A LONGING LOOK BACK TO GRANDPA JOE
As those of you who have been regular newsletter readers for some time know all too well, I adored my paternal grandfather, Joseph Hilberry Casada. He opened so many paths of wonder for me, with most of them involving, in one fashion or another, closeness to the good earth. He was a flowing fount of homespun wisdom and folks today who are known as preppers would have found him an absolute icon. He knew how to wrest a living from the land and did so for all of his eighty-plus years.
Grandpa Joe died fifty-three years ago this month. I was in my mid-twenties at the time and thanks to a complex set of circumstances connected with having to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) on the day of his funeral, I wasn’t present for the celebration of his long, interesting life. It was the last time the GRE was to be administered in the area where I was living at the time prior to my planned enrollment in graduate studies, and if I was going to be admitted to graduate school it was mandatory. Accordingly, I grieved from afar.
In some ways it was not that difficult. I had in effect already said my goodbyes to Grandpa, and I was fortunate to do so before he was institutionalized (as it was known in those days) in the final months of his life. We had had countless days of splendor in the sun, glory in the gloaming, and savoring the wonders of winter. There was nothing much in the way of material goods to worry about. Grandpa never had much, never wanted much, and accordingly there were no real worries about what was to be passed on and who got it. I own precisely four items which belonged to him—his favorite rocking chair, a well-worn push plow with three attachments (I still use it in gardening), a broad-bladed hoe which has seen so much usage the original blade has been worn down to a fraction of what it once was, and an old-timey push mower of the reel type he used to cut his grass as well as the lawns of a number of folks who paid him cash money for the job.
I treasure each of those items, and the rocking chair rests not four feet from where these words are being typed. It uplifts me, offers inspiration, and fills me with warm memories on a daily basis. Yet those physical remains are in truth insignificant. What really matters, what forms his true and lasting legacy, is what he taught me and the joys we shared. They rest in the vaults of fond memory, safe, secure, and for me, supremely satisfying.
It’s somehow sadly fitting that Grandpa died in February, because he often remarked that the month was the low point of the year. It was only with his death that realization of his legacy began to dawn on me in full fashion. His late February death came at a time of the year where our countless sessions of rocking chair relaxation reached their annual peak. I can still envision him in the heart of winter easing close to the fire and muttering about what he simply styled “the miseries,” Grandpa often used the month for philosophizing. “It’s fittin’ February is so short,” he would say, “because twenty-eight days of it is about as much as a body can stand.” He would then turn to subjects of immediate moment, such as opining that the best of winter’s hunting was over, “and besides,” he would quickly add, “these gloomy days of rain and snow are a time for a spry young colt like you, not an old man like me, to be out and about.”
For all that he groused about weather, mistrusted mankind, and clung to his independence with ferocious tenacity, it was never in Grandpa’s character to stay pessimistic for long. He had some pains associated with advancing age, but for the most part he ignored them while refusing to have anything to do with pain-relieving medications. “I reckon an old man’s got a right to ache a bit,” he’d say, “but it don’t do to dwell on it.” He never did, but what he would do is turn, in one of those rapid subject transfers which were part of his verbal stock-in-trade, to general thoughts and musings on February. Here is a summation of some of them, admittedly polished and no doubt changed by the passage of time.
Grandpa Joe had plenty of reasons for disliking the month of February. It tended to bring bitter weather, with more than a fair share of cold rain or snow, and as someone who had, for his entire life, spent most of his waking hours outdoors, that was disgruntling. He held strong opinions about the month and as was his wont on any subject when he was around me never hesitated to express them. “February needs to be short,” he would mutter in his barely audible manner, “because if the month was any longer I don’t believe a body could stand it.”
One thing about Grandpa though; at heart he was an optimist. Mind you, he may have had an overly healthy streak of distrust in mankind in general, and during the years I knew him he had no truck whatsoever with the government, bureaucrats, or organized religion. Still, he always looked ahead to coming spring with eagerness, and by February, no matter how miserable the weather, he would be talking about planting by the signs, getting his garden spots laid off, ordering a bunch of baby chickens through the local Farmers’ Federation, and fishing experiences that lay ahead. Those mental exercises dominated our conversation in the dead of winter. He variously described them as “figurin’,” “dreamin’ and schemin’,” or just “looking down the road.”
February’s good for that. For the gardener, colorful seed catalogs promising more than one ever actually manages to grow have arrived. They lend themselves to sessions of dreaming, whether or not you buy seeds from them (Grandpa bought bulk seed locally), and if you want to save money, get seed suited for the area, and deal with local merchants, that’s still a good way to go.
For the sportsman, the month then and now amounted to something of a wipeout. Sure, squirrel, rabbit, and bird seasons were still open, and when I was a boy we hunted hard right through until closing day. However, surviving bushytails tended to be mighty wary by this time of year, and usually we had already pressured all the nearby prime cottontail places hard. In today’s world, thanks to changes in equipment and even in seasons, trout fishing is possible. When I was a boy that wasn’t the case. Trout season in both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and state waters was closed until April or early May.
Nor did I enjoy the opportunity, as a youngster, to do something that is a standard part of every February for me today. It’s a month for sporting shows and expos. They likely existed in faraway places all those decades ago, but back then a sporting show involved a visit to Doc Woody’s tiny sporting goods store or an hour-long gander of wishful thinking browsing the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Grandpa enjoyed the latter activity as well, although to my knowledge he never ordered a single item from that wish book or transacted any business whatsoever through the United States Postal Service. He didn’t receive any social security, his children attended to matters such as taxes, and he functioned exclusively in a realm of barter and occasional expenditure of modest amounts of cash money.
While aspects of my current approach to February, at least when it involves matters such as tax preparation or perhaps attendance at a regional or national sporting goods show, is a dramatic departure from youthful days, others remain closely attuned to what the month. Every returning February finds me indulging in my own dreamin’ and schemin’, scouting for turkeys, making arrangements for a trip or two, planting some early garden items if the soil is dry enough to permit it, and getting ready for more serious garden work lying not far in the future.
Thinking about and doing such things gets me through February, as was the case in the 1950s when Grandpa would start talking about spring fishing. Never mind that his planning involved nothing more than a trip up Deep Creek or maybe just down to Devil’s Dip in the Tuckaseigee River a short way below his house. That stands in marked contrast to the cross-country and even international travel I’ve been privileged to enjoy, but the month’s sense of building anticipation, with realization that the worst of winter will soon be gone, sustained me then and now. Thanks to a grand old mentor’s outlook from long ago, that planning and preparing for the immediate future fun offers an ideal way to dispel any temporary blues associated with cabin fever in the present. When all else failed, I could always heed the advice offered by a couplet associated with the month:
Curl warm in a corner with a book as a friend,
And your February blues are soon at an end.
It’s a nostrum that has served me well for many a February, just as Grandpa Joe found refuge in reliving past glories and planning future triumphs. Then there were the rhythmic little “sayings” he had stored away that he would bring up as we looked ahead. They were all connected with weather prognostication, something of great moment when you lived close to the earth the way he did. Here are a trio I recall.
A warm October means a chilly February.
If February gives much snow, a fine summer it doth show.
When February brings snow and ice, look for June to be mighty nice.
THIS MONTH’S BOOK SPECIAL
Some years ago the South Carolina Outdoor Press Association, of which I’m a founding member, decided to produce a cookbook in conjunction with the Harry Hampton Fund (a state-wide conservation group named for a pioneering Palmetto State sporting journalist) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The idea was to raise some extra funds for the DNR during a time of financial struggles. Ann and I edited and compiled the resulting work, Wild Fare and Wise Words. Perhaps half of the recipes are ours, with the others coming from outdoor writers and hunting and fishing enthusiasts across the state and beyond. I wrote all the essays and there are quotations (hence the “wise words” of the title) from sporting icons connected with this state such as Havilah Babcock and Archibald Rutledge. The end result was an attractive hardbound book with a passel of fine recipes covering a little bit of everything in the way of earth’s bounty—fish, shellfish, game, non-game edible animals, nuts, berries, vegetables, and more. The book normally sells for $20 plus shipping. I’m offering it for $15 postage paid. No PayPal orders on this one, please, and if you are a S. C. resident remember to include $1.05 for taxes.
RECIPES: SOUP TIME
Truth be told, I enjoy soup pretty much any time. I’m not an overly big fan of chilled soups in the summertime, although I’ll eat gazpacho or similar offerings if they are served, but for most of the year give me a steaming bowl of hearty soup, a biscuit or pone of cornbread, with maybe fruit or a green salad, and I’m happy indeed. There’s no time of the year when a filling, fragrant soup is more welcome than right now. Whether it’s some kind of bisque, chowder, a vegetable mix, or my favorite, various leftovers partnered with ground venison, just give me elbow room and watch me sit up and take nourishment with gusto. Here are a number of soup recipes, all featuring venison, and I would note that you can find a bunch more in The Complete Venison Cookbook. It’s available on my website, www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.
TWO-BEAN AND VENISON SAUSAGE SOUP
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 pound venison kielbasa sausage, chopped into small cubes
1 can (14 ounces) chicken broth or the equivalent from chicken base
1 cup water
1 teaspoon chicken base
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 package frozen baby lima bens
1 can (16 ounces) Great Northern Beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (16 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil and sauté onion until tender. Add garlic and sauté briefly. Then add chopped sausage, chicken broth, water, chicken base and lima beans. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until limas are tender. Add Great Northern Beans and diced tomatoes; return to a simmer to heat through. Serve soup sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
CREAMY VENISON SAUSAGE AND POTATO SOUP
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground venison sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
16 ounces frozen hash brown potatoes (4 cups)
1 can (14.5 ounces) chick broth or equivalent made from chicken base
2 cups water
1 can cream of celery soup, undiluted
2 cups milk
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat and brown sausage, stirring until it crumbles and is no longer pink. Add onion and sauté until tender. Add potatoes, broth and water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in soups and milk; cook, stirring often, until thoroughly heated. Serve topped with shredded cheddar cheese.
VENISON NOODLE SOUP
4 cups beef broth
¼ to ½ pound noodles, broken
½ pound ground venison, browned
2 ribs celery
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons margarine
Garlic salt to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives and Parmesan cheese
Bring broth to a boil and cook noodles (spaghetti noodles, shells, or whatever you have available all will work perfectly well). Sauté celery and onion in margarine. When noodles are done, add cooked venison, celery, and onion. Add garlic salt and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Garnish with fresh chives and Parmesan cheese on top.
1 ½ pounds ground venison
½ cup fine bread crumbs
6 cups beef broth or stock
1 cup sliced carrots
1 cup zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1/3 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
¼ cup ketchup
2 cans (14 ounces each) Italian stew tomatoes, undrained and chopped
1 can (8 ounces) tomato puree
Mix ground venison, bread crumbs, and egg well. Shape into 1-inch balls and place in rectangular baking dish or pan coated with non-stick spray a half inch apart. Bake for 10-15 minutes at 400 degrees.
Place remaining ingredients in a five-quart Dutch oven. Add cooked meatballs. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and summer for an hour or until vegetables and rice are tender.
Top soup with freshly grated cheese when served. Crusty French bread goes well with this soup.
1 pound ground venison
1 garlic clove, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 package (1.4 ounces) dry taco seasoning mix
1 can (15 ounces) stewed tomatoes
1 can (15 ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (16 ounces) corn, drained
1 can (10.5 ounces) beef broth or equivalent made from beef base
3 cups water
Brown venison, garlic and onion. Add taco seasoning mix to venison and follow packaged instructions. In soup kettle, combine tomatoes, beans, corn, broth and water. Add venison mixture and let simmer for 30 minutes. To serve, crumble tortilla chips into soup bowls and add soup. Top with grated cheese and a dollop of sour cream.