FOND THINGS I REMEMBER ABOUT NOVEMBER
As these words are being written we are in the midst of our first real cold spell of the fall, with temperatures well down in the twenties and a penetrating breeze out of the north. It’s a good day to be indoors and a fine time for remembering some magical moments from Novembers long ago—a time when my life was far simpler, when I was supple and fit to the point of not really knowing the meaning of tired, and when a mountain boy who didn’t know he was comparatively poor (like almost everyone else I knew) reveled in the pure joy of a high country existence.
Now many of the pleasures I almost took for granted are gone, victims of the relentless press of age, pushed aside by the sometimes ruthless monster we (at times mistakenly) call progress, or having fallen prey to societal changes that I’m not always certain are for the best. For example, I don’t think growing up without a television in the home destroyed my youth, and I’m certain that stern parental guidance was for my betterment and did nothing to harm a tender psyche. But I don’t want to go maundering and wandering into realms better left to professional students of the human mind. Instead, just join me in some indulgence in that finest of companions and warmest of friends, fond memory.
November’s first spell of serious cold always translated to hog-killing time at Grandpa Joe’s, and if today was sixty-plus years ago I’d be gathered with the extended family for precisely that activity. I rejoiced in all aspects of the experience. It began with Grandpa separating the hogs, one at a time, to shoot them with his .22. He staunchly maintained that it just wouldn’t do for other hogs to witness the demise of one of their brethren, so the deed was done in a separate, boarded-off enclosure. Next came the hanging and gutting of the hogs, followed by scraping the hide with the aid of dips in a huge pot of boiling water, skinning, butchering, and processing. It was an intricate ritual, with everyone, even a starry-eyed youngster like me, having their specific roles.
Grandpa, Daddy, and my uncles did the “heavy lifting” in terms of killing, preparing, and butchering. The womenfolks, supervised by Grandma Minnie’s no-nonsense approach to the whole business and regulated by her lifetime of practical knowledge, took care of things such as deciding what pieces of meat went into sausage, where the hams which were set aside for the men to cure were to be placed for the moment, rendering of lard, and much more. Youngsters such as me made sure there was plenty of firewood available to keep the big pots going, checked on the progress of fat being turned to lard and cracklings, ran errands, and tried valiantly if not always successfully to avoid being an impediment.
It was a glorious time, made more delightful by knowing that meals, beginning with a sumptuous if late supper once all the essential immediate work had been completed, that some mighty fine eating lay in the offing. It’s been a ‘coon’s age since I had a true mess of backbones and ribs. When I inquired about getting that “cut” at the local grocery store recently, you would have thought I came from another world—and maybe I did—a world we have lost. An inquiry about cracklings brought the same, “what in the world are you talking about?” look from a mystified “butcher” who then admitted that the only thing they did which even approximated butchering was to grind hamburger. Or think about tenderloin—a couple of just-fried pieces for breakfast, flanked by eggs, cathead biscuits, a big bowl of milk gravy made from the meat drippings, and molasses and real butter to round things out—that was a meal to start the day. And don’t even get me started on the delights of cracklin’ cornbread or homemade sausage. Those are things which defy my ability with words even as they set me to drooling merely by remembering them.
With only the most modest of ventures into the hills and hollows of my mountains of memories, I can conjure up countless wonderful days with canine companions hot on the cottontail trail. Beagles ran as a bright, barking, boisterous thread through my boyhood and beyond, and always they brought pure delight. Their names, almost always four or five letters in length and simple though expressive, remain with me as treasures to cherish forever. Most belonged to us, and throughout my boyhood and beyond there was never a time when we didn’t have at least two rabbit dogs, and with the periodic litter or addition that number was often increased for a time. My first recollections are of Lead and Lady, then Chip (Daddy’s dog of a lifetime) and Dale, Drum, Bugle, Tiny, Queen, and many more. They weren’t really “mine” in the sense of ownership, but Daddy didn’t seem to mind me referring to them as “our” rabbit dogs, and that’s precisely what I did.
I grew up with rabbit dogs around me, fed and watered them daily (one meal, in the evening), was an integral part of their off-season care and training, and absolutely was beside myself when the rabbit season opened (always during Thanksgiving week in the latter part of November). The dogs knew, thanks to some early fall runs to get them fit, cooling temperatures, and whatever other wonders of canine wizardry kept them informed. But rest assured they knew, just as the instantly recognized what lay ahead the first time we showed up at the kennel clad in Duxbak clothing. Their excitement almost, if not totally, matched that of the boy who had come to get them out to be put in the carrying box (a homemade one Daddy had which fit in the trunk of his car) for the first hunt of the year.
November opened a three-month stretch of pure bliss, with every Saturday, holidays, the occasional snow day which saw school closed, and indeed every opportunity available being devoted to hunting rabbits. Saturdays were the big days, with dawn to dusk outings which, if things went well, might see us kill more than twenty rabbits. If we didn’t reach double figures it had been an off day. The adults were involved in those hunts, but at the times when they had to go about the business of earning a livelihood and putting food on the family table, carefree boys could still hunt.
Until my late teens, when one of my hunting buddies got a jeep, that meant outings within walking distance of home. Rabbits weren’t as plentiful there as they were on some of the more distant places we traveled to on Saturdays, but you could always count on jumping a few, some races, and with rare exceptions some heft in the game bag at day’s end. Mostly I hunted on these “near home” outings with a couple of companions, but if no one was available it would be just me and the dogs. In truth, some of the most memorable of all my boyhood hunts were of this nature, and those times I came home with one, two, or three rabbits toted in the game bag of my over-sized, hand-me-down Duxbak coat were magical ones. Even today I can recall specific races, particular shots, and the settings for many of these outings.
Today’s youngsters have deer and turkeys; I had rabbits, squirrels, grouse, and quail. Yet don’t think for a moment that for me small game was small and insignificant. It was the only hunting I knew, and I recall the first rabbit I ever shot with every bit as much clarity and poignancy as my first deer or first turkey. It was the quest, the thrill of being outdoors, the quiet pride of bringing home something to cook, the companionship of like-minded human and wonderful canine associates, not the size of the quarry, which loomed large. Archibald Rutledge once published a collection of hunting stories under the title Those Were the Days. For me, those boyhood hunts in November were and ever will remain “the days.”
My myriad memories of Thanksgiving fall into several categories, all of them of lasting importance to me. I’ve already touched on the opening of rabbit hunting season being connected with the holiday. Small game hunting in general, never mind opening days, seems of little note today. Suffice it to say such wasn’t always the case, and you’ll have to be more persuasive than I suspect is possible to convince me that today’s youngsters don’t miss a great deal when they get little if any exposure to small-game hunting. If you doubt me, read Robert Ruark’s timeless The Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. Most of the hunting tales in those wonderful volumes focus on small game.
Then there were the festive aspects of Thanksgiving. I greatly enjoyed the holiday before I went off to college, but during the four years of undergraduate school as well as three further years before my marriage, being home at Thanksgiving was a blessing as bountiful as the foodstuffs associated with the occasion. I saw family after months of absence, spent time with old high school buddies, renewed my acquaintance with the mountains and nature’s wonders, and simply relaxed thanks to being in a world I knew intimately and was increasingly coming to realize was of surpassing importance to me.
Nor were the culinary aspects of the time of expressing gratitude for a solid harvest, a good year, and life’s blessings in general to be forgotten. There was feasting to fulfillment and more on the Thursday when the holiday was actually celebrated. We usually ate at Grandpa and Grandma’s, although that changed after Grandpa Joe’s death in 1967, and goodly portions of the extended family (including all those who lived locally) would be present. For a whole year I looked forward to things such as Momma’s cornbread-and-chestnuts dressing and baked turkey; Grandma Minnie’s biscuits, stack cake, and fried pies; Aunt Emma’s ambrosia, lima bean casserole, and pickled okra; and oh so much more. On top of all that, it was the time when Momma baked a bunch of applesauce cakes for Christmas.
While I’ll readily confess to having done all sorts of mooching and stealthy pantry raids throughout my youth and on into adulthood, I never figured out a way to make inroads on those oh so tempting applesauce cakes until Christmas. Momma was absolutely insistent on giving them time to age and moisten to perfection through periodic applications of a bit of apple cider while they sat in an unheated bedroom or maybe on the back porch, and it was impossible to filch a whole cake. Since they were uncut, it was likewise impossible to get a slice without leaving evidence that required no Sherlock Holmes to notice. The end result was enforced patience, although when Yuletide rolled around you realized the tantalizing wait had been worth it. Incidentally, I’ve shared the recipe before but it is offered below once again with the admonition that you might want to bake a cake or two well in advance of Christmas the way Momma did.
Finally, those long ago Thanksgivings were wonderful medicine. They gave a homesick young adult (and make no doubt about it, during my college years I was periodically homesick as only a son of the Smokies removed from his native heath could be) an infusion of connection with the place which held a firm hold on his soul. A few hours listening to beagles hot on the trail, a quiet walk in the grey and to some, gloomy woods of late fall, and just being able to look out and see soaring peaks in every direction filled me with wonder and renewal. To tell the truth, that has never changed. I suspect almost every reader has some of the same emotions, at least if they spent most or all of their youth in a single place. No matter where it is, no matter the topography or setting, there truly is no place like home—and home is the place which holds one’s heart. Maybe that’s a thought worth holding in the Thanksgiving season.
Alas, my “doin’s” in the last few weeks might be better described by a phrase my Grandpa Joe would offer from time to time, usually when referring to someone whose work ethic he found less than exemplary: “That fella’s just a triflin’ do nothing.” I haven’t done a great deal thanks to a first I most definitely don’t care to repeat. While attending the annual meeting of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) in Oxford, Mississippi in late October, I had a bout with a kidney stone. In the course of just a couple of hours I went from having a grand old time shooting sporting clays to being in absolute misery, and that state continued for most of the next three days.
I’ve heard about kidney stones and the agonies they can produce all my life, but first-hand experience was a revelation (and I still haven’t passed the blooming thing). Thankfully a dear friend and fellow outdoor writer who is also a physician, Dr. Bobby Dale, was present, and he was able to take some early measures which helped a great deal. Still, that left the dilemma of being many hundreds of miles from home and most definitely in no shape to drive for any appreciable distance. Once again, treasured friends came to the rescue. SEOPA executive director Lisa Snuggs and her husband, Henry, live not too far from me. They proposed that Lisa drive my truck and chauffeur me while Henry followed along in their van. That’s what we did, splitting the trip into two days. I drove the final hour to home so they didn’t need to detour, and there have been few times when it felt better to be home.
Two sessions in urgent care, a visit to the local hospital’s imaging center, then an appointment with an urologist followed. I’m still a bit lacking in energy and worried about the stone lingering, but thankfully I’m feeling far, far better. One thing for sure—in the future I’ll be on my toes henceforth when it comes to doing the various things recommended to helping avoid kidney stones. That’s enough of that mess, but I’ll never again doubt the truthfulness of the situation when someone mentions acute pain associated with kidney stones.
There was some good news at the SEOPA meeting in terms of winning a couple of awards, and I’m always overjoyed to see longtime friends, share stories, a convivial glass, catch up on their activities, gain inspiration for my own work, and in general just be around people whom I admire and cherish as friends and extended family. Collectively we are getting older, and the younger generation’s view on outdoor communication doesn’t seem to lend itself to common purpose or fraternity with any great sense of urgency. I have no idea what the future may hold for communicating the outdoors, especially in the form of the written word, but whatever may develop I’ve had decades of grand experiences, made a passel of wonderful friends, been to some marvelous places, and done things a simple son of North Carolina’s Great Smokies thought, as a boy, were only dreams.
I’ve had a couple of articles to appear in recent weeks which I’ll mention. One is a profile of a wonderful Smokies’ character from the Tennessee side of the Smokies, Wiley Oakley. It’s in the December/January issue of Smoky Mountain Living magazine in the “Good Reads” section.
Another piece, and according to the magazine’s editor it has drawn a great deal of favorable reader attention, is in the November/December edition of South Carolina Wildlife. Entitled “Old-time Christmas,” it deals with incorporating nature into the season through use of decorations from the wilds along with examples of nature’s bounty such as black walnuts being used in festive dishes.
There’s even a sidebar highlighting something my brother, Don, and his wife, Susan, have done for the last decade or so. They take a pre-Christmas walk in the woods and gather various greenery, dead foliage, berries, and the like which catches their eye. All of that is then crafted into a lovely and wonderfully symbolic cross, and they’ve done wreathes as well. I’ve been so captivated by their efforts that each year I look forward to that season’s rendition of a cross and even enjoy trying to see how many of the “ingredients” used in its making I can identify. It’s a highly creative approach to the season and one some of you might well want to try. In next month’s newsletter I’ll try to remember to give fuller details.
By the time you read this another piece, on “The Lure and Lore of Mountain Snow,” should be available in the winter issue of Carolina Mountain Life. Along with these efforts, I continue working on book projects—some last-minute proofing to “A Smokies Boyhood and Beyond: Mountain Musings and Memories,” working on a cookbook proposal with my dear friend Tipper Pressley, periodically adding bits and pieces as I gradually work my way towards finishing “Profiles in Mountain Character,” and dabbling with a couple of other projects. In many ways those big, long-range projects are an escape and balm for my soul, and in the end of course they’ll hopefully reach fruition and be available to share with you.
That’s it other than to turn to some recipes and wish each of you a blessed Thanksgiving. I’ll be sharing mine with our daughter and grand-daughter. The latter, a freshman in college, is bringing home a teammate from Presbyterian College (they are both on the acrobatics and tumbling team—it’s a relatively new intercollegiate sport). Her friend lives in Canada, too great a distance for travel during a relatively short holiday, so she’s going to get a sampling of an American tradition which isn’t celebrated the same way in her county.
Momma always made her applesauce cakes for Christmas during the Thanksgiving holiday. The ensuing month or so would see them stored in a cold area (usually the unheated downstairs bedroom) and periodically anointed with a few tablespoons of apple cider or a dollop of wine to keep them moist. This combination of aging and moisturizing produced a cake which was, by the time Christmas rolled around and it was sliced, soaked through and through with toothsome goodness. A slice literally glistened with moisture and tasted heavenly.
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons allspice
2 cups raisins
3 cups applesauce
2 cups black walnut meats
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
Cream butter and sugar. Add applesauce and remaining ingredients a small amount at a time, stirring by hand as you do so. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees. Check with toothpick to see if cake is done (toothpick will come out dry).
CORNBREAD AND CHESTNUT DRESSING
Until devastating blight made its way down the spine of the Appalachians, destroying vast forests of American chestnuts as it did so, that wonderful nut-bearing tree was the dominant species in millions of acres of woodland. It was also a foodstuff of great importance, furnishing an ideal means of fattening free-range hogs; providing provender for cherished wild game species such as deer, turkeys, and squirrels; and being consumed in great quantities by humans. Grandpa Joe Casada was a hickory-tough old man seldom given to shows of emotion, but invariably mention of the chestnut’s demise would find him choked up and teary eyed.
Perhaps that explains the Casada family’s abiding love for chestnut dressing. While substituting Chinese chestnuts for the original wasn’t ever quite the same, at least according to those who had been privileged to enjoy the original rich bounty from nature, it nonetheless evoked grand memories and made for joyous feasting at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
6-8 cups cornbread crumbs
½ cup softened butter
Mix together with your hands.
Place half a cup of lard in a skillet. Add 1½ cups finely chopped, cooked chestnut meats, 1 cup finely diced celery, and 1 cup chopped onion. Cook slowly over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add this to the crumb mix. Add 2 large, well beaten eggs and 2 cups chicken stock or liquid from cooking giblets. The mix must be very moist, so incorporate additional liquid if necessary. Season with spices of your choice—black pepper, salt, sage (if you like it, but be warned it is a dominant and dominating taste). Bake for 1 hour or until firm at 350 degrees.
*Dressing can be served with gravy or topped with slices of bake turkey or chicken.
*Refrigerated, dressing makes a fine leftover which can serve as a side dish or in place of bread.
Thanks to an overabundance of Asian persimmons from my two trees this year, I’ve been trying to find new ways to use them. Here’s an adaptation from a recipe for using pawpaws which has pleased me. It isn’t as sweet as some persimmon recipes and might be compared to other somewhat similar baked goods such as nut loaves or banana bread.
2 ½ cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup butter, softened
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups persimmon pulp
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a bundt pan or two normal loaf pans with butter or spray oil.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt, and then set aside. Cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy, and then add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and persimmon pulp and beat to combine. Now add the dry ingredients and mix until the flour is fully incorporated but don’t over mix.
Pour the resultant batter into pans and place in the pre-heated oven. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes (60 minutes if you use a bundt pan). Check with a toothpick to be sure it is done. The bread should be brown and beginning to separate from the sides of the pan. Let cool for 15 minutes before removing from pan.
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups persimmon pulp
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 ½ cups milk
4 tablespoons melted butter
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and butter a 9 x 13-inch baking pan (or use a non-stick pan). In a mixing bowl, combine the persimmon pulp, baking soda, sugar, and eggs. Mix well. Then add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, milk, and melted butter. Mix thoroughly with a whisk. Pour into the baking pan and bake for 50-60 minutes. The pudding will fall a bit when it is removed from the oven and cooled.
Allow to cool before serving. Small servings are in order because this is an exceptionally rich dessert.
What I knew as applesauce (often it was simply styled fruit) as a boy was a far, and far superior, dish to the insipid stuff which comes in a can or jar from your local grocery store. Momma canned 200 quarts of it a year, or at least that was her annual goal. That translated to applesauce being on our family table far more days each year than not. The way Momma made applesauce and put it up (putting something up was the standard description for canning) was the essence of simplicity. She peeled, cored, and quartered apples, often doing a couple of bushels at a time. If she was dealing with a particularly large lot (say a couple of bushels, where it was all hands on deck for the peeling) the quarters would be put in a dish pan filled with cold water and with a bit of slat added until all was in readiness for cooking.
The cooking, usually in the largest soup or stew pots available, involved nothing more than putting the apples in the container, adding a bit of water, bringing to a simmer while stirring occasionally, and cooking until the quarters had softened or dissolved. A big woods spoon was used for stirring, and which there were no longer discernible quarters of the apples to be seen, the sauce was ready for processing in quart jars. Sometimes the applesauce would be a bit tart, but no sweetening was added in the cooking and canning process. That waited until a jar was opened and a taste test indicated whether any sugar was needed. Sometimes a hint of cinnamon or honey (instead of sugar) would be used. We enjoy applesauce straight from the jar but sometimes Momma would heat it up, add a couple of pats of butter which melted wonderfully into the mix, and serve it warm.
I don’t do any applesauce canning, but right now there’s a big container of applesauce in my refrigerator. It came from a peck of Golden Delicious apples I bought a couple of weeks back (even though I felt rotten I insisted my transport team in the trip back from Mississippi stop at the Barber’s Orchard stand in Haywood County). Daily I enjoy a whopping big bowl, heated in the microwave with a bit of butter, with one of my meals. It takes me straight back to boyhood, our family orchard, peeling times on the porch, and Momma’s wonderful foodstuffs.
THIS MONTH’S SPECIALS
This month’s offering is the most far-reaching, and perhaps the most generous, I’ve ever made. It is good through the end of 2019 and of course is made with the Christmas season in mind. Instead of picking out three or four books and offering special pricing, I’m offering a 15 percent discount on any and all books in any of the many lists on my website (www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com). That includes not only books I’ve done but the hundreds upon hundreds of out-of-print volumes in various lists. Moreover, if you order $100 or more in books (after taking your 15 percent discount) I’ll increase the discount to 20 percent. On any orders over $200 (actual payment) I’ll take care of the shipping. For orders under $200, shipping is $5 for the first book and $12.50 for subsequent ones up to a maximum of $12.50. If you are a South Carolina resident remember to add 7 percent tax. Payment should be by personal check, money order, or cashier’s check and sent to: Jim Casada, 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730. PayPal takes too big a bite for me to use it with specials, and on top of that, figuring out a way to incorporate special reductions is beyond my ken.