With the preponderance of plastic items everywhere you turn, it’s a real challenge to figure out how to reduce my use. Take, for instance, the celebratory picnic of grandson’s swim team season two weeks ago. Hotdogs and hamburgers would be furnished, but each family was to bring along “prepackaged” sides to make the meal complete. Prepackaged? I visualized single serving chip bags, plastic containers of fruit or pudding, industrial cookies and brownies, wrapped and sealed in plastic before packaging in paperboard boxes.
How to reduce my family’s plastic contribution?
Here’s what I decided to do. I baked a batch of home-made oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips, and put one cookie each inside a single paper sleeve.
I had found a supply of these online when preparing a promotion of Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File at an old-time crafts festival.
Then I cleaned and sanitized 24 small plastic cups that included plastic lids, which came with the free USDA summer lunches provided during COVID for the grandson. I selected ripe and attractive grapes, chunks of melon, and a bing cherry, and made two dozen fresh fruit cups. I sealed them with the cleaned lids. Okay, I know. This was still in plastic, but at least it was re-used plastic before it was tossed into the trash bins.
This reducing plastic thing is hard. It’s everywhere, and we’re so used to it, we don’t even think about it anymore.
After watching the documentary The Story of Plastic with several friends and neighbors last month, and reading Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, I am convinced we need to move toward a plastic free world sooner, rather than later. Like maybe, yesterday. Or last year.
It’s not going to be easy. Look around. Nearly everything we do, everything we have, everything we shop for at the local stores is–if not made of plastic itself–wrapped up in it, sealed with it, packaged, bottled, bagged in it. We are so used to plastic in our lives, where do we even begin?
Beth Terry has some really good ideas about that. Her book is chock-full of tips, personal stories (mostly from her experiences), and suggestions for alternatives. I highly recommend it for everyone. It’s written so engagingly, that I was trying some of her ideas with each chapter, without waiting to finish the book. For quick starters, she also blogs at https://myplasticfreelife.com/
For instance, take plastic bags. These nuisances are very bad for the environment, totally unnecessary, but so hard to avoid. I am old enough to recall the days before plastic bags when everything was bagged in paper bags. And of course, we were urged to change our habits then to save the trees! What about the days before paper bag convenience? What about a hundred years ago? What, even, do some other countries do today (or at least in the more recent past, before the bag-pushers got to them)?
People once were responsible for providing their own take-out crates, bags, or boxes. And in some places, that custom still exists. Here at home, it seems that every worthy organization offers free re-usable shopping bags. Some are more road-worthy than others, but at least they aren’t hard to find. I have a dozen in my car, ready for toting new purchases. The good thing about cloth bags is that they can be tossed into the laundry and cleaned for reuse. We just have to remember to take a few into the store when we get the week’s provisions.
If you are a little short on bags, Beth Terry offered good ideas for making your own. How many of us have a drawer-full of old t-shirts we’ve collected at various events? I know I do. They serve a purpose for a day or two, and then gradually get buried under other shirts. Try digging out some t-shirts you haven’t worn for years and make them into shopping bags.
Trim the sleeves off, just outside the seams. Trim the neckline to make the top opening bigger. This need not be hemmed, just leave it raw cut.
Turn the shirt inside out and sew two seams across the bottom. Two seams adds strength.
Turn it right-side out, and you’ve got a bag.
If you happen to have a tank top that hasn’t been worn for a long time, it’s even easier. No sleeves to trim! Just double-seam the bottom edge and it’s a ready-made bag.
If you have no sewing machine, just cut a fringe and tie knots along the bottom. For a festive look, add beads, or other bits of things.
You can express yourself with the shirts you choose, and have a Uniquely You collection of reusable shopping bags. Or make some to give away each time you shop.
One other homemade bag suggested in the book is one crocheted out of plarn. I had never heard of plarn, but it’s a thing. Google it and you’ll find all kinds of video instructions on how to make a ball of “plarn” (that is, plastic yarn) from shopping bags. There are detailed instructions on the crocheting process, and even patterns for other items, like bedrolls for homeless people. (Really!) Talk about re-using something. A bedroll would take lots of bags from landfills already overflowing with once-used plastic stuff, or re-purpose hundreds that otherwise might blow into the trees in your hometown or the pond in your park, and might even provide a bit of comfort for those with precious little of that commodity.
My experimental plarn bag, still light-weight, but with the strength of 50 single-use bags:
Show and tell reusable homemade bags at the screening of The Story of Plastic:
Zero Plastic, Step One: Carry (and use!) reusable shopping bags.
Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by a glut of information on a topic, the immensity of a problem or a challenge, that I quite literally don’t know where to begin. Plastic pollution is such a topic. Plastics and me have had a decades-long feud. Though I grew up in the early days of the plastic boom, love for the natural world and wilderness led me to associate plastics with everything cheap and shoddy. The preponderance of the growing available products—from cheap tourist souvenirs to Tupperware (remember the parties??!)—helped me associate the word “plastic” with things that lacked authenticity: cheap imitations, counterfeit, false, fake, superficial, synthetic, and MAN-MADE.
As I moved from my parents’ home, my older sister gave me a set of dinnerware; four each of plates, bowls, and cups—a generous gift to start my adult life. But I was horrified because they were PLASTIC! I’m sure she felt conflicted and confused by my reaction, but the plastic set was returned to the store and traded for a couple pieces of cast iron cookware. (I later settled on a set of ceramic dinnerware.)
Shortly after that, I discovered No More Plastic Jesus by Adam Daniel Finnerty that became a guide book for life. Once again here, plastic meant fake, artificial, and superficial. It has been my lifelong passion to seek genuine things. Some of those are indeed crafted by human hands (take pianos, for example, or the handcrafted furniture in my office made in my father’s woodworking shop), but they use what Nature provides, not what chemists can create by manipulating petroleum into indestructible other stuff.
Having studied a science discipline in my undergraduate curriculum, (geology, a “natural science”) I get testy when people sneer at science and scientists in general. I recall a class I took in preparation for a secondary teaching certificate in the physical sciences. It was called “Science, Technology, and Society” and was a forum to examine ethical questions behind scientific exploitation of Nature’s gifts. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.
Chemists are scientists too. Just because we know how to re-form the molecules in petroleum and natural gas into long, indestructible polymers, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discarded plastic products pile up in waste streams and emit the toxins added somewhat secretly by petro-chemical companies to enhance product qualities, clog waterways and swirl in our oceans. It’s becoming clear that even though we humans discovered how to make cheap single-use plastic products, we should not be inundating our planet with the stuff.
Environmental writers around the world note that some plastic products are very beneficial. In the medical field, plastics save lives. In transportation, they help make our vehicles more fuel efficient. On a piano keyboard, plastic saves the lives of elephants whose tusks formerly were used to cover wooden keysticks.
Most of the beneficial plastics are meant to endure for decades. Those we encounter on grocery shopping trips are meant to be thrown away. Single-use plastic products, packaging, and shopping bags have become a huge global problem. And that’s got lots of people riled up, justifiably.
I’ve been reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle, and Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry. In addition, there are numerous blogs addressing plastic pollution with ideas for each of us to make a statement–and a difference–in various ways.
The pictures painted by each of these authors show a global emergency. If we don’t curtail the production and use of single-use disposable plastics before the plastics industry is a century old, there will be more plastic items in the Earth’s oceans than ocean life. No form of animal life –not even humans—will be free from synthetic polymers in the organs of their bodies. (Discover Magazine, “Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear”, Jillian Mock, January 11, 2020)
Plastic pollution is a global crisis and it’s driven by the petro-chemical industry. In my hometown, every year a group of volunteers cleans our beautiful park of plastic trash as an April, Earth Day project. How disheartening to see the confounded stuff return before May 1! Some trash blows in, other items are carelessly littered, still more is “harvested” from appropriate trash receptacles by roaming nocturnal wildlife.
Our homes are filled with the indestructible polymers. With daunting names like low density polyethylene, (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, (PS), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), nylon, or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), these “poly-mers” are found in items from children’s toys to floor coverings, to toothbrushes, to water pipes, to cookware and grocery packaging to nearly everything else.
The Story of Stuff organization has produced a documentary, The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, veritable mountains of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival industry footage beginning in the 1930s, and first-person accounts of the unfolding emergency, the film distills a complex problem that is increasingly affecting the well-being of the planet and its residents.
Locally, we’ve been given a chance to view this highly acclaimed film as part of Marquee’s Green Screen summer film series, Saturday July 24, 7:00 pm in the lobby of the theater. Local residents are invited to come to the screening. There is no admission charge. To view the film’s trailer, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so. Bring questions and ideas about combatting the local glut of plastic trash. Be sure to RSVP on Marquee’s Facebook event page so organizers can plan accordingly. For a five-minute animated condensation of the documentary, see https://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-plastic-animation/
I was invited to share a few thoughts for Earth Sunday at my church this year. The presentation received enthusiastic endorsements and is worth passing along. I share it below.
A year and a half ago, I headed to Nebraska for an “Elders for the Earth” retreat with the Hunters and Aurora from GUMC. I found it exhilarating to be with a roomful of folks attuned to the ballooning climate crisis, and respectful of the leadership offered by the world’s indigenous peoples.
There were seminars by experts in various fields, including a biology professor, a Catholic sister who shared how the global climate crisis affects our immigration issues, a panel of farmers who advocated for regenerative agriculture, and the Nebraska Sierra Club. Most important for me was the connection with others who share my anxiety about the future of life on Earth and who want to do something about it.
The weekend concluded with a native American smudging ceremony and we returned to our homes pledging actions to effect change that fit our own situations.
Little did I know how much that retreat would change my life. I returned home with ideas for action and a reading list. In the process of working through the books, COVID hit and our old “normal” world changed overnight.
None of us have escaped the COVID months unscathed. If we didn’t contract the virus ourselves, we certainly knew those who did. We all know people who suffered severe symptoms, and even some who succumbed to the virus. Yet in spite of the dire consequences, COVID months provided opportunities to stretch in different directions. I found myself zooming into conference calls with literally hundreds of people around the world, enrolling in online classes that focused on our climate challenges, as well as social justice, and economic systems. Through leadership of indigenous peoples around the world, I expanded my horizons and my hopes for our common future supported by an expanding awareness of our Earth community.
A couple of people and their ideas kept showing up in my varied explorations.
One was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, a scientist, a writer and a member of the Citizen Potawatomie nation. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass helped change my life during COVID. The first time I ever read about Robin was in the run-up to last year’s 50th anniversary of Earth day in the Sierra magazine. She was a featured contributor and her description of a conversation with a student echoes in my mind yet today. “I’m sorry,” she said to this student, “that you have to still fight these environmental battles.” The student responded, “Don’t you see that this is the best possible time to be alive?” (What?! Climate chaos? Extinction crisis?) The student looked her in the eyes and said, “We are on the precipice. When everything hangs in the balance, it matters where I stand. How wonderful to live in a time when everything that I do matters.”
I actually had never thought of it quite like that. But that one idea opened lots of doors. The Elders Retreat helped me realize how complex the crisis we face really is.
Every part of our lives is impacted, from the food we eat to our economy, transportation, government, justice.
Everything on planet Earth is interconnected in ways we are just beginning to understand and no part of my life is immune to change.
Situations highlighting inequities in every area of our lives exploded over the last year. I could easily give in to hopelessness about our children’s future.
But I can’t allow myself that luxury. Those who can least afford to do anything about our climate are the neighbors we are to love and care for. One of my remote friends shared a gift that COVID presented her, the realization that families are made not by birth but by intention. COVID made our family grow to 7.9 billion people.
I can’t afford a moment of despair. But how do I find hope? There are hundreds of thousands of groups working toward a viable future around the world, representing millions of people. That gives me hope.
Another resource that the retreat introduced that I encountered over and over was the Drawdown project.
Through it I learned that we have at least 80 different ways to bring about a Drawdown of the warming gasses in our atmosphere. As COVID loosens its grip on our hometown, and our planet, we have a chance to return cautiously to a new “normal”—certainly not the old one—
that will put us on the path toward restoration of a healthy and viable planet for all of God’s creation. I find that exciting news, and I hope you do too. No one person can do it all, but I can do my part.
As one human family, with each of us doing our part, that will make the difference we need.
It was tradition. When it came time to depart a visit to my parents, Mother faithfully packed us out with goodies from my dad’s garden and her kitchen. We could count on serving her favorite coffeecake at the next day’s breakfast. And over the years, we all grew to love that coffeecake. Today, not as faithfully, but still often, I bake one to share with my now-grown kiddos. They love it too. Family traditions and comfort cooking bring happy memories and warm smiles.
Mother has been gone nearly 18 years now, but she lives on in our hearts and our lives. With her in mind, I baked up a coffeecake to take along on my Easter visit to our daughter and granddaughter a state away. In keeping with Mother’s trademark “simple and delicious” recipes, this Apple Coffeecake is a winner. It is also a great way to use up milk that has gone sour. But you can make it even with sweet milk, altering the ingredients just a tiny bit. If you plan to use 1 cup sweet milk instead of the sour milk, omit the soda in the recipe and add one more teaspoon of baking powder. Alternatively, you could add 1 T lemon juice to the sweet milk to sour it.
To bake this delicious cake, first mix together:
2 ½ cups flour
2 cups brown sugar
½ tsp salt
2/3 cup butter or margarine
Once it’s mixed so that the butter crumbs spread evenly throughout, the next step is very important. Remember: reserve ½ cup of this sugar mixture for later.
To the rest of the mixture add:
½ tsp soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
2 tsp baking powder
(Here’s where you determine if you need to change the 1/2 tsp soda to another tsp of baking powder–making 3 tsp baking powder total–or add a souring agent to 1 cup of sweet milk.)
In a small bowl, combine:
2 beaten eggs
1 cup sour milk
Mix well with the sugar/flour mixture.
Peel, core, and finely dice one apple of your choice.
Add the apple to the batter. Stir well.
Spread in a greased and floured 9” x 13” cake pan.
Sprinkle the reserved topping over the batter.
Bake at 350 for 40 minutes.
Simple. Delicious. And ready to eat in only an hour, fresh out of the oven.
Favorite dishes in our family originate in many places. Grandmother kitchens, as well as mother kitchens, mother-in-law kitchens, and those of friends have produced satisfying and tasty concoctions that remain favorites through generations. It’s surprising how often friends will exchange recipes that work their way onto the list of favorites.
I thumbed through the cards in my file and noted several that have achieved staying power. One was a main dish that has a name begging creative upgrade: “Hamburger on French Bread.” Through the years we have referred to this as “Topped French Bread,” or “French Bread Pizza.” Nothing seems to stick with permanence.
The recipe card was written in my mother’s handwriting, noting that its source was the mother of our good childhood friends, Fredia. Sixty years ago, my sisters and I belonged to a 4-H club and enjoyed getting together for learning projects with friends that we still keep in touch with today. I recall Fredia as an active 4-H project leader, sharing several recipes that had staying power, just like the friendship between our families.
On my latest trip to the grocery store, a display just inside the door offered French bread loaves at a special price. I took it as a sign that the “French Bread Pizza-zz” was next on the Comfort Food list. For many years, French bread loaves were offered in foil wrappers that could be used in the oven. No longer. But I discovered that the long narrow loaves fit nicely, in a diagonal orientation, in 13” x 9” cake pans, which is what I used to prepare this favorite main dish.
Here’s what you need to make this satisfying dish:
Cut a loaf of French bread in half, long ways.
Mix a pound of lean ground beef with 1/3 cup evaporated milk, 1/4 cup of crushed crackers, 1 egg, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1 1/2 tsp prepared mustard, 1 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper. A handy tool is a potato masher.
Spread ½ of the meat mixture on each half of the bread.
Wrap in foil, or place in a 13 x 9 pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
Bake 20 minutes at 350 F.
Sprinkle ½ cup grated cheese on each half of the loaf. Bake 5 minutes longer.
Slice into desired servings and enjoy.
This recipe is a keeper. My grandson’s comment at dinnertime: “We need to make this more often!”
Perhaps every grandmother bakes cookies. Mine sure did. And there was this one recipe that in my mind was unique to Grandma Georgia. Her recipe for Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies wouldn’t have stood out as special to me, just looking through recipes. Though I am fond of brown sugar concoctions, I have never really taken to raisins. But this cookie wouldn’t be the same without them. In her recipe file, she labeled them “Ola’s Cookies”. Her youngest sister was named Ola. She must have thought fondly of Ola whenever she baked a batch of these cookies. I think of Grandma Georgia. To me, the flavor speaks of delicious odors filling her simple house, her hearty laughter, and her ready hugs. These cookies say “Grandma” as clearly as anything ever could.
I must tell you that the mix of flavors–lemon, brown sugar, and stewed raisins– grows on you and it’s nearly impossible to eat just one. I will also let you know that for years after Grandma Georgia shared this prize recipe with my mother, we could not figure out her secret. Ours never quite ended up the same as Grandma’s cookies. However once upon a time she divulged her little secret (a bit resentfully, as if everyone should just know how to do this.) She always baked a test cookie before she put a sheet of them into the oven. After baking one, if it didn’t turn out light and fluffy, she added more flour. So we learned that recipes aren’t cut in stone. They are meant to be adjusted to preferences and current conditions.
Suffice it to say that the cookies turn out much better (more like Grandma’s) if the dough is very stiff to start with. You don’t want them spreading out too much during the baking process.
Grandma Georgia’s Brown Sugar Raisin Cookies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Measure a cup of raisin into a saucepan. Cover them with water and simmer them gently while you prepare the rest of the cookie dough.
Cream together 1 cup Crisco and 2 cups brown sugar. Note: I learned a few months ago that genuine Crisco has a component of palm oil in it, which is not environmentally friendly, given that much land in tropical countries is altered to produce the palm trees to meet palm oil demand. I used 1 cup of real butter instead with no detriment to the finished product.
Measure 3 1/2 cups sifted flour and sift with 2 tsp soda and 2 tsp cream of tartar. Mix the dry ingredients into the dough.
Drain the raisins after they are soft and plump. Add them to the cookie dough, and add 1 cup nutmeats, if desired.
Mix well with your hands. “Makes them soft,” wrote Grandma Georgia.
Drop by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet.
Bake 10 – 15 minutes in the pre-heated oven.
This recipe makes 4 to 5 dozen delicious cookies that provide a taste into the past, a simple, wholesome life filled with love and laughter.
A bit of Grandma’s life wisdom:
“When I was younger and my feelings got hurt or a problem was hard to solve, I would get my hoe, and I would hoe and hoe, as hard as I could, until the problem didn’t seem so big. I used to have a wonderful garden!”
With a sense of blissful excitement, I am pleased to announce the arrival of my latest book project, Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File. A divergence from my previous endeavors–hardly suspense fiction–there’s not a single piano in its pages, but it’s still ripe with story.
Georgia Wells Harris was a quiet woman, but she opened her home and her heart to everyone. Each of her family members loved her dearly. She lived a devout faith, slow to anger, loving through dissention, refusing to judge others. Born October 3, 1891 in the Ozark hills of Missouri, her family migrated to central Kansas before the turn of the century in covered wagons, and by rail. She lived through the depression, two world wars, birthed four children, and buried two of them before her own last breath. A farm wife, her realm was home and garden. She kept everyone fed through good times and bad.
She spent her free time crafting quilts and gave them away to each of her children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren that she knew. She socialized with clubs of neighbor women at church and in a one-room schoolhouse auxiliary called “72 Club.” She delighted in simple things and her easy laughter was contagious.
My grandmother’s dilapidated recipe file came to me a decade ago after my father passed away. Though I always knew I would share it someday, the time for sharing was postponed by the bustle of a busy life. I wanted to share the cards with all my grandmother’s living grandchildren, my two sisters and a cousin and me. But the project got tabled, and mostly forgotten.
Then a year ago, that busy life came to a standstill due to the COVID restrictions. I am not the only person who discovered that one blessing of the COVID time was to open the chance to catch up on long-overdue projects. This was one of them. In fact, the slower pace reminded me of Grandma Georgia and how I appreciated the slower pace of her life.
Visits to her in my young adulthood always slowed me down and I relished the peace of her quiet life. Last October I pulled the little pink recipe file box from my hutch and began to catalog the cards. It didn’t take long to realize that there were very few duplicates. I would have to split them up. How could I possibly divide them into 4 equivalent batches? What if I sent the wrong recipes to people? Then there was the valid possibility that maybe–just maybe–we’d all like the entire set of recipes.
The idea of making a recipe book was born the moment I realized it would be impossible to split up the cards and be sure that the right granddaughter received those appropriate for her. Why not make them all available to all of us? I began to type the recipes into word documents on my computer. As I typed, it became clearer how much of our lives are told by the food we eat, those favorite dishes we share with our loved ones.
She had noted names on many cards, to remember who provided those recipes to her. Some people I knew. Many I barely knew. Some were total strangers to me. Her dear daughter, and some of us grandchildren were noted, but there were other family names I had only heard about, including Mabel and Florence Ethel (Pete) whom you might recall from the story “High Courage.”
I became doubly excited about this booklet idea. In addition to creating my grandmother’s recipe book, I would use this project to learn how to format manuscripts for publication. The project took on multiple objectives.
I intended to surprise my sisters and cousin at Christmastime.
Well, some things just can’t be rushed. Christmas came and went, and I was still working on designing the cover with the help of my computer-savvy stepson. What’s wrong with Valentine’s Day, I thought? Often in past years, our “Christmas” greetings became Fellentines. This could fit right into that.
But Valentine’s Day came and went also, while waiting on the printing process.
However, I am happy to announce that the project has come to a very successful completion. Last week, I received my first order of the recipe books, and I packaged up several to send off and surprise family members. The unexpected books by now have reached every destination, so the secret is out!
When chatting about this project in December with some friends, I mentioned that I didn’t expect anyone beyond family to be interested. But some friends insisted that they would like the opportunity to have one of these traditional family cookbooks. I felt quite honored by that declaration. My proof-reader sister asked if I’d autographed all the books, and I replied, “I autographed NONE of them. I don’t really feel like it’s my book. It’s Grandma Georgia’s.”
With satisfaction, I can report that I did manage to work through the steps to format this booklet without assistance. Very cool. No need to shy away from that process in my future endeavors. And with love filling my heart, I can say that the opportunity to read through some of Grandma Georgia’s letters was incredibly rewarding. I had kept every one that she sent me before she died June 25, 1990. The correspondence allowed me to season the book with bits of her life philosophy. In this blog’s new “Comfort Foods” category, I will share a few more recipes, as well as snippets of philosophy, in coming weeks. There will be recipes from Georgia’s kitchen, but also some from other beloved friends and relatives. Stay tuned!
My heart is full. I offer the recipe book with love to anyone who needs a lift.
COVID season provided ample opportunity for reflection. Who am I anyway? Or who are WE? How did we get here? Where are we headed?
Much of my ruminating led to angst. We don’t know for sure where we are headed. Events of the last year placed a lot of lifelong assumptions, assurances, and dreams under the scrutinizing lens of a societal microscope and we came up lacking—lacking equality and justice, lacking compassion, lacking financial security and equity. In other areas we have far too much—distrust of each other, division, despair.
Through it however, I discovered that an open mind, willingness to embrace new ideas and habits, reinforcing resilience, and following new paths to adventure were good medicine. Laughter with friends, online or masked, helped also.
Another of my go-to tactics was to remember good times and loved ones who have departed. I recall they made it through difficult days—or even years—and that helps. If they did, so can we.
I discovered one good way to access memories is through food. I am no gourmet chef. In fact, I am one of those people who really HATES to cook. I have always looked at food preparation as a necessary inconvenience. However, I discovered that preparing family favorites passed along by loved ones was therapeutic. I delighted in preparing dishes that make me think of lost family members. Call it comfort food. The stories behind favorite family recipes, their origins and evolution, offer warm fuzzies in the way of good memories, as well.
Today I launch a new thread in my blog–Comfort Food recipes, brought to me by dear friends and beloved family members. Many of the originals live in my recipe box, and when I read the ingredients and instructions, penned in my grandmother’s or mother’s handwriting, it’s as if they are just around the corner, waiting to share some familiar conversational topics. In “Comfort Foods” I will share food stories also, the memories associated with the recipes, and how they came to be favorites.
I start the series with a favorite from my Grandma Georgia, “Peach Seed Jelly.” Yes, you read that right. It is jelly made from a pan of peach seeds. Though I don’t know its origin, I can visualize Grandma Georgia tending to those peaches from her wild peach tree on the west side of the wheat field. After canning the sliced peaches, she discovered how to make use of them down to the leftover seeds, probably with a little help from her friends.
This story has to start in the springtime. After the recent polar weather we experienced, I look forward to this year’s spring. Will the fruit trees bloom again this year? Will the balmy weather allow them to produce fruit again? A few years ago, I learned that the flowering tree at the corner of a building my dad built on the property next door was a peach tree. Prior to that I assumed it to be an ornamental plum since it had never produced fruit in the three decades that we’ve lived here. As it grew, it gifted us with cascades of blossoms during several springs. The fruit finally showed up, and for the last two years, branches were laden with delicate, small white peaches. There was enough to collect and can for the winter, along with several pints of white peach jam.
The story could stop there. But it doesn’t. When I was a child, Grandma Georgia shared a recipe for “Peach Seed Jelly” that my mother utilized several times. Mother discovered that you don’t have to make the jelly during the summer’s canning season. Peach seeds can be frozen and kept a year or two—until there are enough to make a good batch of jelly. When the peach jam jars are empty, and canned peaches nearly depleted, winter is a perfect time to thaw out those peach seeds and make jelly.
Cover the peach seeds with boiling water and simmer on the stove for about five minutes. Let the seeds stand overnight in this water.
Next morning strain and measure the juice.The seeds will now be relegated to the compost bin, or offered to the hens to peck over.
Add 1 package of fruit pectin to each three cups of juice. For this batch, I measured 9 cups of juice, so I needed three packages of pectin.
Bring this to a vigorous boil, stirring constantly.
Add equal parts of sugar as juice. 9 cups juice requires 9 cups sugar. However, I have reliably had better luck with a ratio of 4:3 sugar to juice. 9 cups juice to 12 cups sugar.
Cook at the boiling point until drops sheet off a spoon in the jell test.
This takes maybe 15 – 20 minutes.
I have never been certain when this point is reached, or even identifying drops “sheeting” off the spoon but I discovered that you can test a spoonful on a lid or small dish. Place it in the refrigerator for a minute to see if it jells.
When it’s ready, seal the jelly in pint jars. Process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.
This is a delightful jelly, with a flavor that cannot be duplicated in any purchased peach jelly or jam. One year, after a top-ranking ribbon at the county fair, my daughter took it to the state fair. No doubt about it, Peach Seed Jelly is a family favorite. After a successful batch, we get quite protective of it. We have even been known to ration its use by novices, just in case they don’t find it as desirable as we do!
A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.
George Chandler, his son Gene, and the horse Ned went doggedly forward and when the man felt sleepy in spite of himself, he knew he must act. He stopped the horse and slid out of the saddle. He could hardly support himself and clung to the stirrup. The horse dropped his head to the snow and snorted furry icicles from his nostrils. The man pulled the chilled boy into the saddle and carefully wrapped the blanket about his cold feet and legs. He removed the long wool scarf from his own neck and wound it round and round the head and shoulders of his son. He slapped his hands against his chest and stomped up and down until he felt renewed circulation of blood in his veins and his feet did not feel so much like frozen lumps.
When he felt somewhat restored, he gave Ned a slap on the rump and grasped the stirrup firmly. They proceeded on their way. The wind remained bitter and fierce. The cold grew more intense. George thought it must be after midnight. He was sure they were still several miles from home.
He gave himself up to thought. He believed in prayer and he had to have some help right now. He asked God for strength and endurance. He prayed for the son in the saddle and for the precious daughter who had been so faithful during these months when he had been forced to be away from home. As he prayed, he was strengthened. He felt reassured that they would reach home.
Gene seemed to be sleep on the horse. George’s thoughts drifted. He remembered himself as a mere lad in the Army of the Republic. He recalled the joyful day he married Hannah Priscilla Crabtree. He remembered the home life in Missouri and the glowing reports of cheap land in Kansas. These reports had fired both his and his wife’s imagination, so he had purchased their present home from a local land agent whom he had trusted implicitly. They had loaded their belongings in the two big wagons. With the crated chickens fastened underneath the wagon beds, and the boys driving the cows and extra horses, they came west from Kansas City on the great trail.
The Chandlers reached their destination in northern Lyon County, Kansas a week later. No one would ever know his bitter disappointment when he had first seen the treeless, poor upland farm that he had bargained for. He had not known there was so much pasture in all the world. He had dreamed of a farm in the bend of a creek, but the creek turned out to be a gully that passed through his land as a raging torrent after a big rain, a dry slough the remainder of the time.
The horse dragged on. George staggered as he clung to Ned. His arms ached. With thoughts of the family that waited for him, he poured his last ounce of determination into his efforts. He resolutely lifted one foot after the other, glad that Gene was quiet.
The night was clearing enough that he recognized the little cemetery in the whiteness. Ned must have come this far west to avoid some very deep snow drifts. The horse was doing fine to know so much even it if did make the way a mile longer.
Thoughts continued like a rushing stream that would not be stopped. The Chandlers had worked at making a home on that upland claim. And then—oh dear God—there had been Delphia, the blue baby. Disconnected scraps of memories filled his laboring mind. “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.” Preachers always said those words in burial services.
With cold misgivings he asked himself, “Is there more than that in life?” Hannah was taken when he had needed her so badly. Was she better off than he this terrible night? The harrowing experience of moving little Delphia’s body from the corner to the place at the head of her mother haunted him. It was noon on a warm May day when the little disinterred coffin rested on the green grass. His helpers stood around while he obeyed an impulse to open the lid to peek at his darling child again. In the first instant as they all looked the baby form was there in its original angelic beauty. With the impact of warm air, the little form crumbled into a tiny mound of ashes.
Shuddering, George forced his mind back to his present surroundings. “I must be awfully cold to let myself think in this way,” he thought. “I will not doubt. The word says the spirit shall return to God who gave it. God help me,” he prayed, “to be able to say, even tonight, The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Aloud he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. I know that God giveth His children strength.”
At his voice, Gene mumbled “What did you say, Pa?”
The father answered, “We will get home. We are almost there.”
It was about three o’clock in the morning when the horse stopped at the stone house. The man gave a shout and dragged the nearly frozen boy from the saddle. The door flew open and Henry, followed by the tall neighbor boy, rushed out and half carried them into light and warmth. Charlie, the lame boy, limped away with old Ned, and while the people in the house worked over the man and the boy, restoring them with a tub of snow, Charlie fed and rubbed the animal that had brought his father and brother home safely home.
When only partially recovered from his night’s experience, the man whose sandy hair had turned white during the last twelve hours, turned to the bedside of his sick daughter.
As he stroked her hair, she spoke her last words, “I knew you would come, Pa.”
The father, with spasms of pain crossing and re-crossing his fine face, held the hand that so confidently had been placed in his. He realized his efforts to save this beloved daughter had been in vain.
As dawn broke over the windswept hillside, Etta Viola Chandler died. George gathered as many of his children as he could clasp into his arms. They clung to him or to each other as he bowed his head in submission and whispered so all could hear, “Thy will be done.”
That was the morning of January 19, 1882. The place was a quarter of a mile south of the original Santa Fe Trail that wended its way across northern Lyon County, Kansas. The Old Santa Fe Trail was the way thousands of people followed west in the 1800s. With their heads, hearts, and hands they literally created a democracy the likes of which is not found anywhere else on our earth.
Because of the bitter cold, Etta Viola Chandler, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, could not be buried in the little Bushong Cemetery beside her mother until January 24, 1882.
Notes about Mabel Chandler Harris, the author of this historical narrative, and the setting of the story.
Mabel was born to George Chandler and his second wife, Carrie, in 1890. She was one of eight children of this second marriage. The children in her “High Courage” story were mostly grown when Mabel was a child, but she must have heard this family story and her heart went out to their struggles.
Mabel married Loren Scott Harris, the older brother of my grandfather Charley Harris, on June 7, 1915. They had one child, Florence Ethel, born December 22, 1927, who was a favorite cousin of my father, Wallace. He called Florence by the nickname Pete.
Pete moved to Wichita during her adult years and shared this “High Courage” story with her dear friend and tax accountant. When Wallace moved to Cowley County from Lyon County, he also hired Pete’s accountant friend to handle his taxes, and I followed suit. During one of my annual tax meetings, she presented me with a copy of Mabel’s story about the blizzard of 1882.
Loren and Mabel lived in Dunlap, Kansas, just up the road from the Harris family homestead on the Neosho River where my grandfather and father lived. Mabel had the distinguished honor to become the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in the entire state of Kansas. She performed wedding ceremonies, and funerals, for many rural folks, including the Harris family.
The settler’s town named in the story, Bushong, Kansas, is today little more than a few neighborly homes on the paved county road due north of Americus, Kansas. To put more perspective on the horseback journey of Gene and his father on Ned the trusty horse, Bushong is a good 20 miles from the heart of Emporia. The stone cabin where Etta waited would have been even further. Gene and Ned traveled more than 40 miles in that storm, 20 of them on the return trip with George, in the dark, facing into the wind. That blows my mind. Teenage Gene indeed showed great courage, as well as a deep love for his sister and the rest of the family.