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witch hazel

witch hazel

I first saw them in the cold of winter, shivering on the banks of the West Fork of the French Broad River, their golden petals nevertheless unfurled, glowing in the thin rays of the December sun. I was amazed at their audacity. Nor were there merely one or two little flowers, struggling to put forth one last show before finally giving up the ghost. Oh,no! The whole bush was bursting with bloom. I didn’t know what they were, but I had heard of the winter flowering shrub, the witch hazel. And that is what it was – a native witch hazel.

After I married Jack and came up here I discovered we had a witch hazel above the spring, a small tree, really. I didn’t notice it until winter, when it bloomed. In the summer I was able to see the fruit and the leaf of this curious bush and I am now able to identify it by the fruit.

Yesterday I noticed a small one in full bloom in the campground and was able to get a good photo of the blossom.

Witch hazel is used as an astringent. It is a treatment for swellings and wounds, as well as  skin problems such as acne and psoriasis. The use of its twigs for divining rods led to its reputation as a witch.

Witch hazel is a plant of encouragement. When summer has passed, the sap has gone down and the world’s turned gray the brave withch hazel puts forth its frostproof tentacles and toughs it out until spring.

I reckon we can do the same. 

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Hickory King corn, a good variety for grits. A very tall corn.

Hickory King corn, a good variety for grits. A very tall corn.

When I was growing up here in Transylvania County we never ate grits. I was an adult before I ever tasted them. And I have to say I cared not for them then. I found them blah, bland and tasteless. But I learned to add salt; and with butter they got better. Now I have them two or three times a week or more. They grow on you.

And no, they don’t grow on bushes. I knew a man once who enjoyed spinning a yarn occasionally. He particularly delighted in telling Yankees how he harvested grits in the fall, shaking them off the grit bushes into a sheet!

There are two types of grits – hominy, and corn. However hominy is corn. So actually, all grits are corn. The difference is in the processing, or lack of it. To make hominy, corn must be soaked in lye or a similar agent until it swells and pops off its husk. The result is a softer grain that when cleaned and dried grinds easily into grits. Almost all grits sold in supermarkets and eaten by consumers today are hominy grits.

Hominy can be eaten as it is after processing. I remember hominy being served at meals from time to time when I was a child. A grain of corn having become hominy is quite a bit larger than its original size, and the taste is different from that of ordinary corn. My aunt Edna told a funny story about the time Grandma left her and my mother in charge. They decided to cook dried hominy. They built the fire in the stove, put on a pot of water, and poured in as much hominy as they thought they needed for supper. If you’ve ever cooked hominy grits you know how much water it takes, even for a small amount. Well, their hominy slurped up the water and was soon expanded to double its size or more and boiling out of the pot. Before their escapade was over, they were cooking hominy in the dishpan.

Corn grits are not as readily available as hominy grits. They are mostly found in specialty shops and farm markets. Grits are almost, but not quite, corn meal. They are prepared by simply grinding whole corn into the proper size and consistency – a little coarser than coarse corn meal. Corn grits take longer to cook; they are “grittier” than hominy grits and more flavorful.

If your ground corn is too coarse for grits, then it’s chicken feed — too fine, it’s corn meal. And you need to know also: corn meal is not just for corn bread. Old folks used to cook it with milk or water for “mush” that they ate with milk and sugar. That’s not my idea of tasty, but Jack says it was very good. I never ate mush, but I will swear by corn meal gravy. There’s just nothing better in the gravy line. Just use your regular recipe and substitute corn meal for flour. The flavor and texture is far better. And then there is Italian polenta, which is also ground corn, but about which I know practically nothing.

I learned to like hominy grits and I must confess to having learned also to enjoy non-hominy corn grits now that I have learned the proper way to cook them. I was using too much water and consequently they were thin and tasteless.  And bitter also. But the bitter taste I found is not typical of corn grits, but was due to the poor quality of that one particular batch of corn.

Like a lot of folks who are senior citizens now, we didn’t have a lot of anything when I was growing up, and that included food. When we had meat, which was not too often, it was squirrel, rabbit, or little fried fish my daddy caught. But we were well fed. Mama always managed to get milk for us. And we had those wonderful staples – pinto beans – and corn bread. We didn’t know the importance of that humble combination at the time, and I was amazed years later when my cousin pointed it out to me. The beans and the corn bread constituted a complete protein!

The Lord does provide!

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Night after night from July until cold katydid enlargedweather the katydids provide background music for all outdoor activities here. Even when I am inside, I can hear them if I listen carefully.  Sometimes their constant strumming gets to be a little much, and I long for the silence of early summer evenings.

A few katydids almost always arrive at Toxaway around the 23rd of July and begin practicing their music as they wait for others to join them. They were late this year by a week or more, but finally they all made it in.

When the katydids arrive I remember Grandma’s laughter and her story about Bella Jablonski, the city girl from Brooklyn who came to visit her. Bella was Aunt Altha’s friend. They were both student nurses at the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, New York at the time, and Aunt Altha had invited Bella to the mountains for a short vacation. Bella was completely ignorant of farm life; Grandma said Bella mistook the rooster’s crow for the lowing of the cow. I guess that’s possible if you’ve heard neither.

Well, of course Bella had never heard katydids performing in concert, and nobody thought to tell her of their all nighters.  Grandma’s was a board and batten farmhouse that let in not only the heat and the cold, but every sound.

The first morning of Bella’s visit Grandma asked her guest if she had slept well, whereupon Bella replied that she had not. When Grandma asked her what the trouble was Bella told her, “It was the bugs! The bugs scraped the wall all night long!”

The katydids have gone to scraping in the daytime now as well as evening, and their buzzing fills each sunlit afternoon.  They are very docile now and easy to photograph. I found one on the porch railing today.

 

 

 

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cornbreadBefore I tell you about this delicious cornbread it is appropriate that I say this bread is food for the stomach. There is another Bread that sustains real life, and that is Christ, the true Bread from Heaven. You can read what Jesus said when he called himself the Bread of life in the Bible – John chapter 6.

In these three dimensions however, there is no bread, nowhere, to compare with this delicious old fashioned soda bread. It contains no flour and no sugar. I make it almost every day and it is soon devoured by me and my husband Jack and the dog Bruno, if he’s lucky.

Several years ago Jack bought an old gristmill, nearly a hundred years old. Lacking a waterfall of suitable size to power his gristmill, he bought an old hit and miss gasoline motor of the same vintage and soon he was grinding corn. Recently he bought wheat and now we have whole wheat flour. Whole wheat is good, I guess, if you have time and patience to make yeast bread. But…why bother, when corn bread tastes simply divine and cooks up in a minute.

I cook mine in a tabletop convection ovenOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA that I bought for around a hundred dollars last winter. One of the best investments I ever made for my kitchen! Here’s how you do it:

Grease a small cast iron pan and place in oven. I use an 8 inch pan. Heat to to 400 – 450. While oven is heating measure a little over a cup of coarse ground corn meal and sift it into a bowl. Throw away whatever does not go through the sifter, and don’t push it or bread will be over-crunchy Add a half teaspoon of salt and a quarter teaspoon of soda and mix in. Add one egg and some oil or bacon grease, a tablespoon or two. Do not mix at this point. When the pan is hot add about a cup of buttermilk and mix everything up quickly. Take pan from oven and pour excess melted grease that is in pan into the batter and mix in. Pour the batter into the pan and return pan quickly to oven. In a few minutes you will have a cake of the best cornbread on the planet.

Do not substitute sweet milk for buttermilk. The chemical reaction between the sour buttermilk and the soda is what causes the bread to rise.

This recipe is based on a recipe I found on the internet. Unfortunately I can no longer find it to give credit to my source. I do remember that the lady who posted it said her mother (or perhaps her grandmother) made this bread every day for her family. I can certainly see why. I am certain it was much in demand.

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Appalachian Hill Cane

Appalachian hill cane

I noted with interest last year that there is a newly discovered bamboo in North America. Its scientific name is Arundinaria appalachiana. The common name is Appalachian hill cane. Scientists at Iowa State University who specialize in bamboo were introduced to the new cane by Alan Weakley of the University of North Carolina. To him it was not a new plant.

Nor to us mountaineers. We’ve known it all our lives.  It’s that little spindly, tough, tall grass that grows on the slopes of many of our mountains. Most of the time it is two feet or under in height.

However, under optimum conditions, this cane can grow to six feet tall. I had a patch one time that was nearly as tall as me.  In time that little cane patch grew pretty big and it was in my way, so I cut it down one winter after it had dropped its leaves. That is what is so unusual about hill cane. Other North American canes do not shed their leaves.

It came back, but I cut it down again, and finally got rid of it. I was sorry I had cut down my cane when I found out it was famous. Fortunately I found some nice ones that had escaped the blade. I have found a more amenable location for my cane and hope to start another small patch next spring.

Let that be a lesson to you as it was to me: the things we want to get rid of today we just might want back someday!

 

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One of Jack’s Flying Squirrels

About a week ago Jack came in after feeding his chickens telling me, ” I like to got scared to death. I reached into the corn barrel to dip out some corn, and something jumped and run up my arm like a streak of lightnin’. It was a gray squirrel.”

It happened to him again not long afterwards. Then one morning I went into the shed to pour a new sack of corn into the barrel. Something ran out of the barrel just like Jack said, like a streak of lightning. I saw its tail as it disappeared. It was a squirrel sure enough. Then, just as I was about to dump 50 pounds of corn down into the barrel I saw something dark down in there. I pulled the barrel to the door where the light was coming in. There they were, three little bitty squirrels.

Jack put on some gloves and got them out, one by one. We put them in a bird cage. They climbed the sides of the cage and then I saw their little gliders, the little folds of skin between their front and back legs. They were flying squirrels, just barely big enough to be weaned.  It took a while to convince Jack they were not gray squirrels, but he sees the difference now.

We put them on the stove next to Jack’s pullet and gave them cracked corn to eat. After all, that is where we found them, in the corn barrel. They didn’t want cracked corn to eat, but it made a nice bed to curl up in. They curled up in little balls and slept. I gave them squash; I gave them bananas, we shelled peanuts for them, and nothing pleased them. Finally I went down to the shed and got some of Jack’s bird seeds. They dove in. Whew! I was afraid they would starve to death.

I had a flying squirrel that frequented my back porch at night when I lived at Quebec.  I suppose it was hunting fresh vegetables that I kept out there. When I turned the light on, it was blinded and  did not run away, so I was able to get a good look at it. That’s how I recognized these little creatures.

Jack has been getting one at a time out and rubbing its head. If one ever gets loose, I will never be able to catch it. They are incredibly fast. And very sweet. However I don’t want to take one up. They will bite you!

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Jack’s Pullet

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned Jack’s love for feathered creatures, any kind of bird, large or small.  We have two egg incubators and heretofore Jack has had some luck hatching eggs. But this year he seems to have lost his touch. Maybe the incubator he is using is wearing out or something. I think he has thrown out three sets of eggs. One batch got so far along that I could hear the baby chicks “peep! peep!” but the shells never opened. It’s kind of sad.

Jack’s Pullet, Age One Day

The last time about four hatched, but only one lived. We have kept it in a box on our old wood cookstove with a lamp shining in. Jack is so enamored of the little creature. When it was only a day old he reached in the box and picked it up and held it in his hands. “Ain’t it pretty?” he said, “I believe it’s a pullet.”

Well, I nearly died laughing. Only Jack would hazard a baby chick’s sex at the age of one day. Wishful thinking I say; he needs pullets, for eggs.

However, now that it has feathered out and sprouted such a pretty little tail, (Young pullets have better tails than young roosters. )  I think it just might be a pullet.

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Built 1939

I am going to share with you some pictures of my ancestral home, a place where as a child I was privileged to come many times. I loved it with a passion, as did my brothers and some of my cousins. It was home to us, fixed, unmovable, unlike the rental houses we hopped into and out of like little frogs.

Replacement porch posts of painted locust poles

I lived there most of the time from 1984 to 1999 when I married Jack and moved to Toxaway. It was truly a lovely place, and a big place, as you will see.

After 1999 I was unable to maintain it. Soon the house  burned, and the fields grew up in weeds and saplings. For a long time a friend kept horses and a mule in the far field, but after that it became a very  expensive proposition to keep the mowing done, so every other year or so it was not done, unless someone wanted the hay, which by then was barely hay and mostly weeds. You get the picture.

Now we are working toward a division of the property. It is my hope that sooner or later my beautiful home will look better than it does today.

These pictures were taken from time to time during the years I lived there.

I will never forget the time I looked down to this field near the barn and there stood the grandest white stallion I ever saw. I said to myself, “I know my prince has come, for I see his horse.” I don’t have a picture of the white horse. He was a beauty, though.

The barn and a feed shed are the only structures remaining on the property now. The feed shed is recent, from the time of the horses. The barn was built when I was a child, and replaced an earlier barn.

There was a woodshed behind the house which grandpa built too close to the bank and which threatened to drop off into the spring branch for many years. You can see from the picture how it is leaning backwards. Finally I got my cousin to cut some stout poles and prop up the woodshed from behind. It worked.  The woodshed stayed until it was torn away after the house burned. The sweet dog in this picture was my daughter’s. I kept it for several months. At first I did not want it and tried to give it away (with her permission) but nobody wanted it. I was surprised that my heart broke when she finally took my dog back!

There is a lovely creek running through my old home place, the North Fork of Flat Creek. Flat Creek runs through some flat places, but there are at least three waterfalls on it. When we were little, Grandpa had a bridge over it. High water washed it away and it never was replaced. Today there are several trees along the creek, but back when we were growing up Grandpa kept the edges clear.

Back in those days a haircut was meant to last a long time, as you can see. My younger brothers are on the bridge fishing. The milk cow is beyond them, cooling her heels in the water.

The charming interior of the house was never modernized; this photo shows the little wood cookstove Grandma ordered from Sears and Roebuck. There was, however, an electric stove not showing in the photo. There had been an oil heater in the living room, but I thought it was unsafe and replaced it with a wood stove, which was more like I remembered, and a lot warmer than the oil heater. Nothing can beat a wood stove for coziness!

How dear to my heart was this place, in the Quebec community, a few miles from Lake Toxaway. It is on the North Carolina registry of Century Farms, under the name: The Henry McCall Family Farm.

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Black bears at Little Panthertail Mountain

We’ve had bears at Lake Toxaway from the beginning of time I guess, but I never saw one here. I saw them at Cades Cove a few times so I know their coloring, and roughly how they look. In our area as well as Cades Cove there are only black bears.

Early this morning I was out on a golf cart, traveling an old road in the woods. It is my custom to take our sooner chocolate lab Bruno for a run every morning. Sometimes Charlie Fisher, our neighbor’s black lab,  goes with us. Occasionally he meets us somewhere along the way. Bruno and I go up the hill to the campground usually, and from there sometimes I take the Lake Toxaway view trail. Today I took that trail.

Bruno (right) and Charlie Fisher

Bruno ran ahead. He was about 50 yards out front when he stopped and began barking. Suddenly a black shape emerged from the bushes to Bruno’s left. I have somewhat less than perfect vision, and right away I thought, “Charlie Fisher!”

But Charlie didn’t come bounding toward me as he usually does, nor did he begin to play with Bruno, who was barking furiously. Instead he swiftly climbed the embankment on the right, and as he did I noticed he didn’t have a tail. Uh oh! The Charlie Fisher I know has a handsome tail, with long fur on it.

Of course, it was a young bear. Last winter Tony regularly got photos of bears on his game camera. But bears travel far and wide. I thought they were gone from Little Panthertail this spring. I even said that in my last post on this site. I was wrong!

I called Bruno, who finally came to me, not because he wanted to, but because he loves me. I turned my golf cart around and soon I had emerged from the woods, very pleased to have finally seen a bear, right here at home!

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pink lady’s slippers

Since I mentioned lady’s slippers recently, I am posting a photo of some pink lady’s slippers that I took a few days ago.

Today however, we are talking about berries. When I was a girl we picked lots of berries in summer. There were two kinds that Grandma and Mama canned: blackberries and buckberries. The best blackberries were up here at Toxaway in the lake bed. We’d ride up here from Quebec on the back of Grandpa’s T-hound (an A-Model Ford truck) and pick buckets of the fattest blackberries you ever saw. I always said they were as big as hen’s eggs, and they were sure enough as big as banty eggs. For you town folks, banties are small chickens (bantams.)

buckberry flowers and tiny green berries

The other kind of berries we picked were buckberries. We had such an abundance of buckberries right there at Quebec there was no need to go anywhere else for them. Grandma’s house was right at the foot of Tom Lyman Mountain. Tom Lyman Galloway was  brother to my great grandma Parilee McCall. By that time he was dead, so I never knew him, nor did he ever have a home on the mountain that bore his name. We’d leave out after breakfast and go up on Tom Lyman’s mountain, carrying several peck buckets, which we quickly filled with buckberries. By dinnertime (somewhere between 12:00 and 1:00 p.m.) the buckets would be running over and we’d be on our way home.

buckberries a.k.a. bear huckleberries

Both berries are good eating, having a bit of a tart taste, but the buckberry is simply delicious.  Its texture is similar to that of a blueberry, but the flavor is far superior, spicy and sweet-tart. Buckberries are shiny black at maturity and about the size of cultivated blueberries. They are a little larger than wild blueberries in areas where the soil is rich. The leaves of the two plants differ somewhat, but not much. The easiest way to tell them apart is by the color of the fruit. Also, if you will notice, the ripe blueberry has a little frill on the end; the buckberry has a little circle, but no frill.

The photo of the ripe berries was taken by Graham Sexton. I have lost my source information; I think it came from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed for re-use, but I could not find it in a recent search of that site. My apologies, Mr. Sexton, if I am infringing. The other photos were taken here at our place at Toxaway.

The buckberry is also known as the bear huckleberry. Its distribution is limited to the southern Appalachians, namely North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and maybe Virginia.  Buckberries grow as understory plants in the forests of these areas. Where they get a fair amount of sunshine, they produce well. However in our area, most of the timber has been allowed to mature and the shade has discouraged the production of berries. The bushes are plentiful, but nowadays berries are few and far between.

Which is a shame. Not even a wild strawberry can compete with the buckberry for flavor!

 

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