More than a decade ago, in a column I wrote for my hometown newspaper, the Smoky Mountain Times, I offered a tribute to this magical month titled “Ode to October” and then several years later I offered a second piece bearing the same title. Written after the style of a grand old mountain chronicler of yesteryear, John Parris, the columns focused on the myriad of marvels associated with October. Drawing on that column along with a bunch of additional thoughts, here’s an ode to a month of delight.
*October is a hunter’s moon, cold gold just clearing the eastern horizon while one is roaming in the gloaming. If you don’t feel close to the earth and a bit awestruck under such a moon, I humbly suggest that an appointment, and make it soon, with their nearest qualified psychiatrist is in order.
*October is hickory trees adorning ridgelines with gold, harbingers of frost and freezes soon to come. It’s a noisy bushytail feeding in one of those hickories and letting a passing hawk know he’s been spotted and isn’t appreciated.
*October is a mountain boy, roaming in the gloaming after an afternoon of squirrel hunting, feeling deep in his heart that it is almost possible to touch that hunter’s moon just showing on the skyline.
*It’s a buck in the prime of his years, full of virility and driven by the ages-old impulse to reproduce. He wanders the woods, neck mightily swollen, as he works scrapes, leaves his scent on limbs, and searches for a doe in estrus.
*It’s a wizened and wise country farmer, a man who has lived on land which has belonged to his family for generations, pursuing the timeless rituals of the harvest—picking apples from the farm’s orchard; filling a corn crib with full ears that will fatten hogs and feed chickens that lay eggs that taste far superior to anything ever find on grocery store shelves; gathering pumpkins to make leather, bake into pies, feed raw to the hogs, or carefully store in a root cellar for use in the months to come.
*It’s wrinkles on that patriarch’s face, or maybe they are just character lines, telling a tale of a life well lived.
*It’s October beans drying on standing corn stalks.
*It’s golden persimmons, wrinkling as they ripen and drop to the ground. If you have sufficient gumption you can beat the critters—deer, ‘possums, ‘coons, coyotes, and foxes—to this candy from nature. If that results in a persimmon pudding, consider yourself rich beyond any amount which ever appeared on a bank statement.
*It’s molasses fresh in the can or jar, mere weeks from the pressing but full of promise atop breakfast biscuits for months to come.
*It’s another season of honey duly taken from hives and stored for satisfaction of even the hungriest of sweet teeth.
*It’s an old man and a young boy, one carrying a single-shot .22 and the other an old hammer shotgun, heading to woods marked by that sentinel of autumn, hickory trees clad in cloaks of gold, for a day of squirrel hunting.
*October is table fare from the product of such a hunt, squirrel and dumplings with recently dug sweet potatoes flanking one side of the platter and a heaping mess of turnip greens cooked with diced young turnips and streaked meat on the other. Add cathead biscuits and a big gravy boat full to the brim with squirrel gravy and you have a meal of the sort royalty is seldom privileged to sample and savor.
*October is apples enjoyed in so many ways—cider, apple butter, dried and turned into fried pies, apple sauce, fritters, deep dish pies, and more. I might add that in my boyhood home, which featured a small but highly productive orchard, we had apples two and often three times a day from October right on into winter.
*It’s a lot full of hogs, eating red-rooted pig weed, corn fodder, more than a fair ration of shelled corn, inferior pumpkins, bruised sweet taters, the last of the year’s watermelons, and whatever else the good earth has to offer. Little do the fattening hogs they know that their world of plenty will soon give way to an Armageddon Day for swine. As soon as the first hard freeze arrives towards month’s end or maybe early in November, their salad days will be no more. In my adolescent world hog-killing time was incredibly busy but if you’ve never eaten fried tenderloin taken from a pig that very day I would submit that yours has been a life of culinary deprivation.
*It’s the sweet and satisfying smell of newly plowed ground, with everything turned under to rot in the winter before plowing and planting time returns once more with the glories of spring.
*It’s the heady aroma of nature’s perfume floating on gentle breezes, a mixture of fall flowers, just a hint of dust, ripe or ripening fruits, a touch of sweet decay, a bit of manure from the barn, and more. If you can’t smell autumn, about all I can say is you ain’t mountain folk.
*October is dust devils dancing a crazy path across sere fields which have lain fallow since the harvest, milkweed spores diving and darting in afternoon thermals, and a sense of quiet satisfaction in knowing that another year of hard work, good crops, and simple fulfillment has come to an end.
*It’s a broom sedge field turned into a treasure chest of sparkling diamonds as the morning sun glistens with a million beams of brightness after the season’s first heavy frost. It’s a kid rich in freedom while having no idea he is poor in worldly goods riding sleds made of cardboard in that same field once it has dried in the sun of an Indian Summer’s day.
*It’s a flock of turkeys, with the jakes already bigger than their mothers and the hens of the year almost as big, working their way along a pasture edge, flipping cow piles and dining on a buffet of grasshoppers and other insects.
*It’s a pack of beagles in training for the soon-to-open rabbit season hot on the trail of a cottontail in the cool of the evening.
*It’s added pep in an old man’s step on a brisk morning and a sense of urgency in a young boy anxious to be home from school and out in the afternoon squirrel woods.
*It’s shelves groaning with canned goods, freezers full of garden truck but with space left for plenty of venison, and dried goods hanging beneath barn rafters in mesh bags. It’s a pot of leather britches simmering on the stove or maybe one of October beans holding a chunk of streaked meat for flavor.
*It’s a well-worn Duxbak jacket hanging on a peg silently begging to be used, and an old dog which recognizes that jacket means good times in the fields and woods.
*It’s the incomparable perfume of Hoppes’ No. 9 and burnt gunpowder.
*October is nutting time, with black walnuts and hazelnuts there for the taking, at least by folks with enough gumption to do the gathering, storing, and cracking. Walnuts dropping to the ground provide promise of both hard work in the gathering and cracking and rich rewards in the form of cookies and cakes. Those who do their nutting labors with due diligence will enjoy the fruits of their labors in glorious fashion come winter with its short days and long nights. They will do so with treats such as oatmeal and raisin cookies laced with walnut meats or a walnut cake of the sort that wonderful black woman who passed a few years back, Beulah Suddereth, baked with such loving skill.
*It’s a time of purple asters, goldenrod, and cardinal flowers showing a final flurry of bloom; of sourwood trees and sumac cloaked in gaudy shawls of scarlet; of sweet gums, black gums, and dogwoods sporting rich and varied hues of maroon and magenta.
*October is jewel weed lining ditch banks and sporting its last showy blossoms of orange and gold; it’s a mountain boy taking simple joy from touching the plant’s seed pods and watching the seeds jump out like a haint from a graveyard.
*The month is the time of the Hunter’s Moon, a worthy successor to the Harvest Moon of September. Slung low like a golden ornament adorning nature’s breast as it crests the eastern horizon at turkey fly-up time in the evening, the Hunter’s Moon seems so close, so tangible, you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch it. For the deer hunter walking home by its light, bright enough to cast shadows, it’s a comfort and a friend.
*October is a wizened old persimmon tree at the edge of a pasture laden with golden globes of fruit, newly ripened and so filled with sugar they are sticky to the fingers. It’s seemingly every critter in the woods—deer, foxes, bears, ‘coons, and ‘possums—competing with humans to enjoy this candy straight from nature’s rich larder.
*It’s a cathead biscuit for breakfast slathered with home-churned butter and anointed in new-run molasses.
*It’s a pot of pintos simmering on the stove and a pone of cornbread made with stone-ground meal baking in the oven.
*It’s a sportsman’s supper of squirrel and sweet taters, with turnip greens on the side and biscuits to sop up the rich gravy made from the squirrel drippings. Perhaps, if that particular hunter is truly blessed, there will be a persimmon pudding or mayhap a chunk of persimmon bread redolent of the flavor of bourbon for dessert.
*October is an old man in his rocker, sitting in the afternoon sun and allowing its warmth to ease his aches.
*It’s candy roasters and acorn squash, Hubbard squash and pumpkins, gathered from the field and stored for hearty meals to come.
*October is crops laid by and fields plowed to await spring; it’s a boy gathering maypops and feasting on the sweet-sour pleasure of the seeds found inside this fruit of the passion flower; it’s October beans awaiting hulling and free-range chickens eagerly dining in a garden that’s done its duty for another year.
*It’s the simple pleasure of a handful of ground cherries to munch on, or maybe a rich, ripe pawpaw for a snack.
*It’s a boy in love with the outdoors hustling home from school to grab his gun and get into the squirrel woods as quickly as possible, pausing only to grab an apple or two or maybe a raw onion and a chunk of cornbread in case he gets peckish before supper.
*It’s that self-same boy, whistling in the gloaming as he heads home, two squirrels in his pocket and just a tiny taste of fear of things of the night quickening his footsteps.
*It’s early frost and old-timers checking the signs—the stripes on wooly worms, the thickness of corn husks, the height of hornet nests, and countless other traditional means of predicting how harsh or mild winter will be.
*October is a wizened and wise old hunter sharing tales of yesteryear with a star-struck boy, smiling as he reminisces and reckons “Ah yes, those were the days.”
*It’s the inexpressible delight of Indian Summer, with chilly mornings putting pep in your step, bluebird skies filled with blackbirds flocking up, and monarch butterflies floating in zephyr-like breezes.
October is, in short, a wonderful time to be alive, the season of harvest and of hunting, of quiet satisfaction in another summer gone and assurance of being ready for winter to come. It’s a month that blends the fulfillment of a spring and summer of hard work on the land with the promise of the special joys associated with the death of nature in her never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, grey grimness and green richness.
At the outset of this newsletter I mention one of my favorite writers, John Parris. Although not especially well known outside of his highland homeland of Western North Carolina, Parris remains a literary icon to folks who call the Great Smokies, the Balsams and the Blue Ridge, the Nantahalas and the Snowbirds, the Alarkas and the Alleghenies home. For well over four decades he wrote a thrice weekly column for the Asheville Citizen-Times, and drawing selections from those thousands of columns he compiled five books. Fittingly, all had the word “Mountains” in the title, because his life’s work involved an ongoing tribute to the high country he so lived. It is also singularly appropriate that Parris and his wife, with help from other sources, endowed a permanent chair at Western Carolina University, an institution situated just up the road a piece from his hometown of Sylva, NC. The first and to date only holder of that chair is acclaimed writer Ron Rash. Of late I’ve delved (or more accurately, re-read) samplings of the writings of both Parris and Rash. I enjoy both a great deal not only because of their undoubted talents but thanks to the fact that with rare exceptions, they get things right, avoiding the little mistakes of place, knowledge of nature, understanding of local customs, and awareness of history so common in far too many writers.
There have been plenty of developments on the home front. Early this month I was delighted to be the recipient of a trio of awards in the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association’s annual Excellence in Craft competition. All derived, in one way or another, from my book published just under a year ago, A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Memories, Musings, and More. My article, “Growing Up with Grandpa Joe,” received a third place award in the magazine category. Much of its substance comes from the penultimate chapter in the book, “Remembering Grandpa Joe.” In the outdoor entrepreneur category, my varied efforts to promote the book garnered second place recognition. Most importantly, at least in my eyes, was the first place award in the book category for the volume. Judges had some really nice things to say about the book and given the fashion in which it comes from the heart, that is gratifying indeed. One comment from a judge stated: “This book really impacted me with the exceptional way it made me feel like I was right there in the Smoky Mountains growing up. Loved every word!”
More recently, I spent a long weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, King College (now King University), in connection with my emeritus membership of the institution’s Alumni Advisory Council along with some ceremonies linked to a soccer scholarship bearing my name which will go to a rising senior who not only plays soccer but who has, first and foremost, excelled in the classroom and has made meaningful contributions to the college community and local area. During the weekend I enjoyed the opportunity to address the current team briefly (as if they really wanted to hear an antediluvian close to four times as old as them), enjoyed chatting with many of them on a one-on-one basis, and came away with good vibes about the program and the man who is leading it, Richie Rose.
There’s now some venison in the freezer (hefty, healthy doe) and I’ll be looking to add a couple more whitetails to the overall meat supply. I’m greatly blessed to have a cherished friend, noted turkey callmaker Darrin Dawkins, who has all the equipment for processing along with a prime place to do the work. This year we plan to do some experimentation with breakfast and summer sausage using various Hi Mountain seasoning packets along with our normal runs of burger, cubed steak, and the like.
My efforts on the writing front of late include “The Delights of Dried Food,” Smoky Mountain Living, Oct./Nov., 2021, pp. 14-17; “Fond Memories of Fall Gardens and Gardening,” Carolina Mountain Life, Autumn, 2021, pp. 71-72; “Fall Harvest: Reap What You Sow,” Columbia Metro, Oct., 2021, pp. 120-25; “Old Flintlock: A Sporting Scribe for the Ages,” “Sporting Classics Daily,” Sept. 29, 2021; and “The Literature of Turkey Hunting,” “Sporting Classics Daily,” Oct. 7, 2021.
Although I’ve seen the final, laid out form of the book on great African sportsmen that will bear the title Lords of the Veldt and Vlei: Africa’s Pioneering Hunters, I’m keenly disappointed to have to report it won’t be out in time for Christmas. There are a bunch of underlying explanations (for once none of them in any way linked to dilatory behavior on my part), but the essence of the matter is that it is difficult to find paper and the country’s larger printers are, like so many businesses across the board, suffering from major employee problems. They simply can’t find people willing to work. Goodness knows my knowledge and understanding of the national economy is infinitesimal, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the root of the problem. When you fill people’s pockets with money and don’t require them to earn it, there are plenty of folks more than willing to take handouts. I wasn’t raised that way and staunchly believe in a committed work ethic, but I fear I’m out of tune with a goodly segment of American society in that regard. Laziness frosts my grits. I believe in giving folks a hand up but not handouts.
Since traditional hog-killing time as I knew it in boyhood lies just around the corner, and with deer hunting season already under way, it seemed appropriate to offer some recipes involving the meat which was foremost on the menu in my youth (pork) and the one which has held pride of place for the last few decades, venison. The final three recipes below come from The Complete Venison Cookbook, and if steady sales and reader input are accurate indexes, the book has to rank right at the top of anything I’ve ever done in the culinary field. I’m offering it at a special rate of $14 postpaid through this newsletter. There’s one catch—you’ll need to pay by check or money order, as opposed to PayPal. Between PayPal charges and the intricacies of setting up anything special on the account, it’s too troublesome to travel that road. Just send orders to: Jim Casada, 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730.
This isn’t really a recipe for a single dish but rather a suggestion on the preparation of ground deer meat with the infusion with just enough fat to alleviate any dryness and lend itself to cooking well. After considerable tinkering and experimentation, I’ve become convinced that the finest ground deer meat involves a ratio of four parts carefully cleaned, aged, and processed venison with one part pork. You can buy bacon ends cheaply but my suggestion is to keep a watchful eye for sale specials on Boston butts. The local grocery store I regularly shop recently offer them on special at $.99 a pound, and I can virtually guarantee you won’t find bacon ends or indeed pork cuts of any kind at a better price. Just grind the pork and the venison together after chopping the Boston butt and the deer into stew-sized chunks, package (we have a stuffer but you can make do with vacuum sealers or even, although they are optimal, with freezer bags. Thaw and use in whatever fashion you wish. Right now I’ve got a huge pot of spaghetti sauce simmering, and it is nothing more than chunks of tomatoes I froze, chopped celery, chopped onion, some minced garlic cloves, Italian seasoning, and pasta sauce. I make it in large quantities and freeze several containers for future use. Then it’s just thaw a container, cook up some pasta, heat the sauce to pour atop it, and sit down to a hearty spaghetti supper.
Unless they’ve been infused with salt, marinated, or brined, I find pork chops to be rather too dry for my taste. Instead, I prefer to buy a whole Boston butt and either have the butcher cut it into steaks about three-fourths of an inch thick or else cut them myself. I then pan fry the cut (it will have plenty of fat) turning once and using a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature reaches the 150-160 range. Sprinkled with Montreal Steak Seasoning or your personal favorite, it beats a fried pork chop hollow in my humble opinion. Moreover, if you have a hankering for gravy, you’ve got the basic makings awaiting you in the pan when the pork steak is finished.
This may well be my favorite of all the venison dishes I’ve ever prepared on eaten. The party meatballs are that good, and if you have naysayers when it comes to consuming deer meat, serve them this dish without indicating it is anything other than beef. I’ve done it multiple times and the result is always the same –folks rave and come back for seconds.
1½ pounds ground venison
½ cup dry bread crumbs
½ cup milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup onion, finely minced
1 ½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder or 1 minced garlic clove
Mix ingredients and shape into balls. Place in a baking dish and brown for 30 minutes in a 350 degrees oven. Heat a 10-ounce jar of red currant jelly and a 12-ounce jar of chili sauce (make sure it is chili sauce, not chili!) in a large skillet. Add meatballs and simmer 30 minutes. Transfer to a chafing dish and serve piping hot.
GROUND VENISON STROGANOFF
Hearty, filling, and tasty, this easy stroganoff is a real pleaser.
1 pound ground venison
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 8-ounce can mushrooms (drained) or equivalent of fresh mushrooms
1 can cream of chicken soup
½ pint sour cream
1 tablespoons parsley
Brown venison and onion and add mushrooms (if you use fresh mushrooms, brown them with the other ingredients), soup, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 10 minutes and then stir in sour cream and parsley. Do not allow to come to a boil. Serve over pasta or rice.
VENISON HASH CASSEROLE
1 small onion, chopped
¼ cup canola oil
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 pound ground venison
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups mashed potatoes
1 can cream-style yellow corn
2 tablespoons butter
Cook onion and green pepper in oil until tender. Add venison and seasonings and brown. Placed mashed potatoes in a casserole dish and pour venison mixture over potatoes. Add corn and dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until brown.
A CLOSING THOUGHT
For all that I treasure October, for whatever years remain to me as I tread my life’s path the month will be one of bitter sweetness. A year ago, on October 29, my partner in so many endeavors, life’s mate, co-author of a bunch of cookbooks, marvelous cook, genuinely decent human being, and wife of 53 years ended her earthly journey. She had in many ways been gone for some time as dementia strengthened its grip and left her in a place far removed from the realm of human understanding.
I mention this not out of a sense of grief, although some of that will always linger, but rather from a heartfelt sense of gratitude. I’ve never been particularly good when it comes to basic human emotions, and thank yous come about as tough for me as admitting I’m wrong on something. Yet I owe a deep and deeply felt expression of appreciation to a great many of you. In myriad ways over the days, weeks, and months since Ann’s death, so many of you have lifted my spirits and lightened my burden. In some cases the effort may even have been unconscious while in others it obviously came from deep concern. It really doesn’t matter, because being uplifted, being reminded that life goes on, having tangential contact with like-minded souls or those with similar interests, and partnering with allies in the struggle against what Winston Churchill described as the dark dog of despair has meant ever so much. All the isolation and agitation connected with coronavirus simply worsened matters, but you’ve lightened dark days and unburdened heavy ways. About all I can say, and the words come directly from my Grandpa Joe, is “thank ye kindly.”