THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF SUMMER DAYS GONE BY
School was out and three months of blissful freedom lay ahead. Yes, there were chores to perform—mowing the lawn, wielding a hoe in seemingly endless rows of corn, suckering and staking tomatoes, and helping out at home and that of my paternal grandparents in various ways. Then, as the halcyon days of early adolescence yielded before the complexity of becoming a teenager, there was an expectation of holding some type of job that paid “cash money.” In my case that involved a wide range of work including cutting grass; caddying on the local golf course; graduating to being employed at that links while spending tedious hours atop a tractor seat mowing fairways; and showing and renting rooms at a motel in nearby Cherokee. There were even sporadic stints cooking at the restaurant associated with the motel when the regular kitchen hand, hopelessly hung over, would fail to show after having spent his week’s paycheck consuming as much alcohol as his wages would purchase.
Always though, there was time aplenty for sheer fun in the summer sun. It seems as the years separating me from those times of June jubilation lengthen, memories of the simple pleasures they afforded strengthen. Perhaps sharing some of those fond recollections from my own youth will kindle similarly warm memories in the minds of readers, but of far greater significance, I’d like for this little trip into yesteryear to serve as an incentive for adults, no matter what their age, to expose youngsters to these and similar joys.
Almost all of them involve being outside and all represent an “escape” from the artificiality and lack of physical activity connected with technological wonders so cherished by the latter part of Generation Z and whatever appellation is attached to those born after its conclusion. These activities are simple, inexpensive or cost free, and offer healthy exercise along with, in most cases, actual in-person interaction with others of a similar age.
As good a place to begin as any involves fun with insects actually named for the month—June bugs. Quite large as insects go, these big-bodied beetles–there are dozens of different types of these scarab beetles, but the ones I’ve always called by the name are green in color, most active during the heat of the day, and normally seen buzzing busily around lawns or gardens. Anyone who has done much working in the soil has also likely encountered them in another form—as white grub worms.
Never mind such details of entomology, for me as a youngster June bugs represented entertainment. The idea was to catch several of them, entrap them in a quart Mason canning jar, and carefully attach a fairly long strand of sewing thread surreptitiously “borrowed” from Momma’s capacious spool chest to a bug leg. Voila! You had a helicopter you could control, and for a bit of chaos, you could launch two of your insect sky ships simultaneously. Between that pair and others waiting their turn in a jar, the usual result was a glorious tangle of thread and insects translating to an unholy mess. On top of that, the June bugs, once launched, didn’t fly for long. It didn’t take their tiny brains but a couple of attempts at free flight being abruptly curtailed for them somehow to realize flight was futile.
The whole operation—chasing and catching the insects, carefully attaching thread, attempting to set them flying, sorting out the inevitable mess, and being noxiously perfumed amidst all the turmoil (June bugs have a distinct and decidedly unappealing aroma)—was something of an extended exercise in futility with no really meaningful end. Yet aren’t such exercises precisely what being a kid should be all about? All I can say for sure is that I whiled away many an idle and happy hour with June bugs.
Quite different in nature, inasmuch as it was a nocturnal activity, involving just enough of a move in the direction of forbidden fruit in the form of parental disapproval to add to its appeal and carrying slight overtones of the salacious, was the exercise known as skinny dipping. Simply put, skinny dipping is swimming in the nude. In my personal experience this involved one of two approaches—sneaking into a closed pool at a local high-dollar inn or swimming au naturel in a deep pool in a nearby creek. The pool at the resort spot was sufficiently distant from the main lodge to reduce the likelihood of being caught to a minimum, although there was one occasion when a caretaker surprised a bunch of us in the act and we were forced to flee the scene naked as a flock of jaybirds. It was only after what seemed an eternity of hiding in nearby woods, shivering as the night chill gradually took its toll and waiting for the coast to clear, that we dared sneak back and retrieve our clothing.
Excursions to streams for skinny dipping lacked that delicious element of danger, but we always added some spice to the entire proceeding by talking about being joined by girls in our nocturnal exercise in nudity. There was discussion aplenty along that line by teens with raging testosterone levels, and more than once there were promises from daring girls that they would make the scene. Of course it never happened but it sure provided ample fodder for boyhood conversation and anticipation.
In retrospect I have to reckon it all fell pretty much into the category of fun and frivolity. Since no one was hurt, no property damaged, and no harm of any kind done, after the passage of many a decade I reckon it’s all right to give skinny dipping this aging soul who is still gifted (to some degree) with an adolescent’s mind a grudging seal of approval.
Yet another interesting aspect of summer’s advent, in this case a ritual as enduring as our very existence, was teenage doings involving things such as social gatherings, uncertain first footsteps in courtship, and the supremely satisfying state of just being young. In some senses all that has changed while in others timeless is the word of choice. Take, for example, the language associated with interest in the opposite sex. I daresay you’d search far and wide to find a teenager in today’s world who knows the meaning of bussing (as in a kiss, not a matter connected with segregation), or who has familiarity with terminology such as going steady, jewlarking, sweetheart, beau, girlfriend, he-ing and she-ing, serious courting, boyfriend, pinned, or sparking.
Various types of social media have largely replaced cherished hangouts such as soda shops (often found inside drug stores), and the fact that today’s adolescents seem more comfortable being tethered to and communicating through smart phones and similar devices, as opposed to personal interaction, is both a shame and a terrible loss of a once cherished part of the summer scene. In yesteryear early footsteps in the realm of romance involved personal interaction, not texts, e-mails, or even phone calls. In the latter regard, many folks didn’t even have phones when I was growing up. Those who did were almost certainly on party lines, and the concept of a phone you could carry around in your pocket would have been treated with incredulity. As for party lines, the last thing a sensitive and perhaps somewhat shy teenager wanted was an old biddy or two listening in on every word of fumbling, stumbling attempts to ask for a date or maybe arrange a meeting at the local soda parlor.
Another joy of summer that, while not lost, seems far less prevalent than once was the case involved bike riding. From the age of eight or nine most youngsters, male and female, had some type of bicycle. It might be a new one that came at Christmas or, as was the case with me, a second-hand bike Daddy located and I purchased with $15 of hard-earned “cash money” accumulated doing odd jobs, picking blackberries for sale, and scrimping with my whopping allowance of two bits per week.
Bikes expanded a youngster’s geographical horizons, whether he lived in the country or a small town, to an appreciable degree. For me it meant longer jaunts to prime swimming or fishing holes, a chance to visit friends who lived far enough away to make walking somewhat problematic, and the sheer pleasure of feeling the wind in one’s face or listening to the flapping of cards affixed to spokes in bicycle wheels. The latter involved utilization of stiff cards, usually the immensely popular baseball cards sold with bubble gum in packs produced by the likes of Fleer and Topps. They could be clipped to bike spokes, normally with a clothes pin (another vanishing part of the summer scene—how often do you see a laden clothes line on washing day?), and produced quite a racket when the bike was being pedaled about. Of course the wear and tear on the cards took a toll and they soon lost any collecting appeal. But then, what carefree youngster had an eye to the future and the vast growth in the sporting collectibles market?
Bicycles could be decorated in many other ways besides flapping cards. Among them were streamers trailing from handlebar covers, a miniature air horn affixed to the handlebars, a battery operated “headlight,” reflective adornments for the back if one rode at night, the equivalent of saddle bags, and even a highly utilitarian basket. With a sufficiently capacious basket one could transport all sorts of items—maybe a midweek run of a few groceries, lunch for a day of biking about, a change of clothing, a baseball and glove, a small tackle box holding fishing gear, and much more.
In my personal experience, my trusty 24-inch bike probably saw more use in connection with fishing trips than anything else. I could pedal it, replete with a basket holding food and gear, to some cherished fishing spot whenever the spirit moved me. I somehow managed a cane pole or two as well, although that required astute avoidance of obstacles of all sorts as one made his way along.
Leisurely fishing was almost a byword for many a lad and some lasses in summertime. They could sit idly on the shore of a creek, river, or pond and wait for a bobber to bounce. Or maybe there were piscatorial pursuits of a more active nature such as wade fishing in a stream, running a trot line or a series of throw lines, doing some jug fishing, or moving from one spot to another in a homemade boat paddled or poled for progress through the water. Some of my most memorable boyhood days involved this type of angling, with a fair share of it being done with a smelly old codger who exuded all sorts of exotic auras. One such aura was noxious in nature (he never bathed during the summer) while another was half-hidden knowledge that he had been involved in some type of escapade, many years before, that resulted in him spending time in the state penitentiary. I was an adult before I know the whole story and learned that Old Al was a convicted murderer. That’s a story for another time but it does point to the fact that adolescents were drawn to things that carried a hint of danger—whether it involved climbing high into trees, swinging on grapevines, or being around sketchy characters—like honeybees to sourwood blossoms.
The grand old South Carolina writer who was the state’s first Poet Laureate, Archibald Rutledge, titled one of his books Those Were the Days. My youthful experiences differed in some ways from his, taking place in another state and decidedly different topography, but I certainly appreciate all the wonders of youthful Junes as I knew them, and looking back in longing nostalgia brings not only a sense of ever returning joy but realization that June activities of the sort mentioned above were indeed a time of wonderment. Those were indeed the days—of delightful June jubilation!
As is ever my wont, I continue busily trying to crank out meaningful words, and even after many decades as a freelance writer there’s still a sense of inner satisfaction that comes when I see my byline in print. One such recent effort was “June Jubilation,” in Columbia Metropolitan, June, 2023, pp. 34-37. Indeed, the material that appears above was taken, in large measure, from that piece. Other writings to appear in recent weeks include my long running weekly column in the Smoky Mountain Times. Other articles include “The Goodness of Green Beans,” Smoky Mountain Living, June/July, 2023, pp. 16-19, and “The Many Fishable Feeders of Deep Creek,” “On the Fly South,” June, 2023.
Tipper and I have been busy with book signings at Mast General Store locations in Roanoke, Boone, and the nearby original Mast General Store in Sugar Grove. We also gave a talk and had delightful interaction with the audience in an appearance at the Swain County Genealogical and Historical Society. Our next signing will be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC on July 1 at 3:00 p.m. That appearance will include a presentation by the two of us.
Still on the subject of cookbooks, I’m delighted to announce that one of this country’s most venerable and respected publishers of outdoor-related material, Stackpole Books, will be releasing Venison Cookbook: From Field to Table—400 Field- and Table-Tested Recipes on September 15. It’s possible I’ll have copies a couple of weeks before that date, since I’m told it should be in their warehouse by August 15. With paper supplies sometimes problematic, publishers and printers having heavy workloads, and a whole host of unforeseen issues that can delay a book’s appearance, you never know for sure.
No matter how the chronology of the book’s appearance works out, it is an updated and combined version of material from two venison cookbooks, The Complete Venison Cookbook and The Ultimate Venison Cookbook, I wrote with my late wife. The book will retail for $24.95. Look for additional information, including a special pre-publication offer, in upcoming newsletters. Meanwhile, I would simply note that it will offer access to an incredibly varied panoply of venison recipes, every one of which Ann and I cooked and tasted before they went into print (and there were a bunch of dishes that didn’t make the cut). I’ll personally guarantee that no matter how much you’ve cooked venison, you’ll find some recipes that are new to you.
Finally, I was greatly honored, at the annual meeting of the Professional Outdoor Media Association of America, to receive the organization’s Pinnacle Award for the Outstanding Book of the Year. The recognition was for Lords of the Veldt and Vlei: Africa’s Pioneer Hunters. The book represents decades of research, including multiple trips to England (most of the great early hunters were Brits), and was published in both a limited, numbered edition of 1000 copies bound in leather and beautifully produced and in a trade version with a striking dust jacket from a Lynn Bogue Hunt painting. I have copies available of $75 and $45 respectively and you can order through my website using PayPal or by check or money order directly to me (Jim Casada, 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730). Be sure to include $6 for shipping.
All of this month’s recipes offer dishes either connected to nature’s bounty in the form of wild blackberries or venison cookery. The joy of summer’s wild berries is beyond compare, while it’s also a perfect time for grilling venison and beginning to clean out the freezer as another deer season looms not too terribly far in the distance.
VENISON LOIN STEAKS WITH BLACKBERRY SAUCE
Just this morning I was out doing some yard work and noticed that a couple of blackberry briars that had snuck into my sprawling blueberry patch and escaped my attention had berries beginning to ripen. I sampled a handful and made a mental note to undertake a couple of pickin’ sessions in the next 10 days or so. The distinctive taste and slight tartness of blackberries go wonderfully well with venison, and here’s a prime example.
6-8 venison loin steaks
Steak seasoning (I like Montreal Steak Seasoning)
1 ½ cups blackberries, divided
½ cup water
1 tablespoon port wine
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon blackberry jam
Drizzle steaks with olive oil and sprinkle with steak seasoning. Marinate for 30 minutes to an hour. Grill steaks, being sure not to overcook—steaks should be pink in the center (medium rare). In a small sauce pan, bring 1 cup blackberries and ½ cup water to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer for 30 minutes. Strain berries through a fine sieve to remove most seeds. You should have about ½ cup of sauce. Continue to slow simmer for about 20 minutes or until sauce is reduced by half (to ¼ cup). Add port, butter, and blackberry jam. Stir constantly until butter melts and blends into the sauce. Add remaining ½ cup of whole berries; stir gently and briefly to heat berries. Serve sauce over steak just off the grill. It’s a dish that will make your tongue slap your wisdom teeth loose.
1 extra large egg
1 ⅓ cups buttermilk
¼ cup bacon drippings
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 cups stone-ground corn meal
1 ½ to 2 cups blackberries (fresh or frozen)
Mix all ingredients except the blackberries in a large bowl and whisk until thoroughly blended. Then add blackberries, whisking only enough to disperse them throughout the batter. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and place the pan, well-seasoned by rubbing in a bit of the bacon grease or by running a piece of streaked meat across it after the pan is hot, in it for a few minutes. Then take out and pour the batter into the pan, return to oven, and cook until golden brown.
Cookouts, whether for July 4th celebrations, family gatherings, or having some friends over for a weekend get-together, are one of summer’s pure joys. This hearty salad will be a hit at such gatherings. Offered with some seasonal fruit along with toast points or crackers, it can make a full meal. Alternately, it can be one of dozens of dishes at a community gathering or family reunion.
1 pound ground venison
1 package taco seasoning mix
½ cup water
1 head lettuce, shredded
1 green pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 can (16 ounces) red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1-2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
12-16 ounces tortilla chips, crushed
1 bottle Catalina salad dressing
Brown ground venison in a large skillet. Add taco seasoning packet and water and simmer until thickened and flavors are blended. Cool slightly. Place remaining ingredients (except dressing) in a large salad bowl, add cooked venison, top with dressing and toss to mix well. Serve immediately.
TIPS: Soaking the chopped onion in iced water for 10 minutes will remove some of its sharpness.
If bell pepper upsets your stomach, as it does mine, substituted chopped cucumber.
GRILLED PEPPER STEAKS
At this season grilling, never mind whether you use a little bargain-basement device of the type I knew intimately throughout graduate school and for a few years beyond, a time when Ann and I were blessed if we had anything at all in the meat line to grill, or a high-dollar grill with more features than a TV loaded with access to also sorts of streaming, the char-broiled taste of venison cooked outdoors over coals is might nigh irresistible. Here’s one such approach.
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion salt
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Montreal Steak Seasoning
½ teaspoon Hungarian paprika
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
4 venison loin steaks
8 teaspoons olive oil
Mix all dry ingredients together. Pour 1 teaspoon olive oil on each steak and coat well on all sides. Pat seasonings into steaks. Adjust the amount of seasonings used to increase or decrease the desired “heat” or “bite” (i. e., adjust black pepper, red pepper, and paprika to taste). Let steaks set for 30 minutes and then drizzle a bit more olive oil on each one. At this point place steaks on a hot grill and cook quickly, about 3 minutes per side or until medium rare. DO NOT OVERCOOK. Remove steaks from grill, lightly cover with foil and allow to rest for 5 minutes before cutting. The resting time allows the juices to become evenly distributed through the steaks. Serve with a salad, grilled onion slices, and baked potatoes.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time and place where the true riches of English literature were still celebrated and had not been replaced by the foul, degraded, and often unreadable drivel that seems to pass for masterful poetry and prose with today’s wretched “woke” crowd. Old Will Shakespeare stood right at the forefront of the literary giants to whom I was exposed—initially in high school, then in college, and by great good fortune on the stage. There wasn’t much of anything the “Sweet Swan of Avon” didn’t seem to know (and write about), and I love what he offered on that most treasured of all nature’s bounty available for forage, the humble, omnipresent blackberry. Shakespeare, in his drama “Henry IV,” offers the wistful thought “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries.” Of course reason, common sense, or simple honesty aren’t always readily available, but in season blackberries are—pretty much everywhere. All that is required is some gumption, a willingness to ignore a few briar scratches and some honest sweat for a rich reward, and doing your own picking. It’s blackberry season, and this recipe, along with those that follow, celebrate that fact.
1 cup uncooked oats (not instant)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
¼ to ½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup butter (cold)
3 cups fresh blackberries
½ cup white sugar
Mix oats, flour, and brown sugar. Add nuts. Cut in butter until crumbly. Grease an 8-inch square pan. Place half of crumb mixture on bottom. Mix blackberries and white sugar and pour on crumb layer. Top with remaining crumb mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
TIP: This recipe also works with other berries such as blueberries, strawberries, dewberries, or raspberries.
1 quart fresh blackberries
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
Enough water to make sugar and berries thin enough to cook dumplings
1 cup of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup whole milk
Place blackberries, sugar, and water in a saucepan and heat to boiling. Meanwhile, mix dumpling ingredients thoroughly and drop by tablespoons into the boiling berry mix. Cook for 15 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through the center. Serve hot with cream.
WILD BLACKBERRY SAUCE
2 cups blackberries
½ – ¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Mix all ingredients well and refrigerate for an hour or more. Allow sauce to come to room temperature before serving. Delicious served atop a chocolate tart, cheesecake, or ice cream.