Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chapter 17: Pa Goes to Town

"Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was gone to town and he would not be back for four long days."

Laura and Mary stay in the house with Ma all morning. It is too big and empty outside with Pa gone. At noon Laura and Ma goes outside to move the cow's picket line to fresh grass. Then they go back inside until evening chore time.

Ma is just putting on her bonnet to go milk the cow when all the hair stands up on Jack's back and he rushes out of the house. They hear a yell, "Call off your dog! Call off your dog!" It is Mr. Edwards. Pa asked him to come by each day and check on Ma and the girls. He has come at chore time so he can help with the chores.

But now he is on top of the woodpile with Jack growling and trying to get to him. Ma makes Jack let Mr. Edwards down, but Jack keeps an eye on him the whole time he is doing chores.

That night everything is dark and lonely. A wolf howls out on the prairie, but Laura is not afraid. Ma has pulled the latch string through the stout door and Jack is in the house with them. Nothing can get to them; they are safe.

The next day is empty and long like the first one. Mrs. Scott comes to visit and talks to Ma. She says interesting things about massacres, but Ma changes the subject. Later Ma says Laura will have to be older before she can know what a massacre is.

Mr. Edwards comes again to help with chores and Jack chases him up the wood pile again. Laura and Mary think about Pa, camping that night in the town of Independence. Tomorrow morning he will shop and by tomorrow afternoon he should be on his way home again!

The wind blows bitterly cold for the next two days. Pa must travel into the wind to reach the little log cabin. On the second day, Laura and Mary begin to watch for Pa. They wait all afternoon and all evening, but Pa doesn't come. Only the wind blows and blows and blows.

Ma lets them stay up and wait for Pa, but finally Laura falls asleep sitting up on the bench. She falls right onto the floor and Ma says they must go to bed. Ma sits by the fire in her rocking chair waiting and waiting.

Laura doesn't even know when she falls asleep again, but next thing she knows, Pa is standing in the cabin. His clothes are cold and his boots are caked with frozen mud. He is very tired, but he wraps Laura and Mary in Ma's shawl and takes them on his lap. He is glad to be home.

Pa drinks a cup of nice, hot coffee and shows Ma and the girls the treasures he has brought from town. First he shows them a flat, square package wrapped carefully in brown paper. It is full of eight small squares of glass for their window! Ma is so pleased; now they will be able to look out the window this winter.

Pa also shows them a little paper sack full of pure, white sugar. Ma puts it away carefully to be used when company comes. Pa has also brought lots of nails, salt pork, tobacco for him, and cornmeal for corn bread. It is so nice. Now they will have enough of everything all winter long.

It's kind of interesting to read this chapter just as I'm gearing up for another monthly shopping trip. Once a month I go buy out Walmart and haul home hundreds of different kinds of items---pet supplies, groceries, household items, etc., etc. You know, just the simple necessities for modern life. Perhaps I should surprise Caleb by coming back this time with only cornmeal and sugar. Wouldn't he be excited!

Now, I know that the cornmeal Pa picked up in Independence was already ground at a mill somewhere. Even in those pioneer days, women had risen up in rebellion against the ancient method of hand milling. In fact, grist mills date back before the Roman Empire. Those ancient housewives must have been feisty!

But I wanted to try grinding corn the OLD-fashioned way. It seemed more authentic. More real. More in touch with history. More like I had no mill to use.

So I went out in the bitter cold and selected two nice rocks. It was a complicated selection process with stringent requirements----mainly I had to be able to kick them loose from where they were frozen to the ground.

Then they went through an important seasoning process where I scrubbed off all the dirt and dead vegetation. There was a limit to the amount of crunch I was willing to accept in my corn muffin.

I dried the rocks and placed a handful of popcorn kernels on the bottom rock. Popcorn kernels are smaller than regular grinding corn, but still work.

Then I started to grind the corn. Turns out dry corn is pretty hard...the kernels went flying and suffered no noticeable damage in the process. But I kept at it, though I did mentally downsize the amount of cornmeal I planned to get.

It was around this time that Caleb got home from school. Slam! "I'm starving, Mom! What's for dinner?"

He walks into the kitchen and sees me with my two rocks, grinding away at the corn.

"I'm making supper as fast I can, Sweety."

"Are you kidding me!?"

Have you ever seen a teenage boy cry?

My dad also stopped by, but somehow didn't want to stay for dinner. I don't know why---cornbread and chili beans is one of his favorite meals. He did let me know a fascinating historical fact: Old-fashioned stone-ground grain had powdered bits of rock in it and actually ground off people's teeth over time.  

Hmmmm. Maybe I'll just mix the cornmeal in only ONE special  muffin!

I worked at it for about twenty minutes before I got bored.  My family never would have made it back in ancient times! Or they would have learned to like REALLY crunchy bread. By the time I finished, I had quite a bit of powder on my grinding rock-----but still mixed in with large chunks of hardened corn. So I mentally downsized my expectations yet again and ran it all through a colander.

I ended up with about a tablespoon of extremely....hearty cornmeal. And I think almost half of it was actually corn!

Fiesta Surprise Cornbread:

2 1/2 c flour
2 c cornmeal
1/2 c sugar
4 t baking pwd.
1 t salt (I think I would increase this by at least 1/4 t next time)

Mix together

2 eggs
2 1/4 c milk
1/2 c melted butter
1/2 c frozen corn
1 4-oz. can green chilis
1 can sliced olives

Mix in separate  bowl and fold into mix; add small amount of water if needed.  Pour into greased pan and bake at 350  35-40 minutes until done.

That's an OLIVE, not a rock.....

Ready to eat the delicious "special" muffin that has the homemade cornmeal mixed in it......

First bite......

Mmmmmmmm! Tastes good.

But even Caleb can hear the chunks of corn? grinding in my mouth....

Delicious! I would recommend this recipe to anyone.

Though you may want to leave out the authentic stone-ground part......

Just a suggestion.

"Everything was alright when Pa was there. And now he had nails, and cornmeal, and fat pork, and salt, and everything. He would not have to go to town again for a long time."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chapter 16: Fire in the Chimney

"The prairie had changed. Now it was a dark yellow, almost brown, and red streaks of sumac lay across it. The wind wailed in the tall grass, and it whispered sadly across the curly, short buffalo grass. At night the wind sounded like someone crying."

It is fall. The days are growing shorter and cooler. It is time for Pa to go to town. He couldn't go during the heat of summer because it would have been too hard for Pet and Patty. Pa gets the grass-hay cut and stacked by the barn, ready for winter. Now all he has to do is go hunting so Ma and the girls won't run out of meat while he is gone.

The next morning Pa takes his gun and heads down into the creek bottoms. There are lots of geese and wild ducks by the creek, resting on their way south. Laura and Mary hear a shot echo in the woods and they know Pa has got some meat.

That afternoon the wind is cold and fierce. Pa is still not back from hunting, but Ma calls Laura and Mary into the house. Ma builds up the fire and sits rocking Baby Carrie. The wind blows and blows.

Laura hears a crackling noise in the chimney. Ma hears it, too, because she leans forward and looks up the chimney. Then she gets up, puts Baby Carrie in Mary's arms and pushes her into the rocking chair. Ma hurries outside and Laura runs after her.

The whole top of the chimney is on fire! The chimney-top is made of sticks and mud, and all the sticks are burning up. Ma grabs a long pole and starts hitting the burning chimney, trying to knock it away from the house. Laura grabs a pole too, but Ma tells her to stay away. Burning sticks are falling all around them and Ma doesn't want Laura to get hurt.

Laura runs back into the house. Burning sticks are falling down the chimney and the house is full of smoke. One big stick rolls off the hearth and right under Mary's skirts. Mary is too afraid to move, but Laura grabs the great, heavy rocking chair and pulls it backward, moving Mary and Baby Carrie to safety. Then she grabs the burning stick and throws it back into the fireplace just as Ma comes in.

"That's a good girl," says Ma. She pours water all over the fire in the fireplace. Soon there is nothing left but a very smokey house. When Pa comes home, he finds the fire out and the house very cold. He goes to cut green sticks and builds the chimney up again so Ma can roast the four fat ducks he brought home.

Soon the house is snug and warm again. Pa says he will head for town early the next morning. Ma is happy. Now she can mail a letter to the folks back in Wisconsin. They can write back during the winter, and she might even hear from them as early as next spring.

Well, another challenging chapter. When is Laura going to do something like read a book, do a demure sewing project, or play on the computer? All this death-defying stuff wears a person out!

What a narrow escape they all had! It would be bad enough to have to fight a fire now, with hoses and water, and the fire department on the way because you called them on your cell phone. But Ma and the girls were out in the middle of a (dry) prairie with no resources except what their own efforts and ingenuity could provide.

And then to do all of that in a long dress and heavy petticoat. It's no wonder so many women suffered horrible burns or lost their life after their clothing caught fire. But for Laura's quick actions, Mary and Carrie might well have been buried out there on the windswept Kansas prairie.

So what to do for this chapter? I had no intention of lighting myself on fire, no matter how educational it might be. But there was no reason not to light someone ELSE on fire. Especially someone like Flamin' Fanny.

I started by going to the thrift store to find a dress I wouldn't feel bad about burning. It had to be ugly enough to deserve incineration and made of a cotton-type material, similar to the highly flammable calico that most pioneer dresses were made out of.  I found one that fit both criteria nicely. And a big thank you to the kind-hearted thrift store ladies who tried to find something nice to say about it.

"My. That dress is....interesting, Mabel."

"Yes, it is, Nancy. You don't see something like that every day. It's...........pretty."

Ladies, I'm going to burn it alive. You don't have to try so hard.

The dress wasn't quite long enough, so I added to its splendor by sewing a panel of brightly colored sheet material around the bottom. Lovely.

Then I had to wait several days for the temperature to get out of the minuses and the wind to die down. I had no intention of suffering while I burned Miss Fanny. At last the day dawned with mild enough conditions go conduct my little...experiment.

Because this is a family blog...

Fanny was constructed by Caleb out of a couple of 2x4's with an attractive pumpkin head. She was dressed in a full cotton sheet for a petticoat to give her those extra layers of combustible comfort. Then we fitted her dress over the top and fixed her hair. Voila, Flamin' Fanny, the Fearless Frontier Female.

The idea was to build a small fire at the feet of Fanny, then document her dress catching fire....perhaps smoldering a bit first, then a finger of flame licking up her gown, and finally, the tragic conflagration. That was the idea, anyway.

Didn't quite work out that way....

I built the fire alright, using cardboard and old shingles. I lit it in a couple of places, but the wind was still brisk and the little flames guttered and went out. It's 15 degrees outside, and I don't have much time to lay a pretty fire and coax it to life.

Time for the gasoline.

I am actually a HUGE chicken when it comes to fire, and while a male-type would probably splash some carelessly from the can onto the little firelet, I wasn't about to do any such thing. I poured a little bit on a shingle and laid it on the fire.

Let's just say it "caught".

By the time I could take 3 steps back from the fire, grab my camera, and turn it on......well, Fanny was already fully involved. It wasn't just because of the gas. She was actually starting to go before I even got the shingle over there. It was just that her dress went up SO quickly.

If she were a pioneer woman, she would have had 10 seconds or less to respond and get the fire out before it got critically bad.

So here is the first shot I got off of poor Fanny...

At this stage, I think she could have still been saved. Some quick thinking and some stop-drop-and-roll, and she could have gotten the fire out. The same things that made it so dangerous---her thick petticoat and long dress---would help to protect her in those first few seconds...which I imagine were usually spent running and screaming; perhaps trying to tear the dress away.

"'Don't cry, Laura," Ma said, stroking her hair. "Were you afraid?"

"Yes," Laura said. "I was afraid Mary and Carrie would burn up. I was afraid the house would burn up and we wouldn't have any house. I'm--I'm scared now!"

The next sequence of photos (and the video that follows) were all taken during the same minute---the last minute of Fanny's life.

Her hair went fast.....

VERY fast!

As you can see, she was not only in flames within a minute, but her dress was almost wholly consumed in those 60 seconds.

It was a very thrilling and educational experience, but one that was sobering as well. For too many women, Flamin' Fanny's fate was a terrifying reality; maimed or killed in the line of duty---by the very uniform required of their sex. It was a graphic reminder that nostalgia is a whole lot more romantic than actually living during "the good ol' days".

Poor Fanny!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chapter 15: Fever 'n' Ague

"'Charles, do look at the girls," she said. "I do believe they are sick."

"Well, I don't feel too well myself," said Pa. "First I'm hot and then I'm cold, and I ache all over. Is that the way you feel, girls? Do your very bones ache?"

Mary and Laura said that was the way they felt. Then Ma and Pa looked a long time at each other and Ma said, "The place for you girls is bed.'"

Blackberries are ripe, and every long, hot afternoon Laura goes with Ma to help pick them. They grow in the brier-patches down in the creek bottom. Clouds of mosquitoes follow Ma and Laura wherever they go in the bushes. The mosquitoes like to suck the sweet juice from the blackberries, but they like to bite Laura and Ma just as much.

It is hard, itchy, pokey, sticky work, but every day they bring home pails full of berries to dry in the sun. And every day they eat as many berries as they want. Next winter they will have blackberries to stew.

Mary stays with Baby Carrie because she is older. There are hardly any mosquitoes in the house during the day, but at night, if there is no wind, the mosquitoes come in swarms. Pa burns smudge fires of damp grass to keep them away, but a good many come anyway.

Pa can't play his fiddle in the evenings because of the mosquitoes. Mr. Edwards does not come visiting anymore because of the mosquitoes. Pet and Patty and the colt and the calf and the cow are miserable because of the mosquitoes. And Laura is covered in mosquito bites.

"This won't last long," Pa says. "Fall's not far away, and the first cold wind will settle 'em."

But one morning Laura doesn't feel good. She feels cold even in the hot sun. Mary feels sick too. Ma feels Laura's cheek. "You can't be cold," she says. "Your face is as hot as fire."

Pa says he feels sick, too. Ma puts the two girls to bed in the middle of the day. Laura doesn't really go to sleep, but she doesn't feel awake either. She hears voices talking. Ma feeds her broth from a spoon. She feels Pa's hand shake while he gives her a cup of water. The water runs down her neck and the cup rattles against her teeth. She feels Ma's hand brush against her cheek and it's as hot as fire.

"Go to bed, Caroline."

"You're sicker than I am, Charles."

At last, Laura opens her eyes and sees bright sunshine. She hears Mary crying for a drink of water. Pa is lying on the floor by the big bed and Jack is pawing at him and whining. "I must get up. I must. Caroline and the girls." Pa tries to raise his head, but it falls back again.

All the time, Mary is crying and crying for water. Laura sees Ma's red face looking over the edge of the bed. "Laura, can you?" she whispers.

"Yes, Ma," Laura says. Laura gets out of bed, but she falls down. Jack licks her face and Laura grabs him to pull herself up again. She crawls all the way to the bucket and all the way back again. Mary drinks the whole dipper full of water and stops crying. Laura falls into bed again.

The next time Laura wakes up, she sees a coal-black face above hers. The face smiles and a deep voice says, "Drink this, little girl." Laura swallows the bitter medicine and falls asleep again. When she wakes up, she sees a big woman stirring the fire. It is Mrs. Scott and she stays with the family until they feel better.

Later, Mr. Tan comes. He is the black man that Laura saw and he is a doctor to the Indians. He was on his way north to Independence when he came to Pa's house. Jack, who normally chased away any strangers, came out and begged the doctor to come in. He did and he found the whole family more dead than alive. Mr. Tan stayed and helped them, then helped the other settlers up and down the creek who were all sick.

"It all comes from eating watermelons," said Mrs. Scott. "If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times..."

"What's that?" exclaimed Pa. "Who's got watermelons?"

Mrs. Scott says that one of the settlers down the creek has grown some. As soon as Pa feels better, he rides away and comes back with a big watermelon across his saddle. Ma doesn't want him to eat it, but Pa just laughs and gets his knife. It goes into the watermelon with a delicious sound. The green rind splits and shows the bright red inside with little black seeds.

Pa eats and eats, but Ma will not taste it or allow Laura, Mary, or Baby Carrie to have any. But Pa eats slice after slice.

Poor little girls. How awful to be deprived of watermelon! Especially when your Pa is eating it right in front of you. I guess he didn't believe in suffering with the team...

I happen to love watermelon, but I don't think that a blog about me eating a slice of watermelon has much readability. Besides, winter watermelon is gross. I was feeling a bit under the weather for a few days, but nothing that compared with malaria. And it's the middle of winter, so mosquitoes are in pretty short supply---no trying out home-made pioneer repellent.

But this chapter did have one very strong possibility. Berry picking!

Berry picking, you say? In the middle of winter? Why, yes. As it so happens, I put in a few berry bushes this year. They produce the majority of their berries in summer, as you'd expect, but a few hardy berries can still be found in January if you know how to look for them.

So this morning I dressed and went out for a little winter berry picking....

In the middle of my berry patch---no mosquitoes!

"Now the blackberries were ripe, and in the hot afternoons Laura went with Ma to pick them. The big, black, juicy berries hung thick in brier-patches in the creek bottoms. Some were in the shade of trees and some were in the sun, but the sun was so hot that Laura and Ma stayed in the shade. There were plenty of berries."

 Actually, it is a little cold to go berry picking in winter. And snow gets down your boots. But it was worth it, because I was able to find enough blackberries for a small batch of jam.

Of course, you have to expect your fruit to be frozen when you pick it in January, so it's best to let it thaw before using it to cook with.

I used to take my kids out into the California heat every August and pick wild blackberries. I'd make jars and jars of jam, and some years that was the only jam we had. As a result, I got heartily sick of blackberry jam and my youngest got wildly sentimental about it. Now we live in a climate too cold for blackberries, so I have to buy them if I want to make any jam.

That was another reason for making jam for this's my first home-made blackberry jam in years, and Caleb is eagerly awaiting the green-light to try some. (Not until the photography's done!)

There are lots of recipes for making jam---I used the one that came with the Sure-jell---but basics are the same. Start with everything clean and in good condition---no chipped glass or rusty, bent rings. The ratio of sugar and fruit is pretty important, so make sure you have the right amounts. I didn't have enough fruit for a full recipe, so I used only half a packet of pectin.

You can make jam without any powdered pectin. I usually do, but then, I usually use large amounts of  fresh fruit with lots of natural pectin in it. This was my first time using frozen fruit, so I elected to go with more of a sure bet than trying to guess the Shangri-la of "The Jelling Point".

I mashed my berries, taking care to leave hearty fruit chunks. It's not jammy enough if you can't see some berries.

Then I mixed the pectin into the berries and heated the mixture up on the stove. The whole thing has to come to a rolling boil before you can add the sugar.

 Once it was boiling hard enough that stirring didn't stop the boiling, I added the sugar in all at once and stirred it in. After that I had to watch it pretty closely; it only has to boil for 1 minute.

Once the one minute was over (plus a little more...I'm not good at watching closely), I scooped out the jam and filled my jars, taking care that the rims were clear of any jam. If there's anything in the way of the rubber ring on the lid, the lid won't seal properly. Oh, good, there was plenty left over to eat right away.

I had to process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes (give or take...I'm also not good at keeping an eye on the clock), but I'm sure it's safe.


Of course, once they came out, there was the traditional death watch to see if the jars sealed, but both of them did. Now they are good for a year of shelf-life, but I don't think they'll make it that long around here, especially with Caleb around!

While the jam was brewing, I made batch of whole wheat bread, because there is NOTHING---and I mean NOTHING better with homemade jam than fresh baked bread. Plus bread is really photogenic  when you're doing a jam photo shoot...

Who knew food photography could be so fraught with danger?

Back, you FIENDS!!!!!!!!!

"Laura's fingers and her mouth were purple-black with berry juice. Her face and her hands and her bare feet were covered with brier scratches and mosquito bites. And they were spattered with purple stains, too, where she had slapped at the mosquitoes."

At last it was time to dig in and test the jam. Sorry if I look a little wild-eyed. That's really my sexy jam-eating face, in case you couldn't tell. 

Oh, yummy! So good. This really would be ruining my diet if I had ever bothered to start one.

It's fun to spend an afternoon making a delicious treat to eat. But it wouldn't be fun to do all the time because you had to, not because you wanted to. (I found that out just in the few years I canned all the family's jam in order to save money.) Now I can go to the store and get 10-12 different kinds of jam if that's what I want to do. I don't have to pick the fruit, clean it, peel it, cook it, or can it. I just open the jar, and if the lid sticks, I complain about that.

Truly, we are blessed in our modern lives. That's one reason I like to take some time to try things "the old-fashioned way". For one thing, should I ever NEED to know how to do this kind of thing, I'll be glad I learned. But mostly, it's just good to be reminded of how fortunate I am every minute of every day simply because of where----and when---I live.