Irish Potatoes

Had it not been for the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s, I would have grown up in an entirely different town. As a little girl, I didn’t know the connection between Hubbardston and the potato blight that drove millions of Irish to Canada and the United States. I did know a lot of people in my town were named O’Connell, O’Conner, O’Brien and O’Grady.

Truth was, except for a few neighborhood children, we did not mix with the Irish very much. They were Catholic and we were Methodists, and the creek cutting through the center of our little town created a physical boundary that literally separated two distinct centers of activity: St. John the Baptist Catholic church and school on one side of Fish Creek, and the Methodist church and public school on the opposite side.

I left Hubbardston many years ago, and I don’t claim to be an expert on its history, but I understand a man named John Cowman was the first Irishman to settle in this part of central Michigan. By 1870, seventy Irish families had come to the area and settled west of the village of Hubbardston. Most residents of “Little Ireland” as it was called, were farmers, and the land was perfect for growing potatoes.

Today Hubbardston has no Methodist church or schools, public or parochial. While the Catholic congregation is not what it was during my childhood days, it is still active, as is the Hubbardston Area Historical Society. I’m happy that my Methodist mother and sister are actively involved in that organization with many of their Irish Catholic friends.

At this time of year everyone in Hubbardston claims to be Irish at heart if not by blood line. Even though I doubt there’s a drop of Irish blood running through my veins, whenever I turn a calendar page to March, I think of that unique little village I call my hometown. It seems like a good place to resurrect this blog after many months of neglect while I worked full-time on another project. So begins my March 2015 Flavor of the Month: Potatoes.

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Ricenbeans

About 19 years ago, I brought into this marriage a perfect recipe for Singapore fried rice, one shared by a sweet-but-slow-moving amah, who used to clean my apartment, peel a fresh pineapple, and prepare a pot of her rice and veggies for me once a week back in the 1970s.

Now, fast forward to 1995. My new husband brought into our marriage instructions for his favorite Puerto Rican rice and beans, seasoned with cilantro, capers, cumin, oregano and a long list of other flavorings, including green olives. (Who ever heard of green olives in beans?) Other than rice, the only ingredients our recipes had in common were lots of garlic, onions and hot sauce.

Imagine the way I felt the first time my new hubby spooned a huge scoopful of his Caribbean-flavored cilantro-infested pinto beans over my Asian-inspired fried rice! To put it gently, but accurately, I about thew up all over my perfectly sautéed broccoli spears.

While I cannot speak for all Puerto Ricans, at least for the one I married, there’s no such thing as rice without beans. He even pronounces the three words “rice and beans” like one word: “ricenbeans.”

But, hey, don’t knock it ’til you try it. That’s been my rule of thumb in dealing with more than one new situation in life. And sure, I’ll confess that over the past 19 years, I’ve occasionally thrown a few Spanish-flavored frijoles over some left-over fried rice and veggies myself. (Oh, you have, too?) Today, as we sat at the dinner table enjoying a delicious plate of Caribbiasian fried ricenbeans, I thought it’s a lot like our marriage. It may have taken a while to get used to, but it turned out pretty darn good. 

Tangerine Christmas

Santa came to our rural town on a fire truck, bearing dozens of boxes of candy for us children. We’d bundle up in our warmest coats, boots and mittens, and wait in the cold for what seemed like hours back then to receive our annual package of peanuts, hard candies … and a tangerine. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt there’s a tangerine in the boxes he distributes in my hometown today. But back in the 1940s, a fresh tangerine in Michigan in December was a real treat.

The neat thing about the tangerine, and I mean neat, was that it was so easy to peel–yes, so easy a child could do it. Additionally, the small sections of the tangerine separated more easily than oranges, and did not create streams of juice running to my elbows.

To this day, the smell of a freshly peeled tangerine or orange at any time of year takes me back to my childhood and Christmas in Hubbardston. Maybe I should have started this post with “Once upon a time, a long time ago …” Instead, I’d like for you to think about the smells you associate with Christmas.

Our sense of smell has a unique way of taking us to a special times and places, some of which we treasure and some we’d just as soon forget. For most of us, the fragrances of pine, peppermint, cinnamon, cloves and other spices remind us of Christmastime. Ah yes, the real pine tree standing (leaning?) in the parlor, or the aromas of spicy delicacies coming from Mom’s oven. For me, it’s citrus, which brings me to recipe you might enjoy. It’s one of my favorites at Christmastime or any time of year for that matter. I assure you, it will generate some wonderful fragrances from your kitchen … and perhaps take you back to a special time and place, too.  Merry Christmas!

ORANGE NUT BREAD

Pour the juice from 1 medium orange into a cup and add enough boiling water to fill the cup, and set aside. Remove most of the membrane from the orange peel. Chop the peel and 1 cup of dates (or raisins). Add orange juice. Stir in 2 tbsp. melted shortening, 1 tsp. vanilla, and 1 well-beaten egg. Add 2 cups flour with 1/4 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. soda, and 3/4 cup sugar. Stir in 1/2 cup of nuts. Bake in a loaf pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

Enjoy!

Taste of Retirement

I talk CQ into “checking out” an item I saw on craigslist. When I tell him it is just a little north of Ocala, I fail to mention it is three counties away. I wait until we reach Alachua County before entering the address into the GPS, figuring it gives the machine fewer miles to calculate directions and thus lessen our chances of ending up at a fishing camp at the end of a dirt road. Wrong! That’s exactly where we end up. It seems there are two Twin Lakes roads in Alachua County, and, of course, the GPS has directed us to the one we are not looking for.

Not all is lost. We wind up at a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I moved to this part of the state: the home of Majorie Rawlings, author of The Yearling. (We don’t stop, but at least I know where it is for future reference.) Unfortunately, my “urban cowboy” husband is not enjoying either the fact that we are on the wrong road or the beauty of the sparsely populated area once inhabited by Seminoles.

Well, I love it. This is old Florida with webs of Spanish moss draping huge oak trees, scrub palms lining the dusty trails and acres of swampland on either side of our red F150. Such an idyllic environment for a writer–provided one ignores the rusty travel trailers and make-shift mobile homes randomly decorating the landscape.

Thank God for cell phones. Calling the guy with the craigslist listing, I’m informed of something I already know: I am  “in the wrong spot.” Thirteen more miles up the road, off to the right, past the Good News church camp, and about a mile down a sandy path posted with a “Dead End” sign, I arrive at my destination.

By this time, I’m fully aware that CQ is not happy. Looking at the item we have come to “check out,” he says we need to keep looking. Okay, I get the message. I know perfectly well that “checking out” something on craigslist is akin to “shopping” and I should have known better than to think he would “enjoy” an “adventure” such as this outing on a beautiful autumn morning in the Sunshine State.

Quietly we make our way back to a paved road with a yellow line down the middle. CQ is happy to have reached civilization again. I’m wishing I could stop at a thrift store, but don’t dare mention it. I think I’d better suggest lunch. He loves the idea.

“Do you want a place where we have to serve ourselves, or a place where we can be served?”

He’s in the mood to be served so we end up at The Olive Garden in Ocala where we order the same thing we always order: Eggplant Parmesan for him and Mushroom Ravioli for me.

Most restaurants keep the temperature too cool to suit me, and this one is no exception. I tell CQ I’ll wait outside while he takes care of the tab. It’s taking him longer than usual, but just about the time I think I’ll go back inside and get him, he emerges with a big smile and a fistful of toothpicks and chocolate mints.

“I was looking for toothpicks when the lady at the desk asked if she could help me,” he said.

“Looks like you helped yourself,” I observe.

She had noticed him looking around for something and had asked, “Are you looking for toothpicks or chocolates?”

To which he replied, “Both!”

There’s more than one reason why I exit restaurants ahead of my husband.

It’s past 2 p.m. and we’re finally on our way back home, quietly. I feel a nap coming on. Then it’s CQ who breaks the comfortable silence that we have become accustomed to after all these years.

“Are you enjoying spending your day with me?”

(Sigh)

 

 

 

 

 

A Honey of a Grandpa

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Grandpa was a beekeeper. He was a regular exhibitor at the Ionia Free Fair, and often the Michigan State Fair. Even today when  I dip a spoon into a jar of honey, I think of him and Grandma. They lived only a block from us in the little town of Hubbardston, Michigan.

I remember pulling a chair up to the kitchen table and poking a knife into the waxy cells of honeycomb to collect the golden liquid that oozed to the surface. While I liked honey on a thick slice of bread, my hands-down favorite was a spoonful of honey drizzled over a mound of homemade cottage cheese.

I loved visiting Grandpa in the corner of his basement where he worked on his “honey of a hobby.” After extracting and bottling the liquid honey, he melted the leftover beeswax into little “cakes.” Mom always kept one of these in her sewing cabinet for waxing thread to strengthen it and to prevent tangling. Dad used beeswax to fix sticky drawers and to lubricate nails and screws for his woodworking projects.

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Like my Grandpa, my dad, Harvey Allen, took up beekeeping as one of his many hobbies after retiring. Grandpa would be proud to see that HONEY FOR SALE sign in my parents’ front yard.

Grandpa’s hobby doubtless accounts for all the recipes in Grandma’s collection that call for honey. They will all appear in the reproduction of her book that I’m producing, but, to tempt your tastebuds, here’s one:

HONEY COOKIES

2 1/2 cups honey

1 cup shortening

3 eggs

ginger + cinnamon + salt (a dash or a pinch will do)

2 level tablespoons soda dissolved in

6 tablespoons vinegar

Enough flour to hold shape when dropped

She noted no more instructions, but she probably baked them at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes