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Country at Heart

Winter Home Remedies

Country at HeartAll of us, no matter how healthy, can expect a dreaded visit from that miserable old man, "Mr. Sick," at least once in our lifetime. Unfortunately, he popped up at least once a year at our house, and with so many of us kids one was almost always sick, especially during those long, cold, winter months. So, "Dr. Mom" stayed on the ready with some kind of medicine to remedy our frequent childhood illnesses. My mother didn't believe in going to the doctors' office, so when we got sick, whatever grew out in the fields gave her the herbs that she used for medicine and healing.            

Like clockwork, we kids came down with some kind of malady during inclement weather. Now, this may sound morbid, but I looked forward to sickness more than I looked forward to going to work — sickness was the lesser of the two "evils." And whenever I think about it, it seems like childhood illnesses weren't as taxing on the body as grown-up ailments. That could be because, with the passing of time, I've simply forgotten what it was like to be sick.    

When we caught a cold, that unmerciful demon brought along his hated cousins: chills, fevers, coughs, sore throats, stuffy heads, blocked sinuses, and runny noses. We inhaled camphor for decongestion. We ate Vick's Vapor rub and saturated our little, flat chests with it as well as with hot tallow (cow grease) to help break up the mucus and clear our lungs. But no matter what medicines we took, these unwelcome intruders hung around until they outlived their usefulness. It was as though colds had a time frame, and if the cold's time wasn't up, it didn't leave. The medicine simply eased the symptoms.

Since we kids came down with a cold every winter, Mother was always ahead of the game. With the herbs that she gathered from the woods, she concocted her favorite homemade remedies. One of those bitter, weird-tasting, stomach-gagging concoctions that she forced down our throats for colds was called a "Hot Toddy." The ingredients are a little strange; nevertheless, they were brewed together into a nice, soothing, hot tea that scared away colds and anything else that was tormenting us.

Mom's get-well formulas worked like this: When it was time for that unsavory, slow-pouring castor oil to be administered, the drama began. That liquid had to be force-fed. Mother literally stood over us in a threatening manner before we'd finally "gag" it down. 

Then it came to the "Hot Toddy;" we drank that strong, strange-tasting tea just before turning in, with a verbal warning that no matter how hot and sweaty we got (and believe me, we got summertime-hot under a pile thick, heavy quilts) not to kick the covers off. To do so would expose our body to the room's contrasting cold night air and thus defeat the cure's purpose. If we removed the covers, the "toddy" wouldn't work as well as it should have.

While we sweated in our hot sauna, all of that hot stuff swirling around inside, our system attacked and fought off those tormenting cold germs. In the morning, when we awoke, all the cold came out one way or another. Although we were okay, we still took it easy for a couple of days until our strength returned. Then after that, we were cold-free and good to go. 

Dr. Mom's homemade medicines may be a little hard to swallow, but they're what we reluctantly ingested, and they catapulted us back into the healthy zone. That's why I'm still here to tell you about it.

hot toddy
Photo by Fotolia/Liv Friis-larsen

Wintertime Foods

Country at HeartIn the wintertime, we would not have eaten so deliciously had it not been for my industrious grandmother. She helped us out with canned fruits and vegetables, mostly from her own garden. Sometimes we'd help a neighbor harvest his sweet potatoes or some other fall crops, which they shared with us, but our winter stash came from Grandma's smokehouse

My mother wasn't a "canner," but vaguely I remember eating her pear preserves during the winter. I say winter because pears are a late fall crop, and the only pears that we picked were from a tree that was on an old, abandoned homestead down in the woods. Those are the pears that she canned.

Pears are my least favorite fruit, but I reluctantly ate them — only after the more delicious preserves (like peaches) were long gone. Actually, I think the rest of the family had taste buds similar to mine, because pears were the last canned fruits that were eaten. Or was it because they were canned without sugar? I can't say for sure, but I do know that it was almost spring before the last jars of pear preserves disappeared, which proves that they were low on everybody's "desire" list. Eventually, though, they were eaten.

Our family winter's survival started in the spring (when the first produce was ripe) and ended in late autumn. You know how bears, ants, squirrels, and other creepy-crawly creatures gather and store away their winter harvest in the summer and fall? Well, while they were busy foraging for their meals, Grandmother was busy harvesting from her garden. While the wild animals packed their "finds" into the ground, in tree trunks, or under piles of leaves, Grandma packed her bounty in air-tight Mason jars and stored them away in her smokehouse.

Nuts — though not exactly what I consider food — are gathered in late fall and early winter. They can be stored in cans and buckets and eaten well into springtime and beyond. We had a hickory nut tree and a black walnut tree in our front yard. Those nuts and the few stray pecans that we gathered in the orchard added a little more protein to our otherwise lean, meat diet.

Pears, apples, peaches, watermelon rind preserves, wild plums and berries (from nearby orchards and patches), and anything else that could be gleaned from the woods, vines, bushes, and trees was canned. If something could be eaten, it was.

My grandma canned chicken, pork, and wild game, which we ate mostly at her house. That was fine with us, because Dad "put up" slabs and slabs of fatback, sugar-cured hams, and salted-down pork. We didn't have a smokehouse, pantry, nor shelves on which to store our winter reserves, so our empty back bedroom became our smokehouse.

Since no one slept back there, and since in the wintertime it was refrigerator-cold, that's where we stored anything that needed to be kept cold. And, surprisingly, whatever we stored in that "deep-freezer" was good to eat throughout winter. Thank God for those wonderful and almost miraculous preservatives — salt, sugar, and cold weather. They helped our food (and us) survive during seasons when the weather is too inclement to run around looking for something to eat.

Canned food
Photo by Fotolia/Serjik Ahkhundov

Mealtimes at Grandma's

Country at HeartMealtimes at Grandma’s house were somewhat structured, unlike at ours. Just before we were ready to eat, Grandma called for me to come and "set" the table. I went to the Buffet and pulled out the flatware and plates. This formal table setting was for each meal — no exceptions. We didn't eat on the porch, in the bedroom, or out under a shady tree. Everyone ate at the table, which I guess is the purpose of a kitchen table. I could snack while sitting in the porch swing or in the front room (if it was in the dead of winter), but that was about the extent of my away-from-the-table eating.

I awoke each morning to the smell of strong, black coffee brewing in that hundred-year-old coffee pot. It was the sweetest aroma I'd ever smelled (when it comes to food). When that first whiff of Maxwell House drifted into my bedroom and tickled my nose, I'd hop out of bed, wash up, and make a beeline to the table, ready to chow down.

There awaiting me on the small, four-chair table was a plate piled high with Grandma’s soft, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth, buttermilk biscuits. Then there was her homemade butter, and before clamping down on those mile-high buns we'd slather each side with butter, layer one side with homemade peach or blackberry preserves, and breakfast was on.

At breakfast, there were only two cups and two saucers set out for coffee — one for each of my grandparents. As much as I drooled over that delicious, hot drink, for whatever reason Grandma wouldn't let me have any. I drank fresh-from-the-cow-milk instead. The cow's milk was also their coffee's creamer.

Usually we had sausage, bacon, wieners, beef steak, pork chops, or fried ham. Of course, scrambled eggs were cooked with a slab of homemade butter or dropped smack-dab into the leftover bacon grease. Breakfast was (and still is) my favorite meal, especially that first morning meal at Grandma Maud's. If it was a school day I'd miss lunch, but supper would be waiting when I got home.

Grandmother was a natural-born cook who made a biscuits mouth-wateringly good. Meals were never carelessly nor thoughtlessly thrown together. Each one was planned ahead and never rushed. She put so much of herself into whatever she made that it was all carefully prepared and well-seasoned with much love. She could probably tell by the way I ate that I thoroughly enjoyed her cooking. Of course, I always had to wash dishes; after such sumptuous dining, dish-washing was "a piece of cake."

biscuit with butter
Photo by Fotolia/Michael Ballard

The Necessity of Quilts

Country at HeartHandmade quilts are works of love and a long, laborious task. I never had the patience to quilt. After watching my Grandmother work on a single quilt for what seemed like years, I passed on the opportunity to learn the craft. (I have no idea how long it took to make a quilt, but I know it didn’t take her as long as I thought it did. I was a child, and that was the way my mind computed it.)

Many rural houses back then didn’t have gas or electric heating. Like ours, some didn’t even have a heater in rooms other than the front (main) room. For those who slept in heater-less rooms, we needed heavy bed tops. Not only that, but during the winter — even if there was a heater in a room — it seldom burned all night. People didn’t have fuel for that, so the quilts were our heaters. Once we got into bed and pulled a couple of covers on top, we were good to go. We slept through the night, unless we had to get up to “potty.”

Even though he needed those quilts, whenever Grandmother's had her quilting frame up it was an inconvenient intrusion on my space and freedom of movement. I was envious of the space that oversized contraption occupied in the living room. It was like an unwanted guest who not only overstayed her welcome, but who also competed for Grandma's time and attention.

That "elephant" was an ever-present nuisance, especially if it was winter and I couldn't sit on the porch or roam around outside. My grandmother, grandfather, and I had to sit around that larger-than-life-frame. I couldn't wait until she either took it down or I went home. However, when I went home, came back, and the frame was down, I sauntered into my bedroom for a nice surprise: Grandma’s latest creation was sprawled across the bed. Then I pinched myself for being selfish, 'cause after all, I was a guest in her house, even if the quilting frame was too close for comfort!

Quilt
Photo by Fotolia/melnikofd

Grandmother's Quilts

Country at HeartDuring this time of the year — when we turn on the heat and put extra covers on the bed — my mind travels back to my childhood when we pulled out the quilts, fluffed them up, aired them out, and put them on the bed. Now that process may sound simple, but it didn't start with pulling them out from wherever we stored them.

That quilting thing started in Grandma’s house, perhaps years before we ever saw a quilt. She always kept a cardboard box with scraps from her old, worn-out aprons (if they weren’t soiled or torn to shreds), old clothes (dresses, shirts, skirts, blouses, denim blue jeans), flour and meal sacks, old sheets, strips of leftover fabric, and old handkerchiefs. Some of those items may be exaggerated, but quilts were indeed made from any salvageable fabric that could be sewn together.

Some of that stuff I definitely would have sent to the incinerator or tossed in the fireplace, but luckily Grandmother saw something in those rags that I didn’t. Women who quilt today (including me) use mostly new, store-bought fabric; Grandmother used whatever she could get her hands on. I remember her seemingly forever picking up little-bitty pieces of fabric and meticulously sewing them onto one another. Most quilters use an electric sewing machine; my grandmother had an old-fashioned pedal machine. However, I don’t recall her using it to stitch her quilts. She quilted an even more old-fashioned way — by hand. By the time she finished stitching everything, it came out as a beautiful, practical, much-needed comforter — another one of her masterpieces.

My mother never made quilts, so the ones we received came from Grandmother. I’m not sure what kind of batting (padding) went inside, but, boy, were those quilts heavy! Unless it was an extremely cold night, we only needed one ... two if you wanted to be sure you wouldn’t feel any draft whatsoever. Those handmade quilts were so thick and heavy that it just about took all three of us girls to raise them up so we could get out of the bed in the morning!

Sewing a quilt
Photo by Fotolia/chairboy

Autumntime in Our Neck of the Woods

Country at HeartEnd of summer ... back-to-school ... bright, warm, sunny, hazy days ... hot-dog roasting... apple pickin' ... County Fair fun ... get everything done before it's too cold. It's autumn in the country, and this lovely season's changes are too noticeable for even the casual observer to overlook.

I just love autumn, and especially October, with its mild temperatures and pleasant days. This month is like an extra-special, thirty-one-day, end-of-the-summer gift from God. These shorter, getting-cooler days are almost too beautiful to be true. They are still soothingly warm, and while they're not really hot enough to go bare-footing through the park, you may get away with donning short sleeves and a pair of flip-flops. You may even be able to go without a hat or a scarf while the sun's warm rays teasingly tickle your forehead and whisper into your ear that, regardless to how much you wish it wouldn't, the end of fall looms on the horizon. The trees (with the exception of the pines), vines, and bushes are gradually being stripped by autumn's powerful hands. They are now as bare as they can be. It’s plain to see that fall will not last much longer.

The place where I grew up is tucked in the Southwestern corner of Arkansas. While it's nice, it’s a long way from being as enchanting as the postcard-pretty mountains way up in the Northeastern part of the state. As a child, I had never heard of the Ozarks, nor had I seen pictures of that breathtakingly beautiful area with its colorful, autumn landscape. So our neck of the woods was our own pride and joy. With whatever glowing colors we have mingling among the evergreen pines, our area still has a uniqueness of its own.

Before fall was over, Dad always drove down this winding, tree-lined lane that led back into the woods behind our house. It was Mr. "Good Buddy's" old, long-abandoned homestead. This parcel of land must have been our family’s secret, because we always seemed to be the only ones to hit the “fruit lotto" — or perhaps we simply beat the late birds to the worm. Either way, rather than go for a picnic among the tall, Arkansas pines, we went there to pick those green, oval-shaped ornaments from that sprawling tree ... the biggest, juiciest, plumpest, sweetest pears on Earth.

Mother Nature was generous, as always. She worked overtime growing that fruit on every limb and branch, and the branches drooped with those real, organic, Bartlett pears. The gentle autumn winds caused those luscious fruits to graciously drop to the ground, giving us a fun time of picking them up … and fun we had! Whenever we gathered the season’s delicious sweet, ripe, crunchy pears, something told us that summer was long past.

During this end-of-the-year season, the earth cools down a little bit, making it pleasant to be outdoors. The warm sun shines at an eye-squinting angle. Tree limbs do their aerobic dance, shaking themselves until the last brown leaves fall to the ground, leaving the landscape somewhat unsightly, dry, and barren. Squirrels and other hibernating creatures busily scurry around, making sure they've got all of their winter provisions stored securely away.

Farmers gather in the last of their harvests. Country kids take their last hay rides. For us, it was when Grandma did her final canning stint. Mother made pear preserves from our batch. But since it wasn't my favorite fruit, I only ate it if we had eaten all of Grandmother's delicious peach and apple preserves, which to me are tastier than pears. Produce stands sport winter squash and their first Thanksgiving pumpkins. Winter is on the way.

pears
Photo by Fotolia/hansenn

Watermelon Thumpin'

Country at HeartOne day while purchasing watermelons, I saw a man land a good, hard thump on one — first time I’ve seen anyone do that other than us back-wood, country folks. When I impulsively thumped one, I asked myself, "What in the world are you doing?" My honest answer was, "I have no idea."

As I glanced at the stranger thumpin’ that melon, I also wondered if he knew why he thumped it. He probably didn't, because these days most watermelon buyers are clueless as to why they thump 'em. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that watermelon thumpin’ is akin to belonging to a secret society. It's a sign that the "thumpers" know something that "non-thumpers" don't — which they probably don't, but their ego makes them think they do.

I have no idea when watermelon thumpin' started, but I do know that I saw it way back when I was a kid. I saw my dad and other farmers thump them in their patches. A thumped watermelon supposedly emits a certain sound and a certain feel to the finger. By the thump, you can determine if a melon is ripe, ready to pull, and ready to eat. Do you really believe that? Well, I don't ... not really. Those old, experienced, country farmers may know what they're doing, but I have no idea. Over the years, I simply picked up the habit.

When people thump 'em in the store, they're listening for that certain sound that they think indicates the melon is a prize pick. Since I don’t know what the “sound “ sounds like and what the “feel” feels like, instead of thumpin’ ‘em, I do several things.

First, I look the watermelon over real good. I do know this much: if a watermelon has a dark, yellowish-brown coloration on one side, it means that it laid in the field for a good little spell ... perhaps too long. If it did, it could be overripe, or in some extreme cases, just right for eating. It all depends. Actually, that one is the kind I prefer over the dark green ones. To me, those are not ripe enough to be deliciously good and sweet. Perhaps it's just tradition, but I do like to see a little yellow on the ones I buy.

Next, I simply press the watermelon on all sides. If there is a soft spot, even on a dark green one, it usually means that the melon was dropped and bruised. It can be eaten, but not that part.

Finally, if I thump the fruit, it's simply out of habit and because it is something that I want to do. I have no earthly idea what I'm looking for. So, inexperienced me, I just look at a melon and decide if it's the one I want to buy, though I will seldom buy a melon that is all green. To me, they are not as ripe, nor are they as sweet as the ones with the light yellow patch on 'em. The patch indicates that at least it did mostly ripen on the vine. The solid green ones may indicate that they didn't stay in the field long enough. I pass on those.

I'm a country girl and should have my "thump" down pat, but I don't, so if you ever see me thumping a watermelon, just know that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I'm doing. Tell me to buy the watermelon, take it home, and give it a try. If that one is a dud, maybe with the next one I'll hit the jackpot.

watermelon
Photo by Fotolia/rozakov