Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving and Tractors

The hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving preparations have come to an end and for that I am quite thankful. I normally prepare most of our food from scratch and this year was no exception. Raising our own turkey did not add any real work to the holiday preparations, but I was probably lacking wisdom when on Wednesday I cut up a couple pumpkins to cook into puree for pumpkin pie. Needless to say most of the activity over the last couple of days involved cooking.

Yesterday I awoke with a pretty bad migraine. Unfortunately, this delayed our meal since I didn't get the turkey into the oven until almost 11:00. (One might question the wisdom of cooking the neck and gizzards into a broth and then starting on the stuffing to put into the turkey. But I figured I had a pressure cooker to speed things up.) Fortunately I had prepared homemade cinnamon rolls which after a final rise and baking, made a delicious and decadent breakfast.

Unfortunately, I hadn't made lunch plans for the day and so I left Kurt to entertain the kids until our Thanksgiving meal finished cooking. Kurt handled the hungry children problem like a man.

Kurt simply cranked up the tractor and let Gregory drive the kids around the front yard.

It started with Gregory and Michael in the seat, but Gabrielle didn't want to be left out of the fun.

Being a very resourceful girl, Gabrielle simply jumped on the back of the tractor.

Of course I had asked Kurt to put the plow on the tractor for me. I'm still hoping.

In the end, the kids had a great time and hardly noticed they didn't get to eat until 4:00 p.m. Thanksgiving day.

As we sat around the table sharing the things for which we were thankful with each other, it turned out we were all thankful for the simple country life and the new job for Kurt with which the Lord has blessed us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Goodbye Mr. Tom

Yesterday morning at dawn, after the pancake breakfast I made when Kurt woke me up way too early, we dispatched our Thanksgiving turkey as well as one for my friend Darlene. I didn't photograph the process since posting blood and gore pictures goes beyond this blog's parameters.

Over breakfast, we discussed turkey dispatching methods. Some friends recently processed turkeys and decided they were much more difficult to pluck than chickens. Wanting a quick death for the turkeys, while at the same time trying to mercifully imitate recommended methods for loosening feathers and because my friend Diane in Alaska does it, we decided to use a gun. It worked well. We were able to pluck and clean our couple of turkeys in record time. I think the turkeys ended up being about 20 pounds each.

Darlene came over to help process her own turkey. Darlene is a hoot. She did not share my compunction about photographing the process and threatened to create a photo journal about the life and death of her Thanksgiving dinner to share with her guests. (Her mother has strictly prohibited it so it will be interesting to hear about what she does.) Darlene took her turkey's feet home to show her teenage son. (She called me later to find out if I knew how to properly preserve turkey feet - yeah, right.)

This year I am going to try brining my turkey. I've never done it before but my Las Vegas family members swear by this method.

Today, I need to turn some garden grown pumpkins into puree for pie. I love growing towards self sufficiency!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Making Cane Syrup

I'm finished! I woke up this morning with a song in my heart rejoicing. I didn't have to hastily face the cold morning. I didn't have to strain sugar cane juice. I didn't have to spend between 11 and 13 hours stirring and skimming at the stove. I am happy today.

Every day for the past 4 days, we lugged heavy 5 gallon buckets into the kitchen to strain the juice into large stock pots.

We brought 7 full buckets of un-strained sugar cane juice home from the Wilson homestead last weekend.

Miss Wanda told us to strain it with a cloth diaper. It took at least 4 of them each day to strain one 10 gallon batch. A colander easily supported the cloth.

We had to process the cane juice as quickly as possible before it soured. The Lord blessed us with very cold weather all week providing natural refrigeration. However, we still tried to get done quickly.

After talking to Miss Wanda about the need to process the cane juice quickly, we started Sunday after church. I have 1 six gallon stock pot and started with 5 gallons of syrup. I finished my first batch of syrup at 3:30 a.m. Monday and learned I would need to speed up the process. I cleaned out my water bath canner and inducted it into the process. I also used the lids to the pots to bring the juice to a boil faster.

Each bucket completely filled a pot with juice.

As the juice heated up, debris would foam to the top. I had to continually skim the foam from the pot as it rose up.

My husband searched the internet and told me not to skim the foam until after the juice boiled and the bubbles first broke through the foam. I tried that one day and found the churning caused some debris to sink back into the pot. The batch of syrup I did following this advice is not as clean as the batches where I started skimming before the boil. Mr. I.J. Wilson told me Saturday one did not learn farming from books. I will have to tell him he was right.

My husband Kurt also read the skimmings from the syrup making process could be used for natural fertilizer. This makes sense so I saved the skimmings.

Of course I don't have anything growing at present and I'm afraid to save the skimmings for long because I am sure they will ferment and turn nasty. I think I will mix them with the mulch I hope to spread on the garden beds after plowing under the weeds.

Each day, the cane juice slowly receded toward the bottom of the pot,

filling the house with steam.

Despite unusually dry conditions outside, humidity levels in the house remained high. Throughout the house, the windows stayed foggy.

By the 4th day, the kids reported rain in the house as condensation dripped from light fixtures and doorways. Thinking about it, I turned 35 gallons of juice into 4 gallons of syrup. This means I sent 31 gallons of water into the air! I begin to see some wisdom in processing syrup outdoors.

As the process of turning cane juice into cane syrup finalized, the liquid bubbled with an orange color. It also developed an orange tinted foam.

At this point I scooped a little syrup into a dish and cooled it quickly in the freezer. If the cool liquid had the consistency of honey, I turned off the heat and ladled the syrup into clean, warm jars.

Cane syrup needs no further processing and can be stored without refrigeration. I'm guessing it is shelf safe because it is a kind of dehydrated food.

In addition to the inside rain, there were a couple of challenges I faced while processing the sugar cane juice. The condition of the cane juice deteriorated as it sat, to the point my children no longer wanted to drink it. (I believe some of the sweetness disappeared as it started to sour. I'm thinking souring is simply a form of fermentation.) However, the juice never soured to the point of tasting sour and I can not really taste the difference in the final syrup.

Another challenge involved my 3 year old who didn't like having his Mom a prisoner to the stove for 4 days. (I ran to the bathroom once and my syrup boiled over. It really needs to be watched, especially while it is foaming during the first few hours and at the end.) In the end I compromised on my principles and allowed Michael to watch television during the day.

Normally we only watch a little television at the end of the day as a family (and then only dvds). However there are times when having a copy of "Chicken Run" in the house is a good thing.

My family presented another challenge. Seems they like to eat regularly. I am very glad I keep my pantry stocked with homemade foods. So, last night for dinner for example, I squeezed a sauce pan behind my stock pot and reheated a couple jars of homemade chicken soup.

I also took some homemade banana bread out of the freezer and re-baked it for a few minutes so it would taste fresh.

We survived on such fixings all week. Of course now that I am finished making syrup, I'm burned out on cooking and behind schedule. I really needed to bake some bread this morning, but all I did was make coffee and warm up some gingerbread I'd baked earlier this week (with some of our own cane syrup substituted for the sugar and molasses) for breakfast. Instead of making salsa with the tomatoes aging in the refrigerator, I spent hours at the computer catching up with email. With Thanksgiving coming, I really need to get back my cooking mojo.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pressing the Cane

On Saturday, we pressed our sugar cane and had a great afternoon of fellowship with a family at church we didn't know very well before. I had a blast, though Kurt says that is because he worked and I watched. Perhaps.

We arrived at the Wilson homestead with the back of Kurt's pick-up truck full of sugar cane. Mr. David helped Kurt unload.

The Wilson family grew and processed sugar cane for many years, but they haven't had a crop in probably 10 years. I asked whether they would be interested in getting rid of their cane press, but they are not. These old machines are almost impossible to find and if you find one, the owner's are typically not willing to sell them. I think I'm going to pray for one anyway and see what the Lord might do.

Mr. I.J. and Mr. David gave Kurt a quick lesson in using the cane press.

Mr. David connected his old Farmall tractor (just like ours) to the pole connected to the press for leverage and drove in circles around the press to power it. Everyone kept telling us, almost apologetically, the mule that had once driven the press, died a few years back. It was as though they thought we would somehow think the tractor a poor substitute. Like we would know the difference.

We brought a lot more cane than anyone expected. I thought we had about a hundred stalks and that is what I told the Wilson family. Turns out we had closer to 300 stalks of cane, proving that my estimating skills are severely lacking. Apparently Kurt has been right in this regard for some time and I can no longer deny it. The Wilson's were very kind, even when we had to work until dark to get everything done, contrary to what they had anticipated.

Mr. I.J. is the family patriarch and can tell some great stories about growing up in this area. His family has been here for generations. He rode the 4 wheeler to the pasture to watch the work.

He checked on our progress from time to time.

We were able to provide Mr. I.J. with a favorite treat and one which he had not had in quite a while, fresh sugar cane juice. His daughter brought him a cup and he drank some straight from the press. (Later I went back to the house and asked for a pitcher and filled it for his refrigerator. I sure hope he has thoroughly enjoyed it this week!) Michael got a taste of Darlene's juice and didn't want to give the cup back.

Kurt, Gregory and eventually Darlene fed cane into the press while Mr. David drove the tractor round and round.

Those feeding the cane into the press had to duck each time the tractor went around or they would get a smack in the head.

Kurt got pretty good at alternating ducking with working.

Gregory forgot once.

But never again.

As the pile of sugar cane shrunk, the guys figured out they could work squatting and not have to duck.

After awhile, my friend Darlene wanted to feed the press. Darlene is a great deal of fun and loves trying new stuff.

It didn't take a whole lot of ducking before someone came up with a revolutionary idea for Darlene.

Someone sent Gregory off for a chair.

After hours of driving in a circle, I couldn't believe Mr. David didn't keel over from being dizzy. However, once he started standing up to drive the tractor,

I realized his tractor didn't have a seat cover. I figure the pain from sitting on a metal seat must have kept him from getting too dizzy. He sure was a good sport about it all. He expected to fill one or two buckets with juice and in the end we left with 7 full 5 gallon buckets. (I had to run home to get more than we originally brought. Thank the Lord I hadn't restocked on wheat for awhile.)

Years ago when the Wilson family grew and processed their own sugar cane, they would press their cane early in the morning and then spend the afternoon boiling it down into syrup. They processed their cane juice over a fire in a large pan outside.

Sugar cane juice is best processed immediately because the juice sours quickly, especially without refrigeration. The Lord blessed us though with unusually cold weather. Our juice has been sitting outside on the porch in buckets while I boil it down 10 gallons at a time on the kitchen stove. It takes 12 to 13 hours per batch this way to turn it into syrup. God willing, I should be done with it all tomorrow at bedtime. It must be watched throughout the cooking process and skimmed and stirred. Yesterday I found out why when a pot boiled over while I ran to the bathroom.

I think I particularly enjoyed our time at the Wilson homestead because Gabrielle and Michael played in the yard while Miss Wanda shelled pecans and watched them. Usually Michael will not be separated from me and he will certainly not stay with someone he does not know extremely well, but he LOVED his time with Miss Wanda and I loved the break she gave me.

Michael and Gabrielle visited the pressing operation when Miss Wanda brought a cup for her dad to taste the juice.

When Michael is away from me, he says I am "lost." We could barely get him to leave at the end of the day. (He especially enjoyed the wood stove.) In the car on the way home, Michael asked if I could bring him back and if he could lose me. In normal words, I think he told me to take him back and get lost.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

It is Always Something

I had big plans for yesterday. After working so hard this week with the sugar cane and finally finishing a new dress for Gabrielle, I was going to burn off the weeds in the garden and play catch-up in the kitchen and make salsa and sauerkraut.

I should have known when my only hairbrush broke first thing yesterday morning to go back to bed and skip the day. But I wanted to be productive. So fighting nightmarish paranoia, Gregory and I went outside to burn off the weeds. The weeds look like dried prairie grasses and there is dry brush everywhere, for miles. I just knew I'd start a forest fire or burn down the pool deck.

When we finally started after a great deal of time wetting down the areas we didn't want to burn, we couldn't get the weeds to burn. We dragged tons of pine cones and dried branches over and built bonfires strategically throughout the garden. The branches burned. The pine cones burned. The dead weeds did not. They did however, scratch us up and give us allergy symptoms. In the end, we allowed the fires to go out and dirty and smokey, we returned to the house for showers.

I discovered the dead hot water heater right after stepping into the shower. Praise God it was hot enough outside to prevent a cold shower from feeling like torture. In fact, I suppose the timing on the water heater's demise was good since a cold front is due to blast the area with winter weather today. But we sure don't have the money for a new water heater.

I probably should have figured out something was going wrong when my laundry room and home to the water heater kept flooding yesterday. But Kurt blamed it on a probable hole in the hose to the washing machine. (Kurt still thinks there may be problems with that hose since the flooding stopped when I turned off the water to the washing machine. I suggested we focus on getting back the hot water before chasing other problems.) I really should have stopped to think when we kept running out of hot water the last few days. We never run out of hot water.

Wondering if we could put Christmas off a couple months without the kids noticing, I called Kurt in Foley. He arranged to take the day off today to fix the water heater. (Living in a small town is so different than living in a city. When things break, you can't just call someone to fix them. There may not be anyone with that job description in the area. No wonder people in the country are more self sufficient - they have to be.) We planned for Kurt to pick up a new water heater and bring it home. Then I called my friend Darlene and told her my tale of woe.

Darlene tried to convince me our power company gave away free water heaters. I told her I thought that unlikely and I convinced HER there were no free water heaters. So Darlene's husband Mark got on the phone and told me to call the power company for a water heater. I still couldn't imagine it. So I called Kurt to try to get him to call the power company. He wouldn't do it. So sheepishly, I called, expecting to be embarrassed.

The power company actually does give away water heaters! Granted, I had to pick it up and we have to install it, but fortunately, Darlene's husband has a pick up truck and the two of us got the water heater home. I'm still amazed. Of course Kurt immediately pointed out the lack of an energy star rating. Moreover, the water heater's label clearly shows it is a bit of a power hog. Kurt figures the power company is actually selling these things on time. You pay for it with higher power bills.

Right now Kurt is in the middle of figuring out how to install one of these and I am hoping for a hot shower before too long - especially since we are supposed to take our sugar cane for juicing this afternoon. The whole thing worked out well because we need Kurt's pick-up truck for the sugar cane and but for the water heater, the truck would have been in Foley. Today was the only day we have access to the cane juicer. God is good and truly does work all things for good!

The old water heater looks exactly like the new one. I'm wondering if we could build a smoker out of the old water heater. It looks like a smoker. I wish I had more tool skills. I have lots of good ideas and little talent for implimenting them.

In the meantime, I finished Gabrielle's Christmas hat.

I also started a new pair of socks.

I can't believe how quickly Christmas is coming. Knowing how much I want to make before then, I really need to focus. And it would be nice if things would stop breaking around here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New Dress for Gabrielle

I finally finished a new dress for Gabrielle. Originally I planned to give it to her for an Easter dress. Of course I never specified which Easter.

Gabrielle loves her new dress and couldn't wait to try it on. I wish she could have avoided laying it in a water puddle before getting it on, but that is my daughter.

I embroidered and pin-tucked the bodice and embroidered the upper sleeves on my Bernina. I "fancy" up plain fabric with my sewing machine rather than investing in expensive trims. My daughter loves fancy clothing, but often ruins them in her play. She ripped the only silk dress I ever made for her running around the church parking lot. Now I use less expensive plain polyester-cotton fabric for my rough and tumble girl.

Here is a view of the back. I'm so glad my daughter is slender because I started sewing this dress almost a year ago. I don't follow a pattern, but make it up as I go. Since the skirt is one of the last things I do, I added a couple of inches to the length before ripping it (rather than cutting - makes for a straighter skirt). Everything else fits fine. We are all re-reading the "Little House on the Prairie" books and Gabrielle thinks her new dress looks like a fancy prairie girl dress. She is quite content.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bringing in the Cane

We finally finished getting the sugar cane stripped of leaves, cut and out of the weather just a few minutes ago, which also was about the time the rain started. Whew! What a job. Who knew swinging a machete around could make so many sore muscles.

We started piling the cane into a super large box we had. The idea was to keep the cane inside, protected from freezing temperatures, until we could select planting cane for the new house, once we move.

We quickly filled up the corner of our dining room to the point Gregory can no longer fit at his place at the table - and we have a fairly large dining room! So we cleared a place on the porch, next to the house, for the remainder.

We have a large porch and the pile grew to the point it was hard to walk around. It won't be as protected as the cane inside, but we plan to cover it later this week when the temperatures are predicted to fall below 32ยบ. And now that we have the cane all in, we will be able to make final plans with the Wilson family to use their cane pressing equipment. I'm hoping we can do it when Kurt is home with the pick up truck. Otherwise, I don't know how we are going to get the cane into my mini-van.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sugarcane Harvesting

We finally started the process of harvesting our sugarcane. I thought to do it a month ago, but after poking around the Internet I gleaned that the leaves of ripe sugarcane start to die. We hit that point a week or two ago.

I took out my machete and sharpened the long blade as well as I could with Kurt's sharpening stone. Michael asked if I was going to kill them. I've got to do a better job monitoring what the child watches on television I suppose and we don't even have television service. Amazing what a child can pick up from Veggie Tales.

I started cutting down stalks of sugar cane with my machete and it worked well.

It didn't take long for me to figure out this was hard work.

We started with a small sugarcane jungle.

After a couple hours I had most of the cane cut. I told Gregory and Gabrielle their job would be stripping the leaves from the cane.

Stripping leaves is also a tough job because the green leaves can leave cuts similar to paper cuts. Fortunately most of the leaves are now brown. Even still, the kids are less than enthusiastic.

I told the kids to strip the outside leaves and then pile up the cane. When they are finished I will use my machete to cut the top leaves off the cane. That reconciled them slightly to the task. I mean they are glad to have the sugarcane to harvest, they just wish it would involve less work.

I was very glad to be finished with the cutting job and left the kids to their job while I posted these pictures.

I started cutting the tips off the cane, but the kids couldn't keep up so I came inside.

Many of the canes are bent because an early season wind storm knocked them over and they regrew up from the ground. Sugarcane is an amazingly hardy crop.

The kids really slackened their pace once I left, though Gregory is pretty self directed in general. I did leave them with some supervision however.

The turkeys showed up as we started and kept waiting to see if we were doing something that would involve them getting a treat.

When I left, the turkeys were starting to peck at the cane tips I'd just removed. We're going to have to stack the cane inside the fence until we can process it. Some people at church have an old timey cane press that works under mule power and they are going to allow us to bring our cane over for squeezing. I will take the juice and boil it down into cane syrup for cooking. I can't wait to see how that will turn out. I'm so grateful for the Lord's provision. I love how He provided the means for us to process our cane. I never expected such a big harvest from the few canes we planted and my original idea to use my juicer for processing would never have worked.