I REMEMBER, I REMEMBER
Many of you are probably tired of me reminding you of the recent publication of my latest book, A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings, and More, but I would simply point out that a fellow’s got to make a living and I earn mine, such as it is, through peddling words. The book opens with four lines from a poem by an obscure figure, W. M. Praed, “I Remember, I Remember. The words caught my fancy in the most wonderful of fashions and I thought I’d share them here:
I remember, I remember
How my childhood fleeted by,
The mirth of its December
And the warmth of its July.
That boyhood is indeed long gone, but cherished memories remain. That is in essence what A Smoky Mountain Boyhood is about, and recently a good friend of mine, Tipper Pressley, published a guest blog in which the writer offered an absolutely wonderful line: “We had it all.” That was definitely the case in those long ago yesteryears of my youth. The “all” didn’t take the form of money, piles of presents, expensive gifts, or indeed much of anything material. Instead it involved family togetherness, recognition of the deepest meanings of Christmas, sharing and caring with loved ones, lots of time spent in the world of nature thanks to a two-week break from school, time-honored ceremonies at church, and much more.
With those things firmly in mind, the heart of this month’s newsletter is a celebration of the season as seen through the eyes of my mother. The material below comes straight from a chapter of the same title in A Smoky Mountain Boyhood (it is available through my website, www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com or by ordering by mail, Jim Casada, 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730, with the price being $29.95 + $5 shipping). It will give you not only a sample read but insight into how wonderfully privileged I have been to have had two special women in my life, Momma and my recently departed wife. Between them, I “had it all” for a total of better than seven decades and I don’t reckon an old hillbilly like me could reasonably ask for more.
I hope you enjoy this selection from the book, and as a further link to the season all the recipes which appear at the end of the newsletter come from either Momma or my wife, Ann. Both were wonderfully gifted cooks and both loved preparing foods for the holidays. I think it fair to say that in yours truly they had an eager recipient of their culinary genius, at least if you measured matters in terms of pure gustatory delight.
MOMMA AND THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
If the spirit of Christmas embraces things such as love of family, togetherness, warm feelings, goodness, excitement, and faith, then Momma was the quintessence of that spirit. Many adjectives seem appropriate when describing her love of life in general as well as the Yuletide season in particular, but to me none is more fitting that the word merry. She always had a sparkle in her eyes, breathless excitement in her being for even the most ordinary of undertakings, and a constant joie de vivre. She was merriment personified.
I’ve already alluded to the fact that Momma had a troubled childhood. Born in Clay County, she spent much of her youth far from her highland homeland. Her mother died when she was just beyond infancy, and her father apparently decided it would be best if relatives raised Momma. Her adoptive parents moved frequently, and it was always my impression that the resulting instability affected her a great deal. Certainly once she was back in the Smokies she never wanted to leave, and I heard her comment to that effect on many occasions: “There’s no place like these mountains.”
Although she never said much about it, and certainly the care and devotion she lavished on her adoptive parents in their later years would have led one to think otherwise, clearly warmth and love were scarce commodities in her childhood. Likewise, she never had much in the way of Christmas gifts as a youngster. This was evident in two ways—the frequency with which she mentioned an elderly man who had befriended her and given her a quilt at a point when her adoptive family was living in California, and the pure delight Momma took in everything associated with Christmas right up until her death.
She loved the rituals of preparing for the season, especially decorating with materials from nature. Gifted with considerable crafting skills, at one time or another during her adulthood she made Cherokee-style baskets, knitted, crocheted, enjoyed macramé and appliqué, grew and rooted all sorts of indoor plants, prepared lovely flower arrangements, was a superb seamstress, and had a real knack for decorating. Never was the latter ability on fuller display than at Christmas. It might be noted that Momma was exceptionally frugal, a combined product of upbringing and necessity, and all these hobbies saved money.
Momma was always involved in anything and everything Christmas-connected at Bryson City Presbyterian Church—filling pokes with stuff for young kids, performing behind-the-scenes work in connection with pageants, and volunteering in any way she could. Similarly, some of my earliest Christmas memories revolve around charitable endeavors in which she would, usually although not always through the church, do her part and then some to make sure the was some joy in the season for those who were less fortunate. Later on, although anything but a political creature, she didn’t have much truck with food stamps and government support. But like many hard-working mountain folks Momma believed in helping those who were down and out and needed a hand. She always worked with her children to craft handmade Yuletide gifts for their teachers, rightly feeling that the personal effort had more meaning.
Then there was Christmas-related cooking, and as an endlessly hungry boy who still holds his own as a trencherman, that was of immense importance to me. Momma was a splendid cook, and one of our family’s real losses in that connection was a compulsion, when Parkinson’s disease afflicted her late in life, to throw away a great many things. Among the items lost to that well-intentioned but misguided mania to organize were hundreds of discarded recipes.
Fortunately though, she had already passed many of her favorite recipes on to my wife and other family members. Recipes which survived included chestnut-and-cornbread dressing, orange slice cake, applesauce and black walnut cake, pumpkin chiffon pie, her special approach to preparing squirrel, cracklin’ cornbread, Russian tea, popcorn balls made with molasses, fried pies, stack cake (handed down from Grandma Minnie), and a number of types of homemade candy. However, if I had to pick out one dish in which her culinary skills shone brightest, it would not necessarily be associated with Yuletide.
She could fry chicken better than anyone I’ve ever known, and that included Grandma Minnie, who was an absolute wizard in the kitchen. I know how Momma did it—each piece well coated with flour after having been dipped in egg, then slow fried, followed by a session of sitting in a cast iron skillet in an oven on low heat. This was standard dinner fare on Sunday, and by the time we got home from church that big skillet full of chicken would have achieved crunchy, moist, and tender perfection. All of her children know the process and remember it well, but duplicating the end product to a degree which matched her fried chicken has always eluded us.
Momma took quiet pride in her cooking skills, and she loved to see her family and friends eat.
Throughout my boyhood, and I think precisely the same held true for both my siblings, she truly fed the multitudes in terms of setting the table for our friends. We never had a lot of money but you could rest assured the Casada table was set with a precious plenty. There was never any issue with an extra place or two. Interestingly, and it’s a testament to Momma’s generosity and hospitable nature, my friends ate with us far more than I ever ate with any of them. We were at times almost a communal kitchen for neighborhood kids.
Speaking of kids, no starry-eyed youngster, no “Christmas will never come” mindset, or the firmest of believers in Santa Claus has ever derived more sheer joy from receiving gifts than Momma. As much as she gave of herself, and she was tireless, totally unselfish in that regard, she loved to open presents to her. Curious as a cat or eager child, for days before December 25 finally arrived she would pick up gifts bearing her name from under the tree, heft and maybe shake them a bit, and wonder out loud: “Now what that could be?” Similarly, I can hear her, decades since she left us, saying with a mixture of disbelief and excitement when handed a gift: “Another one for me!” She was careful in opening presents, because after all, wrapping and ribbons could be recycled in the “waste not, want not” approach to everything which was her mantra. Still, it was easy to tell she would have loved to rip the paper asunder like a child.
Year after year she would, once all the presents had been opened, offer thoughts to the effect “I can’t believe how lucky I am,” “I’m so thankful,” and “This has to be the best Christmas ever.” She may not have had much of anything that was “the best” as a child, but far from looking back with regret or bitterness, as an adult she instead brought an attitude of optimism, excitement, and simple goodness to the season of Christmas.
She enjoyed a good joke. There were always gag gifts in our family, and at times Momma would laugh until tears rolled when Daddy received something such as a pair of underwear adorned with images of Mickey Mouse or a Sammy Davis, Jr. audio tape (Daddy absolutely detested Sammy Davis). Her laughter was infectious, and even though she was the butt of jokes more than a fair share of the time, it never troubled her.
A classic case came when on the Christmas, late in Momma’s life, when my brother and sister-in-law gave her a box of dried beans labeled “Hillbilly Bubble Bath.” As was her wont, Momma had shaken the nicely wrapped package a number of times prior to Christmas Day. The beans rattled around quite noisily but she couldn’t for the life of her come up with a thought as to what the decorative wrapping might hide. Such was her intense curiosity that she gently implored: “Can I open this box first?” When she did and the gag gift was exposed for all to see, there was a moment when, as her family convulsed in laughter, she didn’t realize just what had happened. When the piece of mischief did dawn on Momma, her response was “Oh, shoot!” That was about as close to an oath as she ever came.
As a clan, Casadas have never been exactly gifted when it comes to diplomacy. All of us are wont to speak our piece in decidedly direct fashion, and if Momma hadn’t been moderating influence goodness knows where her offspring might be. Daddy could be highly opinionated, and his father, Grandpa Joe, was the essence of mountain stubborn and “quare.” Momma, on the other hand, always seemed to have just the right thought, action, or word when a soothing, smoothing touch was needed. She possessed a seemingly endless supply of dimes when a child did some extra work around the house, was always a soft touch when it came to providing a snack or special dish, and was game to try almost anything one of her children asked her to do. But of all the countless times she offered just the right gesture, a few words of praise, or maybe a little pat on the shoulder, the moment I remember most came at holiday time when the whole family was seated at the table.
My younger brother Don was probably sixteen or seventeen years of age, and all of us, including my wife of only a year or two, sat down to one of Momma’s meals. Midway through the feast and from totally out of the blue, Don suddenly brought up a most unexpected subject. “I’ve come to a conclusion,” he pronounced. “I was born by accident.” It was undeniably true, since he came along a half generation after my sister and me, but no one had ever so much as dared hint at the matter.
Silence reigned supreme for a seeming eternity in what has to rank as the finest example of a pregnant pause I have ever experienced. Then Momma offered the perfect response. “Yes, but you were the most wonderful accident I could ever imagine.”
That way of thinking was at the core of Momma’s being. She was completely unselfish, genuinely moved anytime something was done for her, loving in the sort of fashion which grows in meaning over time and given reflection, and the embodiment of everything associated with the true spirit of Christmas. No one loved the season more or brought more to it in terms of warmth and a giving heart. I was blessed by having her make Christmas truly special for me over a period of almost six decades, and maybe offering some index to her innate sense of understanding what was meaningful to her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and daughters-in-law forms a fitting way to conclude this rather lengthy excursion into Yuletides of yesteryear.
Many Christmases after her death we enjoyed a cake—most likely one from a recipe she provided—atop a Fostoria stand she gave to Ann (my wife). Also, at some point during the season I make a point of re-reading some book she gave me, indicating her recognition of a budding bibliophile, as one of my gifts. That began with first book I ever owned, Zane Grey’s Spirit of the Border, which she chose for me when I was nine years old. It still holds a place of pride on my bookshelves. My daughter will wear jewelry she passed down, my sister will recall them wrapping gifts together or sewing something for some family members, and I know my brother and his wife think of her every year when they fashion a cross using materials from the wilds of the Smokies. It is a practice of reverence and respect for the bounty of the land Momma would have adored.
Most of all though, and it often happens at the oddest of moments and for reasons which transcend my ability to explain, I’ll think of her. Doing so will bring temporary sadness, but it will soon give way to gladness and a smile. That’s the way she would have wanted it, because Anna Lou Moore Casada was a woman and a mother who walked life’s path as a shining embodiment of the spirit of Christmas.
A few months back the editor at a magazine which I did not know existed, Columbia Metropolitan, called me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a piece on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ “Take One, Make One” program. Once you’ve been in the writing business a long time, such contacts occasionally occur, and sometimes they are a godsend. That was the case in this instance, and it resulted in my writing a piece on “The Magic of Mentoring” for the publication. It’s about a great program designed to introduce youngsters to the world of hunting with the idea that doing so can make a sportsman for life. My piece is in the December issue of Columbia Metropolitan and I’m so impressed with the magazine—it is aesthetically lovely and contains some really fine writing—that hopefully I’ll be doing more work for it in the near future.
Otherwise much of efforts of late have focused on publicizing and promoting my new book, A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings, and More. It was prominently featured in the November issue of the newsletter and I’m pleased to report that early reader reactions have been quite positive. It’s not too late to get a copy or copies for Christmas gifts and I hope many of you will acquire and read the book. I’m the last individual to judge its merits, but I can say it comes from the heart and is as well crafted as I’m capable of doing. Full ordering details are available on my website, www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com. As far as promotion goes, on December 1 fellow outdoor writer Maggie Boineau (a. k. a. “Camo 365 Girl”) offered detailed and most pleasing coverage of the book on her blog. You can read the review and sign up to get her blog regularly by visiting www.camo365.com. On the same day I discussed the work on Manning Kimmel’s popular 30-minute “Straight Talk” program on local radio station WRHI. You can listen to a recorded version of the presentation by visiting this link.
Three days later Tipper Pressley devoted her daily blog, “Blind Pig and the Acorn,” to the book. There’s a chapter on her “The Angel of Brasstown,” in it. The number of reader comments, dozens of them, was most gratifying, and as always Tipper was a gracious, generous soul with mighty kind things to say about my work. You can read her coverage by visiting www.blindpigandtheacorn.com and using her search function to take you to the December 4 issue. On December 10 Jim Shepherd, the enterprising and super-energetic editor of “The Outdoor Wire” devoted much of his column to saying some really nice things about A Smoky Mountain Boyhood. Then two days later, on December 12, veteran radio talk show host Larry Rae interviewed me for a segment of his “Larry Rae Outdoors” program. The book is scheduled to be covered in the next issue of Carolina Mountain Life, for which I write the “Mountain Musings and Memories” column.
In short, thanks to the graciousness of a lot of lovers of Appalachia and friends in the outdoor industry, the book has received quite a bit of publicity. I’m mighty grateful for that, and it has had an impact of the most positive sort. I’ve been trekking to the post office almost every day and trundling in a cart loaded down with orders. Thanks to every one of you who have added a box to those loads, and of course I hope the orders keep coming not only between now and Christmas but on into 2021.
THE LIGHTER SIDE
HONEYBEES, T-SHIRTS, AND TEENAGERS
For many years a cherished female friend of mine kept bees, and judging by the honey she shared with me from time to time, she did so with a great deal of talent. One summer she had her teenaged nephew and a friend of his at her house and, rightly figuring they would find the beekeeper’s work of interest, invited them to accompany her to do some work on the hives.
All went well initially, but then something went awry and several bees got under her T-shirt (she wasn’t wearing protective gear and was also sans a bra). After a sting or two she realized she was going to have to do some disrobing and do it quickly. Accordingly, in distress from a deteriorating situation, this fine and amply endowed lady turned to her adolescent companions and said: “Boys, you need to turn your heads. I have to take this T-shirt off.”
In seemingly total innocence, though one has to conclude the young fellow was mentally quick as a cat, her nephew’s companion inquired: “Which way do I turn?”
I’ll forego sharing her name since doing so might result in her skinning me alive the next time she sees me, but I will say that there are a number of you subscribers who know this bonny lass. She is and long has been in a key leadership role in the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association.
A SAMPLING OF MOMMA’S CHRISTMAS RECIPES
Somehow, never mind the frenetic activity associated with Christmas duties such as church gatherings, decorating the house, playing host to a near-constant stream of friends of my siblings and me (Momma’s personality, not to mention the food she offered, was such that our house always seemed a gathering point for rambunctious and hungry kids), and much more, Mom always seemed to find time to make friend pies at some point in the Christmas season. She didn’t have a recipe as such, so there isn’t one offered here, but the basics were simple enough.
A day or two before she planned to fix a batch of fried pies, she would put dried apples or dried peaches in a big bowl with water to begin reconstituting. She added some brown sugar and a bit of cinnamon to the fruit and made sure the resultant sauce was quite thick. Once she was ready to make the pies, out came her big, perfectly seasoned cast-iron skillet, a rolling pin, and the necessary ingredients for making the dough. She would roll a small amount of the dough into a quite thin circle, add fruit to half of it, flip the other half over, crimp the edges with a fork, and gently put it in the piping hot pan which contained just enough grease to brown the pie well. Pies would be turned once and as soon as one left the pan (she cooked them one at a time) another one went in. The hot pies, slathered with some butter, disappeared in remarkable fashion, but Mom always made enough for there to be leftovers.
SQUIRREL AND BISCUIT-STYLE DUMPLINGS
Hunting was an integral part of Christmas for my family, and Momma joyed in cooking and eating game. This recipe works equally well for squirrel or rabbit, which were the two primary focal points of our hunting during my youth.
2 bay leaves
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
3-4 carrots, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups water
Cut squirrels into serving pieces. Place in a Dutch oven and cover with water. Add bay leaves and simmer for 90 minutes or until squirrels are tender. Skim if necessary. Squirrel may be removed from the bones at this point and returned to pan to stew more if desired. Add onion, celery, carrots, seasonings, and water. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Increase heat and bring stew to a boil. Add dumplings and continue cooking as directed below.
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Mix flour and cream in a bowl, kneading a bit with your hands (coat them with flour to avoid sticking) after you have mixed the two ingredients. Drop by teaspoon (or just shape each dumpling by hand) into the boiling liquid. Cook for 15-20 minutes are until the dumplings are done in the center.
Our family always gathered, hulled, cracked, and shelled black walnuts. Clearly it gave my parents pleasure, probably in part because it kept alive the “making do” mindset which had been so much of their lives, because they continued the practice long after their children were grown and out on their own. Those walnuts came to the forefront in a variety of ways come Christmas time, but one of my favorites featured them liberally lacing oatmeal cookies along with raisins.
¾ cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 cups oats, uncooked
½ cup walnut meats
½ cup raisins
Blend everything together, stirring in the oats only after everything else is mixed. Place cookie-size portions of batter atop a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes. I personally like a soft, chewy cookie, and if you have similar preferences the baking time will be on the lower end of the time scale.
DATE NUT BALLS
I don’t recall eating dates during my youth at any time other than Christmas. But two of the many sweets Momma prepared at that season were date bars and this offering.
1 ½ sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 package dates (8 ounces)
1 cup nuts (pecans or black walnuts—coarsely chopped)
2 ½ cups Rice Krispies
Boil the first four ingredients for 5-10 minutes until thick. Remove from heat. Stir in the Rice Krispies. Shape into small balls (if the mix tends to stick to your hands grease them with a bit of butter) and roll in powdered sugar.
Pancakes, accompanied by eggs and either bacon or sausage, were frequent Saturday supper fare at my boyhood home. Recently my brother reminded the family not only of how much we loved pancakes but that, more often than not, they were buckwheat pancakes. That traced back to Daddy’s boyhood, when his family likely grew it. Buckwheat, which isn’t in the wheat family and isn’t even a grain, is made from the plant’s triangular seeds which are ground for meal in much the same fashion as corn or wheat. It has a nutty taste, a distinctive texture and color, and in our family was preferred to pancakes made from wheat flour. Nostalgia has laid a hold on me in this regard, and I’m going to be enjoying a culinary return to youth with buckwheat pancakes in weeks to come.
Making them is simple, although again I have no measurements because I never use them. Mix the flour (add some wheat flour to the buckwheat flour if you wish—Momma did), an egg, a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil, and buttermilk, whisking until you have a smooth batter which flows easily but isn’t runny. Pour atop a sizzling, well-greased pancake griddle (or you can make pancakes in a frying pan), and turn when bubbles begin popping up on each pancake. Slather with butter and top with your favorite syrup, honey, or even fruit preserves.