy is a turning point. Instead of insulating him from reality, it motivates him to do something.

The moment when Walter jumps into the (by now slightly airborne) helicopter is packed with emotional content. The music swells. The helicopter pilot smiles a little over his shoulder. And Walter himself sits there frozen with a stunned look on his face. He did it! His fantasy pushed through to reality. He got in the helicopter.

All of which meant that within seconds of hearing “Rocket Man” in the restaurant, I was tearing up over my grilled shrimp and mahi.

And I wasn’t done. The helicopter scene in Walter Mitty made me think of a scene in Master and Commander—the book, not the movie. (If you’ve never seen Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, do yourself a favor and go watch it right now. If you have, do yourself another favor and read the twenty-book series by Patrick O’Brian.) In this scene, Jack Aubrey is troubled by his uneasy relationship with his lieutenant, James Dillon, a capable officer with a chip on his shoulder, who clearly has something against Jack. Jack is a strong, authoritative leader, but he’s also a warm-hearted man unaccustomed to being disliked. He’s baffled as to where he went wrong with Dillon. So he talks the whole thing over with his friend, ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin—only Stephen is miles away at the time. The conversation is wholly in Jack’s mind.

We’ve probably all had conversations of this sort, where we try to channel the wisdom of some absent friend. It can lead to surprising insight. This one doesn’t, because Jack lacks a piece of crucial information about the lieutenant—information that Stephen actually does have, but couldn’t share with Jack even if Jack asked him, because he’s honor-bound and sworn to secrecy. The relationship between Jack and his officer is doomed, and Jack will never know why.

Imagination and story are powerful forces, concocting fictitious conversations (or serenades) with people who aren’t there, taking us from Elton John to David Bowie, and from a twentieth-century displaced victim of corporate downsizing to a Napoleonic-era British naval officer, and triggering emotional responses to characters who are absolutely not real and whose stories aren’t even in front of us at the moment. I marvel at this every day, as I make my own stories or enjoy the stories of others.

A Winter’s Worth of Gumbo

I did it! I made four gallons of chicken and sausage gumbo for the family to eat over the winter. Click here to go straight to the recipe, or read on for the expanded version.

My recipe is adapted from one given to me years ago by my friend Brian Tucker. I was introduced to Brian’s gumbo one day at a potluck lunch following a martial arts event. For some reason I was among the last to reach the buffet line, which by that time had been considerably picked over and now looked something like the desolation of Smaug, with little remaining besides a few raw carrots and some fried chicken breading crumbs. I was tired and hungry and cold, and as I passed empty serving dish after empty serving dish, my sinking feeling got sinking-er and sinking-er. Then I saw it: a slow cooker near the end of the line, still half full of some rich thick meaty dark mixture, with a stack of bowls placed thoughtfully beside it. I ladled myself a bowlful, and as I ate of the warm, delicious stuff, I thought, “God bless whoever made this gumbo.”

I later learned that Brian was the man. I gave him some well-deserved thanks and praise, and he kindly gave me his recipe. I still have Brian’s recipe, a single page printed on both sides with thorough-going, single-spaced prose. Brian is a joyful cook, and his recipe fairly sings with delight. Mine is pretty dry in comparison, prose-wise. I’ve made a few alterations, but the essentials are the same.

Because I like big daunting complex projects, and have a deep freeze, and come from a family that habitually cooks enough to feed an army (though no army ever had it so good), I have doubled Brian’s original recipe. This is a lot of gumbo. I use the same four-gallon stock pot that I use to make my chicken stock (another doubled recipe), and I fill it to the brim. I also add kombu to the stock and use cassava flour for the roux. Japanese seaweed and South American tuber meal may seem out of place in a dish that originates in Louisiana, but I like kombu for its high mineral content and flavor (I put it in my frijoles charros as well), and cassava because it is unrefined and gluten-free.

I also use less cayenne pepper than Brian’s suggested amount. I like spicy foods, but my family is tender-mouthed, so I cook a tamer version and then sprinkle extra cayenne onto my own bowlfuls.

Making gumbo is a big event that requires some planning. It starts two days before with homemade chicken stock. After simmering a full twenty-four hours, the stock spends another day in the fridge so the fat can cool and be removed.

While the stock is chilling, one day before I plan to cook the gumbo, I get all my chopping and dicing out of the way. This takes a hefty chunk of time. Once it’s done, and the prepped vegetables and meats are stowed in the fridge, I get the kitchen tidied up and make sure my big stock pot is ready to go.

I like to do the actual cooking of the gumbo on a cold day. Making a roux is warm work, especially when you’re making twice as much. It can also be messy work, with all that hot oil, so it’s a good idea to wear clothes that can stand some spattering. Take reasonable precautions, allow plenty of time, and give the roux your full attention.

A tool that probably helps a lot with roux-making is a sauce whisk. Somehow I never knew about these until after making this batch of gumbo. You have to whisk the hot oil and flour mixture constantly until it reaches the right thickness and color, and the heat rising from the pan gets to be a bit much for the human hand. Switching back and forth between right and left hands, I thought, “There’s probably a tool that makes this easier.” There is. I had in mind a longer-than-usual traditional whisk, but when I visited Gift and Gourmet the next day and explained the problem, I was shown one of these nifty little things instead. The whisking surface is flat, the better to skim along the bottom of a skillet, and the angle of the handle allows the hand to keep clear of the heat. I haven’t tried mine yet, but the design makes a lot of sense.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

  • 2 gallons chicken stock
  • 6 c. diced onion
  • 4 c. diced green bell pepper
  • 4 c. sliced celery
  • 4 Tbsp. minced garlic
  • 4-6 lb. smoked sausage, quartered and sliced
  • 4-6 c. cooked cubed chicken (from when you made the chicken stock)
  • 2 1/2 c. peanut oil
  • 3 c. cassava flour
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp. garlic powder
  • 6 Tbsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. white pepper
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 2 tsp. oregano
  • 2 28-oz. cans diced tomatoes
  • 2 lb. sliced okra

Combine garlic powder, salt, white pepper, black pepper, cayenne pepper, thyme, and oregano in small bowl or mug; set aside. Add bay leaves to stock; bring to boil.

To make roux: Heat peanut oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. Add cassava flour in three or four stages; blend with wire whisk, breaking up lumps and keeping flour moving so it will not burn. Continue cooking on medium-high heat until roux approaches a dark reddish-brown color. Turn temperature down to medium.

When roux turns reddish-brown, add onion, bell pepper, celery, and garlic all at once and stir into roux with spoon. Add about half the spice mixture; continue cooking 2-3 min. over medium heat. Add remaining spice mixture; cook 2-3 min. more. Remove from heat.

Add roux mixture to stock in spoonfuls, stirring between spoonfuls to dissolve completely. Add tomatoes, okra, smoked sausage, and chicken. Bring to low boil. Reduce heat; simmer 30 min.-1 hour.

Serve over brown rice.

A Nice Vat of Chicken Stock

What with it getting so chilly and all (predicted highs in the low seventies for Friday and Saturday), I’ve been hankering to make a big batch of gumbo. The thing about gumbo is, I like best to eat it in the cold-weather months (the real cold-weather months, not this low seventies stuff), but okra is a summer-to-early-fall crop. Last year someone gifted us with two pounds of fresh okra late in the summer–just enough for a double batch of gumbo. I froze most of the gumbo, and we happily ate it through the winter. Then a couple of days ago, my mother-in-law sent a bag of okra home with my daughter–again, two pounds, exactly what I need. We just butchered our hog, so we have plenty of smoked sausage ready to go. Perfect timing.

Gumbo starts with chicken stock, so I’m making that today. I’m including my chicken stock recipe in this post, and if you’re interested in that recipe and want to go right to it, you can find it here, with ingredients and procedure all compact and straightforward from start to finish without a lot of pictures and digressions and maundering on about the virtues of chicken stock and how I like to use it.

If you don’t mind the maundering, read on.

I make chicken stock in large vats. I figure if you’re going to make a gallon of chicken stock, you might as well make two gallons and preserve whatever portion you won’t use right away. The hands-on time isn’t much more, and the clean-up time is the same.

Making chicken stock requires some planning. I let mine simmer a full twenty-four hours, taking the meat off the bones and returning the bones to the pot after a few hours or so. I don’t want to be lifting sections of chicken out of a steaming pot, laboriously removing the meat, packaging it into fridge containers, and schlepping the bones and ooky parts back into the pot right at bedtime or before church. I want to allow sufficient time for the task–about an hour–and have a nice audiobook to listen to while I work. Then when it’s time to pour up the finished stock, I need enough fridge space for the gallon pitchers to chill, and enough time to deal with the clean-up. I’m home a lot, so this isn’t hard for me, but it does take some forethought.

I started this batch at 8 a.m. I’ll take the meat off the bones around noon, and tomorrow morning I’ll pour up the stock and put it in the fridge. Then the morning after that, I’ll remove the congealed fat from the cooled stock and get started on the gumbo.

Note that I leave the skin on the onion. This adds color to the stock.

24-Hour Chicken Stock

  • 2 whole chickens with giblets
  • 2 gallons cold water
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 2 large yellow onions, skin on, quartered
  • 4 carrots, cut into chunks
  • 6 celery ribs with leaves, cut into chunks
  • 1 bunch parsley

Place chicken in a large stainless-steel stock pot. Add all other ingredients except parsley. Cover; let stand for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer for a few hours.

Using tongs, take a section or two of chicken from pot. Remove meat; return bones, skin, gristle, and ooky bits to pot to continue cooking. Repeat with remaining chicken. Gizzards, hearts, and livers can continue cooking or be removed for another use.

Let the rest of the chicken continue simmering for a total of 24 hours. About 10 minutes from the finish, add parsley.

Pour stock through a large fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Dispose of chicken bones and vegetables. Pour stock into two one-gallon jugs, adding water as needed to replace what has boiled off. Refrigerate stock until fat congeals at top. Remove fat.

***

Here’s how mine looks now that it’s been simmering a couple of hours.

It’s important to remove the chicken meat within a few hours or so. If you let it simmer the full twenty-four hours, all the moisture will cook out and it will become a desiccated mass not fit for man or beast. The important thing with stock is not so much meat as gristle and bones. By the end of the cooking time, the vinegar will have leached out the minerals from the bones, and the gristle will be gone completely, dissolved into the stock with all its nutrients.

In the morning, I’ll have two gallons of lovely, flavorful, nutrient-rich stock, ready and waiting to be made into gumbo.

Horses, Dogs, and Grammar

The horses have the run of the acreage, and every so often they mosey up to the house to check in. The boss horse is Monte. He is a big boy, supposedly of mixed Quarter Horse and Belgian Draft lineage, though he has neither confirmed nor denied this, and of a confident and nosy disposition. We’ve been told that he used to work as a rodeo pickup horse–the kind whose riders pick up competitors after they’ve been tossed off the backs of broncs or bulls–but he hasn’t confirmed or denied this either. He’s kind of a reticent horse.

Chevy is the latest addition to our horse community. I don’t know his lineage, and he doesn’t have a former career because he’s never been ridden, but he’s a good-looking horse who likes being with the other horses.

This morning as my daughter was leaving for work, Monte placed himself slightly behind her car. She honked; he maintained a glacial calm. She started backing slowly; he didn’t move. She nudged him ever so slightly with her taillight; he shifted a greater portion of his bulk into the car’s path. At this point, Chevy decided to join him behind the car.

Meanwhile, Feather, a curly black dog of unknown lineage (probably border collie and springer spaniel, but she hasn’t confirmed or denied either), was taking an interest, barking at the horses from inside the yard fence. Inspired, I opened the gate and told her to do her stuff.

Feather’s stuff didn’t amount to much. She ran back and forth between the open gate and a spot alongside the fence about six feet away, barking all the while, but did not venture outside the yard. Where horses are concerned, most dogs talk a good game but are unwilling to engage when given an opportunity.

Eventually the horses moved off in a bored sort of way and watched my daughter’s car as it headed off down the long winding driveway.

All of which leads me to ask, has anyone else noticed what a pain in the punctuation it is to deal with dog breed names in written English? Apparently you’re only supposed to capitalize those parts of the breed names which are actual proper nouns (place names and people names). The “b” in border collie is not capitalized, since the border region of the breed’s origin is not a proper noun, but the Brittany of Brittany spaniel is a proper noun, so it does get capitalized. Likewise with English bulldog and French bulldog (though alert readers may note an inconsistency with the treatment of proper nouns in the architectural and culinary terms french doors, french press, and french fries). This rule is not uniformly enforced; Rottweiler is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not, though the name is derived from Rottweil, a town in Germany where the breed originated. We capitalize the “l” in Labrador retriever but use lower case for black lab. Meanwhile, horse breeds get capitalized no matter what, proper nouns or no (Arabian, Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse). Very sensible of the horse community.

In English grammar, as in life, things are not always as cut and dried as we would like. Things develop in a twisty, convoluted, ad hoc sort of way. English grammar is a function of history, and the history of the English language is a particularly thorny one. Grammar-wise, it could be a lot worse. We cope as best we can, look up punctuation rules when in doubt, and are glad when the horse voluntarily vacates the car’s path.

Another Harbinger of a Texas Fall

Welp, it’s finally happened. After weeks of hopeful peeks at my phone, the final day on my six-day forecast shows an expected high that is below 90 degrees. If all goes according to plan, next Monday, the seventh of October, the temperature here in our portion of South Central Texas will not exceed 88 on the good old American Fahrenheit scale. Bonus: the low that night will dip all the way down to 63, punching through the 90-degree-high and the 70-degree-low barriers all in the same 24-hour-period. Break out the hoodies and yule logs! This is as exciting as the First Toad of Spring. Next harbinger of fall: an actual cold front.

How Hot Is It?

This is the time of year when Texans yearn for the First Cold Front of Fall. Oh, we all know the actual first day of fall most likely won’t amount to much. We’ll go on having 100+ degree days through October. But a cold front will be at least a possibility, and sooner or later, it’ll happen. We’ll get little respites from the heat—brisk, refreshing mornings that make the horses frisk about in the pasture and the cats on the porch sit up and take notice. The heat’ll be back with a vengeance within a day or two, but it will have lost its grip. The cool spells will get longer and cooler. Leaves will turn yellow and drop off the trees, and it’ll be something other than drought stress making them do it. The lush, waist-high weeds that crowd around me during my trips to the compost pile will wither into the spare stalks that always make me want to get out my sketchbook.

We’re still a ways off from all that as of yet. Right now, it’s so hot that the cats have been seen panting in the shade of the wraparound porch. The dogs make wallows in the cool(er) dirt in the crawlspace under the house, picking up plenty of grit in their coats to be deposited later indoors. The herbage in the goat paddock is so high and robust that the goats can’t see each other if they’re more than a few feet apart. Drama Goat, always prone to getting lost from the other goats, just stands there and yells, and I can’t say that I blame her.

But relief is not far off. One day, mere weeks from now, I’ll be in my study, cozy in the knowledge that a cold front is in the forecast. Out of nowhere, the metal roof will rumble like thunder overhead, a sudden stream of dead leaves will blow past my window, and I’ll think, “Yep, there it is.” Within minutes, the temperature will drop twenty degrees. By evening, I’ll actually need a hoodie.

Hang in there, Drama Goat. Cooler days are coming. The dense herbage in the pasture will give way to sere brown grasses, and when you look up from your browsing, you’ll be able to see all your friends and relations, enjoying the fall with you.