Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Going Nuts

I have recently added to the image of being SuperMom in my child's eyes by employing the skill of cracking pecans without the aid of an actual nut cracker.

It has become a regular part of my day to share a snack of fresh pecans with Charles. Somewhere around 2 o'clock, he asks for "one more" while grabbing the Sun-maid Raisins box that I keep a stash of about 20 pecans in at any given time. (he says this because each time we share a few I end it by saying "Okay, only one more.") The pecans came from my mom's office building- there is a tree there which rains the sweet nuts in their tough little shells onto the parking lot (and, unfortunately, some of the cars if they park too close). A man she works with got permission from the owners of the tree to collect as many nuts as he wanted. So he took a little tool called a Nut Wizard (see picture below) and rolled it all over the grounds, picking up literally thousands of pecans.
He offered my mom a 10 lb bag. For Free. Now, if you've never seen a 10 lb bag of unshelled pecans, let me give you an idea. It's about 2 feet high and a foot wide and weighs (yes, of course,) 10 lbs but if you've ever tried to lift and/or carry said bag of southern goodness, it feels heavier by the minute! One other little point about this bag of pecans before I move on with my story about Charles: you may recall that I did mention the words FOR FREE just a few sentences ago. The next time you are at your local grocery store, meander on over to the baking or produce aisles and take a gander at the price tag on just a 1 lb bag of pecan halves. Better than that, I'll do it for you... my Google browser says that right now at Kroger in Douglasville (cause it also depends on where you live as to whether you can get them, right, Jennifer??) a 1 lb bag of pecan halves is $8.99!!! These things are expensive! All of that to say that we are extremely grateful for this 10 lb bag of pecans!
Anyway, Charles grabs the box and I sit down with a trashcan in front of me to collect the shell pieces.
Charles is thrilled with this particular cracker that we have- it's been my grandmother's for years and years. I played with it when I was little. It's a black dog; something like a St. Bernard of some sort, of cast iron. The tail lifts up to open the mouth, which cracks the nut when the tail is lowered again. I've seen them online anywhere from $10 on e-bay to $350 at antiques sites. He looks like this:
While I was getting the trashcan, Charles had trotted downstairs and fetched it from the hearth, but I told him we didn't really need it. He said "Why not?", looking at me as though I'd completely lost my mind. We have nuts, therefore we must need the nutcracker to get them open. Aren't you paying attention, Mama? His expression was so cute! I proceeded to show him a trick that I learned from my grandfather when I was Jeremy's age. I took 2 pecans in my right hand and squeezed. The pressure of the pecan with the harder of the 2 shells cracks the one with the weaker shell. Then with my thumb and nails, I peel the bits of shell off to get to the sweet nutmeat inside. The cast iron nutcracker is easier, but makes a bigger mess when the shell pieces go everywhere. The hand cracking method can make the flat part of your thumb sore as you press against the shells to peel them from the nutmeat, but it was interesting to see the awe and wonder on his face that mama is "Super Strong" enough to crack pecans with my bare hands! I thought the same thing of my grandfather, because at 8 years old, I wasn't strong or coordinated enough to do the trick. My hands were only big enough to hold one pecan in my fist at that age. While I was shelling the pecans I did see Charles get one pecan out of the box and squeeze it with all of his might, trying to copy me and crack it open! He stands patiently at my knee and gets the lion's share of the nuts. As soon as I have one cracked open and the bitter parts of the inside removed, Charles holds out his pudgy hand and I drop the nutmeat into it and he quickly pops it into his mouth. I get probably one pecan half for his every 5 whole pecans, but I don't mind because he can't crack them for himself and I can continue cracking them for my own portion after he has lost interest and gone to play with his toys.
For the sake of curiosity, I got this information on the pecan from the Food and Fiber Systems Literacy Curriculum at Oklahoma State University's Agricultural Education Department:

Before recorded history, pecan trees grew wild along the river banks of what is now southern Illinois. Flood waters moved their seeds across western Missouri into southeastern Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas and Mexico. Accounts by early Spanish and French explorers show that Native American tribes living in these areas moved around to follow the pecan harvest. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was held captive by one of these tribes from 1529 until he escaped in 1535. In his journals he wrote that the people lived on nothing but pecans for two months of every year. During the rest of the year they pounded pecan kernels, added them to boiling water and used the mixture as seasoning for other foods.
The pecan is a form of hickory. The word “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “paccan,” which means “a tough nut to crack.” Some of the pecans harvested today are small native pecans whose shells are very tough to crack. Most are new varieties called “papershell” varieties.
The life of pecan trees can be 100 years or more. A pecan tree will start producing nuts in its first six to eight years. There are two parts to the pecan nut. The nut has a soft outer husk. A hard, brown shell forms within this husk. The pecan meat is within the shell. It is soft and clings to the inside of the shell until the fall of the year, when it starts to congeal and
separate from the shell. Ripened pecans are easier to separate from the shell than those that are not. When the nuts are mature, the husks split open into four pieces, and the nut falls out.
The price pecan growers receive for their product depends on the percentage of edible meats in a sample. The grower weighs out one pound of pecans and carefully cracks them by hand or in a mechanical cracker. He or she picks out the edible meats, weighs them and calculates what percentage they are of the total weight of pecans. In the best pecans the
edible meats make up 50 percent or more of the total weight. Some of the newer developed varieties of pecans have edible meats weighting up to 60 percent of the total weight. Those meats deemed inedible are those that are poorly developed, rotten, or moldy or those that have dark spots. The dark spots indicate insect damage.
After the grower has picked out the edible meats, he or she separates them into three piles according to their color and development. The best pecans (No. 1’s) are bright colored, full bodied and solid. The next best (No. 2’s) are bright colored but light-weight. The least best, or No. 3 meats, are brown-colored and either full-bodied or lightweight.
The use of pecans has reached outer space. NASA packs pecans for astronauts to eat because they are dry, compact, contain important nutrients and are easy to digest. Pecans are low in sodium and have no cholesterol. They are also high in energy and contain protein, vitamin A, phosphorous, potassium and magnesium. The oil in pecans is mostly unsaturated (95 percent). Unsaturated fat is the good source of fat people need because it helps lower blood cholesterol.
Most of the pecans grown in the United States are grown in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. Outside of the United States pecans are grown only in a few countries where the climate and soil conditions are proper. These countries include Australia, Canada, India, Israel and Mexico.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Philosophies of life as learned from soap bubbles...

I took a bubble bath the other night. It was the first time I've been able to get a tub bath in over a year. So much more relaxing than daily showers, but so much more trouble, so therefore largely ignored by overworked and under nourished moms who need sleep more than the scent of bubble bath hanging about them, no matter how pleasant that might be. But this time- Aha! Time smiled upon me and said, "ok, Jenny. You've been so sleep deprived and such a good mommy these past few months that you can have 30 whole minutes ALL TO YOUR SELF!" Emily had just taken a bottle. The other 3 kids were all asleep. From 11:25p.m.- 12:03a.m. I soaked in warm, liquid happiness, with blueberry scented bubbles up to my chin. When I had to sneeze twice, some of the suds broke away from the mountain like peaks they had formed and flew into the air, only to settle back onto another mountain top. I tried to clear my mind and just enjoy the hot water as it eased away the aches and pains from toting the baby carrier from car to store during errands and back again, and also the aches that came from my new Jazzercize classes. My muscle groups were hollering at me loud and clear that they had gotten complacent and comfortable and did not appreciate me pounding them into shape with crunches, leg lifts, hand weight reps and lunges. With the insane amount of stuff that I have to make sure gets done in a day, it was a real challenge to think of nothing that I should be doing instead of enjoying a well deserved soak in the tub. I began to concentrate on the piles of bubbles. I noticed that they made a little crackling sound as some of them started popping. Then I pondered whether anything special should happen when each of them lived out its round, irridescent, bubbly existance and burst into nothingness. Like, how about in "It's A Wonderful Life" where every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? If pealing bells have a special purpose for being, why not a soap bubble in a bubble bath? So I leaned back and watched them. Hundreds and thousands and millions of teeny tiny foamy bubbles making a faint crackle sound. Then I decided. Even if it meant nothing to anyone else but me, I was going to hold on to that serene moment in the midst of the happy chaos that is my daily life and I was going to assign something wonderful to each popping bubble. Each bubble is a wish. Maybe not even a wish in the traditional sense. Maybe more like a thought proccess. Like "When the children are all a little older, I'm looking forward to finally getting my degree." *POP* wish granted, courtesy of a pearly, irridescent sphere dissipating into an inperceptable shower of water droplets as it bursts. "I really want to spend more time in prayer for the friends who have asked me to pray for them." *POP* says the little bubble, and in that *POP* I hear "remember that the next time you see soap bubbles and follow through on it!"

It may be silly, and you might even be thinking, as you read this, if maybe there wasn't something added to the blueberry bubble bath that I was breathing deeply of to make me just a little loopy. But silly as it seems, I think it's a very encouraging thought that something as fragile and fleeting as a soap bubble can be the center of our focus long enough to just be still and let the earth stop spinning so fast around us with our minute to minute, stressed out, overpacked schedules and simply be. To gaze into the irridescent spheres of delicate beauty and think and relax and recharge our mental and physical batteries. God was onto something when he invented bubbles. I think we would all do well to fit in a bubble bath every now and then. To slow down, to relax and unwind. That bath was one of the best moments of peace I have had in 5 years. The baby will sleep through the night soon and it might just become a more frequent occassion to give Emily her bottle, put her to bed, and once I'm sure she'll stay asleep for 30 minutes, grab my overized bath towel, cozy pjs, terrycloth robe, set the baby monitor on the counter and head to the tub for some more recharging and renewing of spirit with each *POP* of a scented bubble. I have some tangerine scented bubble bath that I haven't tried yet.....

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Spotlight on Children's Books: Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall

I took the kids to the library yesterday and I thought I would periodically include some book reviews on my blog. Enjoy!

I first saw this book on an episode of Reading Rainbow on PBS when I was about 13 or 14 and in bed with a cold. (For those of you who think that 14 is "too old" to be watching PBS, you are missing out! You are never too old to learn from public television!) The host of the show, Lavar Burton, was touring Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachussets. Old Sturbridge Village is a working village in which the workers dress, speak, act and work as townspeople of the late 1700 to early 1800s would have done. You can check out more about Old Sturbridge Village at www.osv.org.

In Ox-cart Man, the man and his wife and their son and daughter work through the year to make goods for him to sell in the spring. He takes honey and honeycombs, vegetables, goose feathers, apples, maple syrup, a shawl his wife made, mittens his daughter knit, and birch brooms that his son carved with a borrowed kitchen knife. After he and his family load up all of these things on the ox-cart, he walks ten days to Plymouth. He sells everything at the market there, down to the boxes the goods came in and then his cart and finally his ox. With some of the money he has made, he buys an iron kettle, an embroidery needle for his daughter, a barlow knife for his son, and 2 pounds of wintergreen candies for them all to enjoy. When he gets home, his wife uses the new kettle to make supper in. His daughter takes the needle and starts embroidering linen that she and her mother have woven from flax, and his son, now having his own knife, begins to carve birch brooms. The man begins sewing new harnesses for the young ox in the barn, and carves a new yoke for it and the whole cycle starts over again.

The illustrations in Ox-cart Man, by Barbara Cooney, are just beautiful. They look very much like paintings of early 19th century American folk artists. I highly recommend this book to everyone because the story and illustrations are so wonderfully matched. Just because it is found in the children's section does not mean it is meant only for the enjoyment of children!

I love this book because it reflects very much how wonderful a simple life can be, where everything you need comes from the hard work of your own hands. While I wouldn't give up my computer for anything, sometimes I think I would like to work at a place like Old Sturbridge Village, where everything you have is grown, gathered or else acquired by selling what you have grown (or made from what you have grown as with the linen and wool). I guess that's why I like reenacting so much- I can work on hand crafts for the weekend and satisfy that wish for quaintness, but then come back to my world of conveniences during the week.