This Tuesday, Nov. 20th, would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday. It doesn’t always fall this close to Thanksgiving but it did the year my Mother’s passed away. That was an especially emotional Thanksgiving for all of us. My family celebrated the holiday with my Dad at my brother’s home in Kansas just days after my Mother’s funeral and my Dad’s 93rd birthday.
My Dad died two years later. Although he’s no longer here to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, we still enjoy the fruits of gardening and cooking with the few remaining jars of canned food that he left us. It’s almost as if he’s still sharing a meal with us.
Canning the tomatoes, beets, green beans and cucumbers harvested from his garden brought him great pleasure. Often, a jar of tomatoes, green relish, piccalilli or, his favorite, stickles would wind up under the Christmas tree as a holiday gift from my Dad.
Sadly, I didn’t care for the stickles until recently when I snapped open a jar sitting on my pantry shelf. I taste tested a tiny bite to determine if the stickle was still safe to eat. To my surprise, I found it deliciously sweet, not at all what I had expected. For those of you unfamiliar with this down home delicacy, stickles are made from cucumbers with white vinegar, some drops of green food coloring, celery seed, sugar, some lime and salt. The cucumbers are cut lengthwise into strips and come out sweet and much different from traditional pickles. My Dad had tried hard to convince me that I would like them but as I’m not a big fan of cucumbers I never did.
Another favorite of his was pickalilli, a sort of relish made with tomatoes. I think I have only one jar of this remaining. I can remember my Dad saying “Um, that’s good!” when he’d eat a spoonful.
He also made sweet green tomato relish that he’d mix into the filling for the deviled eggs that he made to that Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home. I’m taking deviled eggs as an appetizer to my friends’ Thanksgiving dinner this year. There’s a jar of that relish on my refrigerator shelf. I may add some to give the egg filling a little more zip.
Of all his canned creations that we still have, I love the ‘pear honey ‘ the best. I have only one jar left. It’s half empty now. I covet every single spoonful that I spread onto my warm toast, usually for Sunday morning brunch.
I have fond memories of my Dad associated with the pear jam. It springs from the day that we were driving back to his home after a visit to my brother in Kansas City. My Dad spotted an aged pear tree growing in a field alongside the highway. The tree obviously had not been pruned or tended for a long time. At my Dad’s request, I pulled over to the shoulder and parked. He slid out, taking a plastic grocery bag with him as he headed for the tree. “Um boy,” he exclaimed. “Look at all these good pears. These will make some good pear honey.” I could almost hear him smack his lips.
The few jars left on my shelf are each labeled with the contents in my Dad’s handwriting on a strip of masking tape. I think I’m not going to remove the label when the jar is finally empty because it will still be filled with memories .
Fall was in full season at the Fruit Festival this past weekend at the Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson, a small town that lies right on the Canadian border. Until a few years ago, the festival was known as the Harvest Festival and the place was a working farm and native plant nursery known as Cloud Mountain Farm.
My friends, Cheryl and Tom Thornton, owned and operated the farm for 33 years. Seven years ago, the farm was converted into a non-profit learning center dedicated to providing hands-on learning experiences to aspiring farmers, experienced farmers, and home gardeners, continuing the work the Thorntons have always done through the years.
The Thorntons still live at the farm but now they are joined everyday by as many as eight paid interns who participate in an eight-month educational program to learn the practices of good, sustainable farm techniques. They study plant propagation, tree fruit production, viticulture, market development, and vegetable production to prepare them to be farm owners, key farm employees or entrepreneurs and professionals involved in the agricultural industry or advocacy.
At the heart of it, of course, are my friends, Cheryl and Tom. Cheryl handles most of the business and marketing side of the farm, as she has done for years. Tom oversees the hands-on educational side, as he has done for years becoming one of, if not the apple expert in Washington state and maybe the region. People from all over have brought their fruit and vegetable-growing questions to Tom and learned from his expertise through the hundreds of workshops he’s conducted for weekend gardeners and industry professionals.
My husband and I headed out to the farm yesterday morning, as we have done in many years past but not recently, to see what was going on. Although the day was cloudy (it is Cloud Mountain remember?) and chilly, the back field by the grape vines were already full of cars when we arrived shortly after it opened. Little kids were scampering down the road from the field to the festival area with their parents close behind. Lines were already formed at the tasting tent where visitors could sample all the different types of apples, pears, cherries, grapes grown on the farm.
I stopped off first at the farm’s main barn to say ‘Hello’ to Cheryl, who was at the register checking out festival goers purchasing five-pound bags of apples and pears. As she became busier, I wandered off to a hot-house where the band, Bridge, had begun to play.
Music has always been part of the festival and listening to Bridge reminded of the year that the band in which my sons and Thorntons’ daughter, Julia, performed at the festival. They were middle-schoolers at the time, all students of musician Ginny Snowe, a wonderful piano teacher who had put the band together in a summer music camp. The kids turned out to be so enthusiastic and good that they stayed together long after the camp to write music and play gigs at schools, festivals and other events.
Known as Switch, their little band actually launched the music careers of some of the band members, including Julia who’s now a professional musical director and pianist; Jeff, who’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s best classical saxophonists and finishing up a PhD at the University of Michigan; and my son, Marshall, a drummer who’s plays professionally with several bands in Seattle one of them being, until recently the funk band, The Fabulous Party Boys. (The band was a subject of another of my blog posts.)
Julia also grew pumpkins that she harvested each fall and sold at the festival to earn money for college. The pile of pumpkins is still there but Julia no longer grows them. Her sister, Cara, however, had brought her young daughters from Seattle for the day to help out and perhaps start another family tradition at the festival.
As Bridge played, volunteers Sue and Burt Weber, twirled thick, yummy caramel around Cloud Mountain apples to hand to young customers. Cooks from Bellingham’s restaurant, Keenan’s, was serving up tasty snack dishes made from local products at the farm at another table. And another volunteer was answering questions and sharing material about the farm center at a third table.
I headed over to the tasting tent where Tom was slicing up pieces of pears for people. He handed me a slice of Rescue, a pair so named because, as he explained, a nursery grower near Vancouver, Washington (Buckley, WA. to be exact) found the species and saved the tree from being destroyed. The fruit was sweet and buttery and nearly melted in my mouth. Next, Tom gave me sample of the Seckel pear,that Tom said is considered native to Pennsylvania, maybe the only true American pears. It’s said to be named after a local farmer who found a “wild sapling” growing on a farm just outside Philadelphia late 1700’s, according to some accounts. The small, reddish-brown pear has a creamy texture and a sweet taste.
My taste tests were interrupted by another pear sampler who had questions for Tom about her own pear trees. This is the kind of thing that happens to Tom all the time, no matter where he is because gardeners and growers locally know that he carries a wealth of agricultural information in his head.
I moved on to the cherry and grape tables before calling it a morning. People were still arriving as we climbed back into our car with the carton of Cloud Mountain cider and a bag of apples. A visit to their farm is always special and welcome, but particularly went the Fall Fruit Festival is underway. If you missed it this year, there will be another next year. It’s a great way to start the season and to celebrate the beauty and bounty of this fabulous farm.
This was supposed to be a piece about the fabulous cactus salad that my friend Juan Ramirez cooks up. But during the course of putting it all together the other evening, the topic turned to violins. Specifically, his violin.
A composer and violinist, Juan has been in residence in Bellingham for the past three weeks where he has played in the first violin section with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra. Last year, his work, “Suite Latina”, was performed by the orchestra with the Calidore String Quartet as soloists. The music evokes the sensuous dance rhythms of the composer’s native Mexico. The piece was originally written for string quartet and first performed at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in 2001. Juan adapted it for quartet and orchestra, especially for the Bellingham Festival where it was given its world premiere and a standing ovation from the audience.
But the celebrated composer is also known for culinary artistry as well, with his specialty being his native Mexican dishes, especially his mole, made from a family recipe. It’s a recipe that takes him three days to concoct and includes much grinding and pulverizing of ingredients using a blending machine from India in order to get just the right texture and consistency. Most Americans I know think of mole simply as sauce with Mexican chocolate as the key ingredient. Chocolate, specifically cocoa, is a main ingredient in Juan’s family recipe, but it is only one of 18 ingredients that go into his tasty, slightly spicy sauce. Adding his mole, which is more pasty than the runny stuff usually poured over standard Mexican fare, to homemade enchiladas or to chicken turns the ordinary into an extraordinary treat!
I watched Juan in my kitchen warming the mole on the stove and assembling the equally as delicious cactus salad made with nopales, or the big, flat paddle-like leafs from the prickly pear plant, that we began talking about violins.
I asked if he ever had any trouble traveling with his violin on airlines, given the recent headlines about one professional violinist whose instrument the airline, United, insisted be checked as baggage instead of carried on board with her. “Not since the new laws,” Juan answered referring to the FAA rules revisions in 2015.
Then I asked where, when and how he found his violin. “That’s a good story,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. His violin was made in 1748 by Carlo Antonio Testore of the Milano school of violin makers who were crafting their instruments in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It’s uncertain exactly how it came to America, but it was the possession of a plantation owner in Macon, Georgia prior to the Civil War. He gave it to one of his favorite slaves who, upon the plantation owner’s death, “laid this instrument away as a keepsake,” according to a 1916 letter detailing the history. The violin became the slave’s son, after his father died. The son had moved to the small town of Pratt, Kansas where he worked as a train porter.
At the mention of Pratt, I stopped Juan and told him that I was familiar with the town, having grown up in Kansas. What a coincidence, I thought, for a musician who lives in Atlanta and plays with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to be standing in my kitchen mentioning Pratt, Kansas! But the story continues..
The son, unable to pay a debt owed to F.A. Erwin, the writer of the 1916 letter, turned over the violin as payment. Eventually the Testore ended up in a violin shop in Wichita, Kansas. Juan was a student at Emporia State Teachers’ College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas (also a place with which I am very familiar) when he visited the Wichita shop to have his bow rehaired. The shop owner took the violin out of its case, Juan said, and handed it to Juan to play. “I fell in love with it and the sound,” he recalls. But being a college student attending Emporia on a scholarship, he had no money with which to purchase it. The violin went back into its case.
Juan transferred from Emporia to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When his teacher told Juan he needed a better violin he knew exactly the one he wanted. But when he contacted the Wichita violin shop owner Juan was told that an 80-year-old doctor had bought it for his son who had decided to take up the violin. Juan was disappointed.
Three years later, the violin shop owner notified him that he once again had the Testore violin. The doctor’s son, it seems, had switched from violin to accordion, and the violin was returned to the shop. Elated by the news, Juan dressed in his best clothes and walked down to the bank to ask for a loan in order to buy his prized instrument. With the money granted, Juan booked a flight and headed back to Wichita where the shop owner took the violin out once again and handed it over to Juan.
It has now been his violin for nearly 46 years and he’s not likely to part with it anytime soon. You might say the story has come full circle. Juan plays it as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, only a little more than an hour’s drive from Macon where the instrument first was traced. And in 1988, Juan took it with him to Milan, the city where it was made, and played it in the city’s cathedral.
His story wrapped up just as the cactus salad was ready to chill in the refrigerator. Those same hands, which so nimbly had moved all over the fingerboard during the playing of music by Leonard Bernstein in the concert the night before, now turned to the delicate task of rolling enchiladas drizzled, inside and out, with Juan’s grandmother’s mole. That is another story.
Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert, is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.
My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker. I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.
My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving. I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.
“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one. “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.
He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.
My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.
For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great. I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.
After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches. One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.
“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack. It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.
I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.