Archive for August, 2014

All Hail Mable

August 26th, 2014

mableSRBShe spelled her name Mable or Mabel on her caprice. No matter, my maternal grandmother was a hell of a baker.

Come to write that, I don’t believe I ever heard her use hell or damn, much  less the vulgarian terms we hear on TV or even from tots today. Still, she was well known in the little mountain town in the Potomac Highlands of eastern West Virginia for her pies, cobblers and particularly her breads.

Come a summer hot spell, as we have now in Boston, the visceral mnemonic, as relentless and insistent as Proust’s madeleine, differs among us. Some see themselves as lizards, warming their blood in the sun. Others hie and hide in bars with loud companions and cold drinks. It’s the beach or porch person to person.

To me, it’s Mable’s salt-rising bread.The misnamed loaf really requires sun and heat, 90° or so to make the starter, then raise the dough and loaves in two sessions of a two to three-day process. In my many summers in Romney, I knew what was up when I saw the jar with the starter, then the huge bowl covered with a towel on the back lawn.

For the misnomer, the bread has very little sat and the salt has nothing of moment to do with its rising. You might call it potato-rising bread or perhaps just another form of pain au levain. Its yeast comes from what’s in the air, a pinch of baking soda, the potato starch and just a little sugar as a catalyst.

It is a wonder and a delight — once you transcend the aroma of the starter and the baking bread. Mable’s recipe is from one of her handwritten cards in her yellow index-card recipe box. It starts “At noon, slice 2 potatoes into a jar…” and continues with understood steps (for example, she writes “make loaves” but doesn’t bother with the obvious grease loaf pans and coat with corn meal, which you should know), and inexact quantities (such as “fat the size of an egg). After all, her notes were for herself.

Regardless, I had my own issues with martinet Mable who was co-host to my sister and me for summers into our high-school years, along with Granddad, her husband. I never quibbled with her baking and loved seeing the big bowl on the lawn.

The yeast concoction produces a froth with what her recipe writes is “a peculiar odor.” It continues that after you’ve prepared the potato starter and waited for a day, “If it doesn’t have the foam and odor do not use it.”

The peculiar odor indicated what makes the yeast from next to nothing and what produces the splendid taste, particularly when sliced very thinly and toasted. The taste is intense and unique. Mable revisits whenever the hot days inspire me to open the yellow box.

 

Urban critters

August 20th, 2014

We see coyotes, raccoon, opossums and such in our part of Boston. I scouted out a few more today at Forest Hills Cemetery and the in-town Audubon nature center.

In Lake Hibiscus in the middle of the graveyard, I was surprised to see a pretty big snapping turtle (surely undocumented immigrant). It was pretty creepy. It came from maybe 30 feet off-shore and surfaced just below me by the tiny rocky beach. As I moved about 100 feet along the shore, it tracked me. I began to feel like it was viewing me as a two-legged fish…a snack.

The lake has regular turtles, cormorants, and of course the usual ducks and geese.

A short distance down Walk Hill, I trotted the fox trail (el sendero del zorro on the sign). The hen turkeys did the turkey trot faster. They did not want to chat or play.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

 

Cormorants in the cemetery lake were chowing down on little fish. corm1
corm5 Several cormorants used the boulders as bases to flap and dry off.
The snapping turtle seemed to find me fascinating…maybe edible.

Less spookily, was he used to someone on land tossing bread?

snap3
smallerturtle The shiny to-scale turtles like the warming rocks in the cemetery lake.
The wild turkey hens were not happy with my being on their trail. They quickly repaired elsewhere. turkeyleave
snap2 [Jaws theme here] The snapper followed me along the shore and several times stuck its anaconda neck out to get closer.

Carp Anglers?

August 7th, 2014

I have good spam filters on  my blogs as well as email accounts. I do scan the trapped messages, as much for amusement as the likelihood of an error.

Today, one here intrigued me. Freezers for fishing boats led with, “Here are a few very big secrets every thinking carp angler who wants to keep ahead of the crowd needs to know.”

I”m not sure why the spammer thought my personal, non-sports fishing blog was a good place to plant such an ad. I suppose it was non-thinking effort, a shotgun blast of shill. That inane spam probably hit hundreds, maybe thousands, of blogs through automation. Some surely don’t filter well or at all.

A quick Google search returned 40 results currently embedded in blogs with that exact phrase. I don’t know how many of those converted to fish-freezer clicks and sales. I do know that such frequent attempts keep me filtering this and my other blogs. I don’t want to read an blog’s comments only to run across such carp crap.

Heir B&B

August 6th, 2014

Sure enough, you can stay at Suzy Cunningham’s on Gravel Lane in Romney, West Virginia. That means little to folk, even those who live in Hampshire County.

SuzysWhen I was thinking about a trip to my only constant home of my childhood, I was very surprised thato Airbnb had anything at all in Romney. I was very pleased to see that the Gravel Lane Guest House was one I knew well.

I tuck a cropped image of it here.

I have to wonder how many of these deep-memory/ghost houses are in the Airbnb catalog.

The back of her house shared the yard with the back of my grandparents’. Suzy and my grandmother, Mable Michael, were best friends for many decades. Suzy was maybe a decade older, likely born at the end of the 19th Century and they could chat long enough to drive all the rest of us away.

My grandfather, Bill Michael, grew patches as he called his massive gardens, every summer. Mable and Bill would play a little vegetable or fruit game frequently. She say, “Bill, I could use a few pole beans.” That was code for I’m ready to can and freeze. He’d put me to work helping him harvest several bushels. Likewise if was fruit, he’d drive up the adjacent mountains and return with huge wooden baskets of fruit.

Then the community gathered under the massive maple tree between the two houses. Suzy and Mable, other friends, relatives and any kid who didn’t hide would be put to work. We’d shell peas, string beans (remember when they had strings you had to strip?), and Lima beans. Adults got the heavy metal lawn chairs and kids squeezed onto picnic-table benches or sat on the grass.

Hours of food prep led to hours of washing and bagging or boiling and sealing jars. After a few of these episodes, the whole basement wall of shelves became stocked with several layers of beans, tomatoes, beets, picked cukes and more. One of Mable’s two basement freezers had labeled, dated freezer bags and Tupperware. (The other freezer was for meat; her son often brought by a butchered half deer too.)

My grandmother often used me as courier. I’d ferry things to or from Suzy. Mable was the great baker, so it was often a pie, cobbler or bread loaf from Marsham Street to Gravel Lane. Suzy always insisted that I come in and sit. The curtains were half drawn or more. The living room should have had the feeling of a horror movie, but Suzy was ever cheerful and every visit offered really good hard candy.

For her part, Suzy liked Mable’s front porch. It faced the mountains. We saw the apple and peach orchards. More impressively, we could watch the rain. It was a science lesson as the rain clouds formed behind the mountains, gathering and darkening as they crested. We knew what kind of rain Romney would get by seeing it fall first on the orchards. It was the weather version of a phalanx of soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder straight ahead.

Suzy even had me bring her favorite rocker to Mable’s porch. It had upholstery like a carpet bag and elaborate curved arms carved like swan heads and necks.

Suzy died long ago and Mable maybe 15 years later. My grandmother inherited and used the swan rocker. The massive maple gave into old age, no more to host the 17-year cicada invasion. That was a highlight of one youthful summer watching them push out of their shells,which were left clinging to the bark.

Suzy was not a relative, but then again was at least as good and familiar. Her house was not ours, but we were always welcome…without knocking. Like most of my grandmother and mother’s friends, she insisted I call her by her first name. As a Southerner, my default was Ma’am or Sir to anyone older than I, at least any adult. Somehow I was on a first-name basis with many who were 50 to 80 years older than I. That worked for all of us.

So seeing Suzy’s house in the catalog (only $95 a night for two and a little more for three or four) was homey in a commercial way. Over the years, the house was lightened up considerably. The beautiful wood floor aren’t smothered in oriental rugs. The appliances aren’t the creepy post-WWII colors and on and on.

But its Suzy’s house and when we visit next, I intend to stay there.