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Archive for April, 2012

The Chicken Whisperer

Before I started raising chickens, I had big plans. Big plans for a refrigerator overflowing with eggs and a freezer full of meat. Big plans for plump hens sitting on nests and peeping little yellow chicks every spring. While I was busy counting my chickens before they hatched, the hens had other plans. I think they recognized a sucker when they saw one. I broke the first  cardinal rule of a real Farm Woman:  Don’t name any chickens you plan to eat unless you call them “Fricassee”, “Parmigiano”, or “Drumstick”.  I have named mine after divas and Golden Girls, and they come when I call them.  They look so cute running across the yard that I can’t imagine putting one on the chopping block much less eating one.  The second problem I have is that I seem to be running the local nursing home for elderly chickens.  Many of my hens are four years old, at least. A chicken’s egg production drops after the first couple of years, so many of these “golden girls”  give me only an occasional egg.  I give them good food, plenty of roughage, and popcorn on Saturday nights, so I think they plan on sticking around to see if I’m going to show a movie in the lounge.  These old gals would be WAY too tough to eat anyhow, so why bother? The last problem I have in the coop is with a lack of broodiness.  A broody hen is one that wants to sit on a nest of eggs to get them to hatch.  That has happened only once around here, and that was three years ago.  I have tried leaving eggs in the nest, hoping SOMEONE would get the hint, but I had to throw them away.   I have tried putting a fake plastic egg in a secluded nest but they didn’t fall for that, either.   I think the only dumb cluck around here  is wearing dirty coop shoes and calls herself a Farm Woman.  My neighbor, thinking that perhaps my small banty roosters weren’t getting the job done and THAT was the problem, gave me a large rooster about a year ago. Nope. No broodiness. No fluffy baby chicks peeping out from under Mama’s wings.  It’s a good thing there are farm stores around.  I love to check out the baby chicks whenever they have them.  I bought six of various colors and breeds on Saturday, just for a start.  In case you hadn’t noticed or were too polite to say it out loud, I have a slight chicken hoarding problem.  I also placed an order with a local farmer for some farm-raised chicken.  These chickens will be unnamed and frozen.   Don’t tell the girls, but there is almost nothing better than the taste of a farm-raised chicken for Sunday dinner.

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In and Out

You know what they say….women always visit the restroom in pairs. Perhaps that is why my dad built a two-seater outhouse in the woods behind our cabin on Bello Lake. My sister and I usually went together when we were little girls. We were in and out of there as quickly as we could possibly…er….”go”.  She was afraid of the big hairy wolf spiders and I was afraid of the bears. We weren’t just regular run-of-the-mill scaredy cats though. There really were big hairy spiders in there that we would sweep away with a broom at each visit and paw prints of a long-ago curious bear on the wall of the outhouse that reminded us that there really were bears in those woods.  The bear must have walked in the wet clay soil before standing on her hind legs and peering in the window because her paw prints were a permanent fixture on the tar paper that covered the outside wall. Once the clay dried, the prints stayed for years. I overheard Dad and one of my uncles saying that the bear must have stood over six feet tall by the looks of those prints. At least that’s what I think I heard. Perhaps the bear got taller each time we showed off those prints to summer visitors.  We would stand with hands on hips, looking up at the prints and bravely say, “Yep. She’s a big one, all right,” while secretly hoping we wouldn’t be the bear’s breakfast that weekend.

When my husband and I were looking at our present little farmhouse and property, we noticed that there was an outhouse in the back yard. It is rather hard to miss because it is not off to the side in a private area, but right smack dab in the middle of the back yard. It was probably strategically planned by a long-ago Farm Wife as a reminder to her husband that there was no need to tromp through her house in his barn boots every few hours.   Although the outhouse is not used, each spring the snow melts around it first and the grass is always greener and thicker around it. I’ve often wondered if any pilots flying over to the Bowstring airport have thought that bright ring of green grass to be some sort of strange crop circle or something. I’ve thought about it turning into another chicken coop or perhaps a storage building but since we have both, the outhouse is right there for anybody to use. If they want to. It might come in handy if we ever have a big party or if the septic tank should ever freeze. Let’s hope that never happens, as I am more the indoor plumbing/whirlpool tub type of Farm Woman.

My sister and I now own the cabin on Bello Lake and it hasn’t changed much over the years, except for the new outhouse. It is not far out the back door so you no longer have to follow a path through the woods. It is only a one-seater.  Once you sit down,  there is a lovely view of the lake through the window.  I don’t stay in there long enough to enjoy the view, though. I’m in and out, as quickly as possible.  First, a good sweeping. Next, I check under the seat for big hairy spiders. Last but not least, I am always, always on the lookout for bears. Yep. There’s some big ones out there.

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My mother told me the story of the “Never Fail Chocolate Cake” when she called me to tell me that I had messed up her recipe. At age 86, she has made that cake about 572 times and knows the recipe by heart. Her almost-54-year-old daughter? Not so sharp. I checked back to see just where the mistake was made and saw that it was more than a year ago, on themnfarmwoman.com website, which was what I used for last week’s column, published in the paper and on Facebook. I mistakenly wrote  1 1/2 cups of flour instead of 2 1/2 cups.  Horrified, I quickly sent out Facebook notifications, but that of course doesn’t help any readers who clip out a cake recipe and plan it for Sunday dinner. My apologies to you. I started wondering, though. I know that my cake recipe has had about 200 “hits” on the web site in the last year. Surely SOMEONE made the “Never Fail Chocolate Cake” with the error, but one would certainly expect some hate mail from disgruntled readers whose never-fail cakes failed miserably.  I did get a few surprising replies when I sent out the announcements: “This cake is delicious just the way it is!” and “It turned out fine.” Hmmm…..strange. My Cake Whisperer mother  said that the batter would be too thin and it couldn’t possibly work. A reader wrote and told me that it would just be a lighter cake. I decided to do a little experimenting and try it myself, using only 1 1/2 cups of flour. I informed my husband that we would have to eat yet another home-made chocolate cake with fudge frosting this weekend.  It’s hard to be married to me sometimes, but somebody’s got to do it.  The cake batter was thin, as I expected. The cake rose well, and took about 25 minutes to bake. As the cake cooled, it fell a little. I was a little nervous, but made that delicious frosting that would make an old tennis shoe taste good, spread it on, and tasted. It was good. It was better than good.  I noticed that the other taste tester ate two pieces. The cake is flatter and denser,  kind of like moist cake-style brownies.  In the interest of making this a true scientific experiment, I ate a piece for breakfast this morning. It was important to make sure it tasted good cold as well as warm, and it did.   It does contain eggs and flour, just like waffles do,  so technically could be considered breakfast food.  Scientific minds like mine figure these things out.   The results of the experiment are as follows:  1) If you want the true “Never Fail Chocolate Cake”, use 2 1/2 cups of flour in the recipe.  2) If you like a moist, gooey “chocolate overboard” type cake you can use 1 1/2 cups of flour, bake for a shorter amount of time, and make the “Farm Woman Mistake Cake”.  3) If you eat this cake two weeks in a row your jeans will begin to feel too tight.  Now for the story behind the cake:   My dad was attending a conference at a resort and brought along his wife and beautiful baby girl. (That’s me.)  While Dad was in class, Mom visited in the kitchen with the owner’s wife, talking about food and looking through her recipes.  She thought this cake sounded good. She was right, and family history was made. She remembers that the resort was somewhere in Minnesota and had no indoor plumbing.  Of course she would remember an outhouse because she had a baby wearing cloth diapers and a husband who was in class all day.  She thought it was probably about 60 years ago, though. Sixty? This from a woman who can remember a long-ago outhouse and can spot a recipe misprint a mile away?  Thanks, Mom for recipes and advice and shoes and for giving birth to a beautiful baby girl 54 (Not even CLOSE to 60) years ago this week. I should send you flowers, but I know you don’t particularly care for them.  How about a piece of cake instead?

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The Cookbook

I once attended dinner where the hostess received a compliment on her dessert and was asked to write down the recipe. “Oh, it’s in The Cookbook,” she said. The person was puzzled, but then, she didn’t grow up here. The rest of us know about The Cookbook. Originally published in 1968 by the Dorcas Society of the Methodist Church, it was in most of the households around Deer River. For those of us who grew up in the 60′s and 70′s in this area, it was the food of our grandmothers, our mothers, and our best friends’ mothers. We ate this food at weddings and funerals, picnics and pot luck dinners in the neighborhood.  We ate homemade cake or cookies after school served with a glass of cold milk. Our favorite brownies didn’t come from a mix, but were made with butter and a can of chocolate syrup.  Our moms made hot dishes that started with a can of tuna or a pound of hamburger and contained at least one can of condensed soup. We ate salads in which the only thing green was the Jello. The recipes weren’t necessarily healthy, but I don’t think we worried  about it so much in those days. It seemed like everyone’s mom cooked from scratch, and everyone’s mom had a copy of The Cookbook.

I received my copy as a wedding gift in 1977. I think it was in its second printing by then. Living in the south and surrounded by wonderful cooks, I made many of the recipes to combat my homesickness. I learned that my husband hates Jello and loves wild rice. I learned that my coworkers didn’t know what I meant when I said that I would make some bars, but once they figured it out, they could polish off a pan of them in 15 minutes flat.  I learned that in the south, a “hot dish” is called a “casserole.” I learned that my mom’s Never-Fail Chocolate Cake recipe CAN fail if you use expired baking soda. I learned that you really can go home again, even if it is just through your memories and a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove.

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Spring Cleaning

Spring is almost my favorite time of the year. The robins and ducks return to the Northland and begin nesting. Bunnies, Easter eggs and baby chicks abound. The snow disappears until December.  At least we hope it is until December.  Spring would be more than “almost” my favorite except for one thing:  Spring cleaning. In the old days, real Farm Women would hang their carpets and rugs on the line and hit them with a wire contraption called a rug beater. They would scrub their floors on their hands and knees. My mother-in-law would take down her curtains to wash and wipe down all her walls while she was at it. My former neighbor in Florida changes her decor from winter to spring, and has  no need to do any spring cleaning because her house is spotless all the time anyway. She even (somewhat obsessively, I might say) cleans her bathrooms every day.  I often wonder where people find the time and energy to do things like cleaning. I had always used the excuse “….but I work all the time!” only to find out that some people actually work many hours and have clean houses, too. I had a housekeeper once, who came twice a month and took care of the vacuuming, dusting, and bathrooms. It was pure heaven, until HE put a stop to it. “We have to save more for college,” he would point out in that  darned levelheaded manner of his.  “We can ALL help with the housework!” Right. Like that happened. My daughter, a young teen at the time, thought that cleaning the house involved shoving things under beds and in closets, never to be seen again until you needed that birth certificate for something important,  and didn’t much care that the towels were damp when she kicked them under her bed and everyone thought something had crawled under the house and died.  As soon as he put the kibosh on the housekeeper, he started working a job in which he was on call 24/7 and took up golfing, which was for some strange reason the only time he wasn’t on call. That left me to do the cleaning,  and I would rather be doing just about anything except for maybe having a root canal or giving birth than clean the house. I half-heartedly pass a duster over things. My counters are cluttered.  My bed is made….sometimes.  My oven needs cleaning. My porch needs a good sweeping. I’m a great cook, though. I go to work, and work hard.  I write.  I take care of my chickens.  I daydream, thinking of things to write about and of someday, getting a housekeeper again. Him? Well, he’s pretty good at cleaning, but it’s golfing season again, so I guess I’ll see him when the first snowflakes fall. The daughter? She has a paid-for college degree, a great husband and two yellow labs the size of ponies who shed and slobber all over the place.  Despite having two jobs, she still manages to go to the gym and  keep her house neat and clean.  At least I think she does.  I haven’t checked under her bed in a very long time.

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