Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Blackberries

Blackberries are a difficult fruit.

Ripening in the heavy heat of July,

Their juicy blackness softly glows in the sun.

Clusters of fruit hang just out of reach

And beckon you to stretch far into the thicket.

Their recurved thorns allow you to slip in,

But snag and tear on the way back out,

As though the canes demand a sacrifice of blood

Before they are done with you.

Swarms of gnats cloud around my head

While mosquitoes whine in my ears.

I am careful to note the poison ivy

That thrives in the shade of the canes.

Ants bite and sting as they guard prized berries,

While June bugs buzz harshly to defend their own.

Everyone wants some.

A half hour of picking yields two cups of berries,

Enough for a small cobbler after dinner.

Warm from the oven, it melts vanilla ice cream

Until small puddles streaked with purple pool over the crust.

Spoon halfway to mouth, I pause and consider

The labor required to gather this summer treat.

The scratches and bites will sting under hot water and soap while I shower tonight,

But the memory of the sweet heavy blackness will remain on my tongue.

Monday, July 26, 2010

We're going to start charging admission.

So on Saturday we had driven up about a third of the long private drive to our new house when we saw the black pickup truck with a license plate reading "Darlene" blocking the driveway. It had stopped on one of the particularly steep sections. There were two middle aged women and three teenage girls standing around the truck. One woman was on a cell phone beside the driver's door while the others appeared to be holding on to a mattress and bed frame, which were perilously close to sliding out the back of the truck bed. A box frame had already slid out and was lying on the driveway.

My first thought was, "Oh my God, they've broken into our house and are stealing our mattress!" But that didn't make much sense as the truck was headed up the driveway. Clearly they must have stolen the mattress from someone else's house and they were now taking it up to our house. That didn't make much sense either, but neither did the real story behind this scenario.

Steve got out of our Subaru and walked up to the truck. I could see him talking to the women, who were gesturing up to the house. There were some smiles, some head shaking, some sheepish shrugs. They began unloading the mattress and the bed frame, then putting everything back into the truck bed in a way that would minimize anything sliding out the back again. After a few minutes Steve came back down to our vehicle with a rather bewildered smile on his face.

"We've got to start charging admission to our driveway," he said. "They wanted to see the house because they almost bought it."

While this may seem odd, unfortunately it's not an isolated incident. This is not the first time we've had people who "almost bought the house" stop by unannounced and uninvited. We first met Crazy Log Cabin Lady through a letter she sent us, but later this spring she stopped by with her in-laws in tow to walk around our yard. "I wanted to show my relatives where they were going to live!" she chirped. "Oh, there's the playhouse I promised my grandkids!" Crazy Log Cabin Lady didn't seem in the least bit embarrassed, but we could tell that her in-laws were mortified by her behavior and clearly wanted to leave as soon as they could.

Steve grabbed some tie-down straps from the back of the Subaru and secured the mattress, box spring, and bed frame to the pick up. I watched in disbelief as the whole gaggle of visitors trooped up to the top of the driveway while my husband did this work for them. Steve then walked up towards our house. One of the women came back, hopped into the truck, and slowly drove it up the rest of the driveway in fits and starts....there was a lot of black smoke from the back wheels, suggesting that the truck was finding the driveway a little difficult with that load in the back.

I got into the driver's seat of the Subaru and drove up to the house, where to my disbelief there was *another* strange car parked in front of our driveway. How many people had come to our house? Exactly why were they there? And why would they think it was okay to come over to someone else's house uninvited just because they had wanted to buy it?

One woman and the girls were standing around the car, talking to each other, while the other was still talking on her cell phone agitatedly. I got out of our car and walked past them without saying a word as I wasn't altogether certain exactly what I would say to them once I got started. I could hear the woman on the cell phone say something about "....but I'm okay and everyone else is okay, I'm really shook up but I'm okay." A few minutes later the women got into the pickup and the car and drove off with the girls. Steve came inside and told me the rest of the story.

Apparently the woman driving the pickup had invited the woman in the car to come up to see our house, which the woman in the truck had wanted to buy but her offer was rejected. The woman in the car drove up to the house and saw my car parked out front, but not her friend's truck. The woman in the car turned around and headed back down the driveway when she saw her friend driving the pickup truck up our driveway. The woman in the truck was having trouble making it up the hill and the bed frame and mattress set, which they had bought at a yard sale, was starting to slip out the back because they had only a short piece of twine to tie it down in the first place. The woman in the truck wasn't able to back down the driveway without 1) running over the box frame lying in our driveway and 2) risk having the mattress and the rest of the bed frame sliding out and then running over it, too. So the woman in the car put her car in reverse, popped the clutch, and immediately backed smack into a dead tree stump beside our driveway. As you might imagine, the rear tail light and back quarter panel didn't fare too well upon meeting the tree stump, but at least the stump kept her from pitching backwards down the very steep slope into the ravine on that side.

Our house seems to attract its fair share of nut jobs "who almost bought the place." I can understand driving by a house on a street to see what the new owners might have done to it, or if it might still be available, but that's entirely different than driving up a long private driveway to gawk at what might have been. I'm a firm believer in letting things go. It doesn't pay to dwell on things that didn't work out, as sooner or later you're bound to hit a tree stump.

And Darlene, if you come back again I'm going to introduce you to Crazy Log Cabin Lady. I think you two will get along just splendidly.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pork Cake

Several days ago I was rummaging around in my freezer when I found a chunk of pork cake. It was wrapped up in aluminum foil and plastic wrap and labeled "Christmas 2007." Sometimes when we have a surplus of Christmas goodies in the house, I freeze some of it to eat later on in the new year. Obviously this particular chunk of cake had been in the freezer for several years. I'm surprised I didn't notice it when we moved everything into the new house in January. Then again, maybe I did and forgot about it thanks to my current malady of "Mom brain."

That night I unwrapped the cake and cut off a slice. It tasted fresh and good even though it was 2.5 years old.

By now some of you are undoubtedly scratching your head and wondering what the heck pork cake could possibly be. For my family, pork cake is *the* Christmas cake we eat every year. It's a dark, dense cake with a fine texture and a crunchy crust, studded with walnuts and raisins, and flavored with wine or what have you. The cake has always reminded me something of a pound cake crossed with a white fruit cake. It's sweet but not too sweet, and goes well with a glass of milk or a cup of coffee. We often have it with fruit salad made from fresh apples, grapes, oranges, canned pineapple, and sometimes flaked sweetened coconut.


My paternal grandmother has made these cakes as long as I can remember, maybe as long as my dad can remember. It's an old recipe, one that actually includes pork fatback but no dairy or eggs. Food historians may be reminded of recipes from the war years, when butter was in short supply, or even during the Depression when you made do with whatever odd ingredients you might have on hand and didn't have to buy. However, I suspect this recipe is much older than that, stretching way back into the Appalachian past, from maybe the 1700's or even older.

While a dessert made from pork fatback may sound terribly odd these days, pork cake is clearly related to recipes for the mincemeat pies of early England in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. I imagine that my American ancestors made pork cake to take advantage of the abundance of pork fat available in the fall after the hogs were slaughtered. I'm sure just black walnuts would have been used as they were free in the woods for the price of collecting and cracking open. Molasses may have been used instead of brown sugar. Apple cider, apple jack, or maybe even moonshine flavored with fruit may have been used to moisten and flavor the cake while it was stored. (My grandmother herself uses Ripple wine.) This cake is a good keeper and would easily be good at Christmas even though it had been baked a month or so earlier.

Clearly this recipe is not meant for those following kosher, halal, or similar dietary rules. And I was surprised to learn via Google that Wallis Warfield, who became the Duchess of Windsor, was apparently a fan of pork cake, with a recipe variation found here. The reviewer of the Duchess's recipe reported that she could taste a pronounced pork flavor in each bite, but that's never been an issue with my grandmother's cakes.


So here is my grandmother's recipe for pork cake in all of its quirky glory. I should tell you that 1) Granny never uses a printed recipe as she cooks from her memory, and 2) I haven't used this recipe myself. I should also add that I don't think Granny makes her cakes with the fatback that has been salted. I don't think I'd try substituting lard for the fatback as lard melts much more easily and doesn't have the same texture as the fatback.

Pork Cake (makes two cakes)

8 cups flour
1 TBS cinnamon
1 TBS nutmeg
1 TBS baking soda
1 pound pork fatback, ground fine
1 pint perked, strong coffee
4 cups brown sugar
1 pound raisins
1 pound chopped English walnuts
1 cup chopped black walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, spices, and baking soda together and set aside. Combine ground fatback, hot coffee, and brown sugar. Gradually add flour mixture to fatback mixture and mix well. Batter will be thick. Mix in raisins and nuts until well incorporated into the batter. Spoon batter into two greased tube pans. Bake for about two hours or until toothpick comes clean.

Let cakes cool in pans. Soak a handful of cotton balls or a wad of cotton gauze with wine, apple cider, apple jack, or what have you and place in the center of the cakes. Wrap each cake well in aluminum foil. Place cakes in a plastic five gallon bucket along with several fresh apples. The apples will help keep the cakes moist. Cover the bucket with a lid and store out of direct heat and light. Allow the cakes to mellow over a month or so before serving.


At some point my grandmother will no longer make pork cakes and I'll pick up the tradition to continue it. I know when the time comes I'll be tempted to reduce the amount of fatback used, maybe substitute dried cherries for the raisins, or use apple jack to flavor the cake. But for now, I'll let Granny make her cakes as long as she's able, and I'll enjoy the flavor that comes from a long family tradition.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bryce National Park

Bryce National Park, Land of the Hoodoos.....oh, come on. You know you can't say "hoodoo" without smiling.

It's a pretty park with lots of gorgeous scenery. Where Zion is all about massive chunks of rock, Bryce has these weird eroded pillars of rock. Those pillars would be the hoodoos.


Lots of hoodoos.




And a few arches as well.


Bryce has sweeping views of the nearby (and far off) land. The altitude is over 9,000 feet and the air quality is good, so on a clear day you can see into New Mexico. No, I don't know if this particular view is looking into New Mexico, Arizona, or even Colorado.


Sometimes the best view is straight down. (I think Steve was looking at a chipmunk.)


Bryce is also home to pronghorn antelope.


And ravens.


I liked the raven.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where's my free buffet? (Myths about Vegas by Steve)

Hey everyone! This is Steve. I'm hijacking Tree's blog since I don't have one of my own. We just got back from Las Vegas where I was attending the Cisco convention. Overall the Cisco convention was great, but I wanted to reflect on Vegas since this was my first trip to Sin City. To be honest, I didn't exactly have high hopes as I'm neither a gambler nor a drinker, but I expected some level of...sophistication?
  • Myth: Vegas is glamorous. Reality: Vegas is a vacation destination filled with people on vacation. People on vacation do not dress in tuxedos and evening gowns. Most of the people wandering (usually aimlessly) around the hotels were wearing bathing suits, tank tops, and cut-offs. The other end of the spectrum were women in outfits that obviously took some effort to get into, but didn't exactly exude sophistication and elegance; believe it or not, I'm not talking about prostitutes, just girls on dates who wanted to get really tarted up. In my mind, Vegas was something closer to the movie 'Oceans Eleven.'
  • Myth: All the hotels on the strip are new and luxurious. Reality: The Mandalay Bay seemed nice, as did Paris, but I was staying in the MGM Grand, which was something of a dump. A very worn, tired, and dingy hotel. The layout was awful, the check-in/out painful, and of course they nickel-and-dime you to death. I would have preferred a nice, clean Marriott Courtyard. I heard that Circus Circus was so run-down they were now offering rooms for $30 a night.
  • Myth: Vegas has gambling, so everything else is cheap. Reality: The hotels on the strip have figured out you're not going to wander too far, so they've jacked up the price on just about everything except the rooms. Low room prices rope you in and then they soak you on everything else, whether you gamble or not. There is at least one Starbucks in every hotel and they actually have the gall to charge more than the Starbucks in airports. Cheap buffets? Not any more. Our breakfast buffet (which was excellent) was $17 per person. They also sell an all-day buffet pass for $35 to keep you coming back to the same hotel, and thus their casino. (When we walked into Paris at 8 pm, the line to get a table at the dinner buffet looked like a 30 minute wait.) Bottom line: the Strip is an expensive tourist trap.
  • Myth: It's fun to walk up and down the strip. Reality: Las Vegas Blvd, which bisects the strip, is more-or-less an eight lane highway driven by insane cabbies and mobile billboards. At most intersections you have to cross via a pedestrian overpass. It was nice of them to build these, but it certainly slows you down, as if the hordes of tourists doing the lookee see weren't slowing you down enough already. Don't even get me started on the hundreds of guys (and women, and their mothers and fathers) that deliberately get in your way handing out very risque leaflets for local strip clubs. Ironically, the relatively narrow sidewalks were far busier than the street, which led me to wonder why they don't annex the outer lanes of the street to expand the pedestrian traffic, which is very valuable to the casinos. One positive note: the fountains at the Bellagio were wonderful.
  • Myth: Vegas is fun for the whole family. Reality: The strip is a frat party with the intensity knob turned down from 11 to about 9. That is to say, there are stupid drunk people everywhere, yelling and drinking and being annoying. Unlike a frat party however, people on the strip aren't throwing beer bottles at each other, and I think that's only because the margaritas are served in plastic containers that everyone wants to take back home as proof of how much they drank. Among the throngs of obnoxious drinkers were children. Lots of them, usually looking awestruck and sometimes horrified if they weren't passed out asleep in a stroller due to the heat or the late hour. I wondered what these kids were doing in Vegas other than swimming in the pool (hopefully after a liberal dousing with SPF 100 sunblock) and watching TV. I also wondered what their parents were doing at night, since most pre-schoolers aren't going to sit through Penn and Teller, and as far as I know Cirque du Soleil isn't doing a Dora the Explorer show (yet). Did I mention the cigarette smoke? Casinos and the Strip are filled with seniors who never kicked the habit. Thankfully I had a non-smoking room. My whole floor was non-smoking actually, but as soon as the elevator door opened up, the smoke would hit me in the face like an iron skillet. Everything (and I mean everything) in a hotel is connected to the casinos, so there is no escaping the smoke. After three nights in the MGM, my sinuses were just short of a full-blown nose-bleed. I shudder at the thought of these small kids dealing with it.
Despite all this I can see why a lot of people want to come to Las Vegas. Many people like to drink a bit and I'm sure they love the idea that you can take your drink with you while "casino-hopping." If I were younger I'm sure I'd have had a little more appreciation for what Vegas has to offer. Unfortunately we weren't able to see any shows, other than the Cisco party on Wednesday, which was not a "Vegas" show per se, but rather a piecemeal entertainment showcase. I would love to see Penn & Teller and one of the dozen or so Cirque du Soleil shows if I ever go back, which will probably be next year since Cisco doubled-down at Mandalay Bay for next year's convention. However it will take more than a good show alone to bring me back. Bryce and Zion are more entertaining and cheaper by far.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Out West

Steve and I just returned from a trip out west. We were in Las Vegas, then drove over to Springdale, Utah, for a couple of days. We visited both Zion and Bryce National Parks, then swung by Hoover Dam before catching a flight home from Vegas.

This was my second visit to Las Vegas, and I say with confidence that Vegas is not my kind of town. Too many people, too fake, too shallow. To be fair, I've really only been on the Strip, but that is the big draw for the city. Since I don't gamble, visit strip clubs, or drink in excess, that leaves attending shows and eating excessive amounts of food. That's fine for a night or two, but there's still a whole lot of empty during the day. I think in the future my visits to Vegas will be largely limited to using it as a the starting point for visits to other nearby areas.

Springdale, Utah, sits right at the southern entrance to Zion National Park. I doubt there are more than 700 residents living there year round. It might take 15 minutes to walk from one end of downtown to the next at a leisurely pace. Springdale is a quirky place, with good restaurants and art galleries. You can easily camp in the park and have a great meal every night in town using the free shuttle. I have never seen the stars and the Milky Way so clearly at night, thanks to the limited number of lights in and around the town limits. I would much rather live there than in Las Vegas.

But on to the pictures!

Springdale had their Fourth of July parade on Saturday, July third. It was definitely a small town parade with a couple of police cars and fire engines, some people on bikes, and a few carloads of kids enthusiastically flinging candy at any bystanders they could possibly hit. Then this guy brought up the rear on his mule.


Here is the obligatory "I'm in a clearly dangerous place, Mom!" shot. This is somewhat of a tradition ever since Mom and I visited the Grand Canyon and Mom's fear of heights went supernova. Whenever I tell her I'm going someplace outdoors, it's rare that I don't hear her tell me "Don't get too close to the edge." I do my evil best to encourage her by showing her pictures like this.


Ironically the bottom half of the sign was a warning against feeding the ground squirrels and chipmunks. Mom has a delightful little story about doing just that with some cheese doodles on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Great Arch of Zion.


Under a waterfall on the Emerald Pools trail at Zion.


Also along the Emerald Pools trail at Zion, looking up the rock face in the canyon.


Zion is simply
massive. The rocks are huge monoliths with large boulders scattered everywhere. It's very hard to get a sense of scale from the pictures. It's also very hard to take a good picture due to the high contrast of light above the canyon and shade inside the canyon. I took many, many photos but they'll need a fair bit of processing to correct the light and contrast on them before I post them. It was a frustrating experience as I had been looking forward to photographing Zion but quickly realized that I had neither the filters or a suitable camera lens to truly capture it.

A few more of my favorite shots from Zion....




Pictures from Bryce National Park to come later.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Dog Days of Summer

It's a hot afternoon. The grass is brown, dry, and crunchy. Oscar contemplates what to do....


She engages her plan of action....rolling in the grass!




Utter joy.



Here she is in what we refer to as "the bat-eared dog" stage.



She's quite the contortionist.



Rollin', end

Wednesday, July 7, 2010