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GPS and Country Roads

Mary Niehaus RallesIt’s nearly “go time” for selling my house and moving one step closer to that red dirt road I joke about all the time, where I’ll branch out into a more rural Midwestern view.

I live close to a decent-sized, metropolitan area with a population of about 300,000. I get that this might not sound like a huge number, with other similar nearby cities enjoying more than double that size. But city is city, and when you’re seeing more sidewalks than fence posts, you know it’s time for a change.

orschein

Growing up, I lived on my Granny and Pop’s farm. It was in rural Northern Kentucky, in an area with a population of about 24,000. I’m using that as my starting point for searching for a place where I can enjoy a small community while still being close enough to my job to commute each day.

So, my initial search factors for my “right-sized” community are as follows: a commute of no more than 45 minutes one-way, good public schools, scenery that includes split-rail fencing, barns of all kinds, farm equipment kicking up dirt in the fields, two lane winding roads, and a homestead I can drive up to and feel as though I have been transported to my own slice of heaven.

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I used to love driving back roads with no purpose or direction in mind. It’s kind of hard to explain, but driving through the country, and listening to country music is one of the most relaxing escapes for me. Of course, my actual search required a little more discipline than just driving mindlessly down winding roads; I couldn’t take off and get lost driving until I found a “for sale” sign, and I didn’t want to drive too far out without logging miles and commuting distances. Thankfully, I have GPS and could easily plug in addresses I found online ... or so I thought.

It never occurred to me that, while technology was a lot different than my younger days, the appeal for being further out also presents a challenge in mapping out with GPS. I learned this the hard way as I began following directions to one of the first houses I chose to look at. I picked it because it had 19 acres, a fishing pond, and beautiful level, cleared land. Realistically, 19 acres is probably more than I can take on. If I’m honest, the right size for me would be about an acre (cleared) or between 3 and 5 acres (if mostly wooded, with a fishing hole).

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About twenty minutes outside of town, I jumped off the interstate and began following the street-by-street directions. As I started down a long and winding road, about halfway down, my trusty GPS told me to make a legal u-turn as soon as possible. I was on road with no shoulder and a deep ravine. I went with my instinct and chose to continue cautiously driving forward.

Continuing on the current path, the GPS eventually self-corrected, and I was able to find the destination, which, by the way, was a little rough around the edges. The house turned out to be a fixer-upper, and while I’m okay with rolling up my sleeves and digging in, I feel like there ought to be a barn to go with any homestead I have to put that much elbow grease into. So I decided that was a pass.

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Before venturing out for the day, I’d done quite a bit of research online about populations in neighboring towns and came across an interesting distinction for these little pockets of rural towns represent. Apparently, when you are moving farther out than a typical suburb, you are looking at something called an “exurb”. I’m not sure this buzzword fits with my homestead quest, so I think I’ll stick with my own vision of what living outside the city limits means to me!

I am still searching and didn’t expect to find that perfect spot on Day One. I am more excited, though, having driven around several communities where I can see familiar fence posts, some rusted and distressed from use and wear. And while my GPS failed me in keeping me on the right path, I know I’m on the right track, and it’s just a matter of time before this dream becomes a reality.

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

The Walking Dead and the Osage Orange Tree

Mary Niehaus RallesI’m a big fan of The Walking Dead. For those of you not familiar with the TV show, there is a small band of people who are tenacious and relentless in teaming up to survive in a world where a disease has caused the world to be overrun with "walkers," or zombies.

I’m the first one to admit that there is a very low likelihood we’ll have to plan or prepare for this scenario. But if you just consider the backdrop of a world where anyone who wants to survive must do so by learning how to live sustainably, now I think we have a peaked interest. I already know who I would hand-pick as fellow survivors I’d want in my corner if homesteading, hunting, and gardening suddenly became a necessity to survival. And, in thinking about how to be self sufficient, live off the land, and build community around a common goal, the show becomes more relevant to some of the basic staples in life we are seeking to achieve here.

In a world where homesteading and gardening for food sources might suddenly be mandatory, I would want to know I had the tenacious and resourceful community here within GRIT in my corner. The GRIT community is a powerful network of skilled craftsmen and women — talented individuals carrying forward the know-how to continue to enjoy living self-sufficiently and in a sustainable way.

So, when I was talking to a friend the other day and joking about fruits I called “brains” as a kid — my mind always goes to zombies (hence my Walking Dead intro) — I was laughing about my early impression of the Osage Orange Tree.

The Osage Orange or hedge apple
Photo by Fotolia/ctvvelve

I remember this tree as simply being the one that dropped green brains in the street that sometimes were squished by passing cars. I'm an Ohio native, where the tree was introduced during the 1800s, so they are pretty common around here.

The Osage Orange Tree, or hedge apple tree, as it’s sometimes called, is one of those rare resources that has served a bunch of different purposes:

• The fruit itself, which is about the size of a softball, has never really held favor in any century, as it is not necessarily appealing to view and has no real practical purpose in use. But back in the 1800s, the Osage Orange Tree was used as a way to build fencing, growing naturally to protect homestead borders. The stems of most Osage Orange Trees are thorny, and the branches interlace. And the combined strength of this tree was a powerhouse of usefulness for homesteaders.

• The Osage Tree earned its name from the Osage Indians, who made their bows from the wood of the tree.The wood is orange and yellowish in color and very hard and heavy. The bow was considered to be of great value in trade and was used by Shawnee and Wyandotte Indians in Ohio as well. The wood was also used to make farm wagons and wagon wheels. For fencing, when planted together, it made a great barrier for fields.

• The trees are not used for fencing much today, but they are still of enduring quality and strength; in particular, craftspeople enjoy the beauty of the wood. I found a few really cool pieces of furniture crafted of the hearty and beautifully orange-colored wood on Etsy.

Which brings us back to my initial muse: The Walking Dead. Bow and arrows are quite valuable in this series, just as they were in early settler trade. Back then, it was said that one bow was worth that of a horse and blanket. I would imagine if we were still hunting and foraging for everything, we’d consider that a fair trade.

So, if we ever have a need to do what we already love to do the most, who’s with me?

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

Apple Butter or Applesauce?

Mary Niehaus RallesI opened up a jar of homemade apple butter today and made myself an apple butter sandwich. I don’t know why it tasted so amazing, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that it was one of my first canning projects last fall. I love the idea that I can enjoy and savor something that reminds me of crisp fall days while I’m in the middle of winter, with barren trees waiting for spring buds. (For more on my thoughts on winter, go to There Will Be Chickens (Of Course!)).

My first canning attempts began last August when one of my best friends gave me everything I needed to start canning, from the Granite-Ware pot to the Mason jars to the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. As an adult, it’s a rare occasion for me to get really excited about birthday gifts, but I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight when I saw the big, blue, granite pot full of utensils.

canning gift

As a kid, I remember my Aunt Barb canning every year. She had metal shelving that seemed to go on forever, with jars of green beans, tomatoes, and corn. Looking back, I have a lot of admiration for her resourcefulness and frugal nature. At the time, it all just looked like a bunch of funny glass jars, almost foreign objects compared to the canned vegetables my mom bought at the grocery store and kept on pantry shelves. Green Giant and Del Monte won out in my formidable years. And GMO and sodium content weren’t a “thing” at that time.

These days as I look back on certain periods of time in my youth, taking things for granted was a recurring theme. I can now better appreciate how extraordinary life can be if we are only willing to invest a little more time. I always went for quick and convenient. Ironically, as time unwinds, I find the slower path so much more intriguing.

So, when I set about making apple butter last fall, I gave this consideration as I worked through the process of my apple butter recipe. After going through the steps to place the softened apples through a food mill — once the peels have been removed — you return it to the burner to simmer. Applesauce comes first as you constantly stir and watch the pot (contrary to popular belief that a watched pot never boils). This stirring and watching continues for a fair amount of time as the apples become hot enough to caramelize and turn brown.

I was a little worried that I might have a mishap that resulted in failure. Probably worth mentioning I had an early (epic) fail with hot pepper jelly. I had carefully chosen a set of square canning jars, beautiful cloth for the lids, and a vintage, silver-plate jelly spoon. By no means am I bragging (as you’ll soon learn), but the finished product was almost a work of art, so beautiful were the peppers floating in the jelly. Turns out the peppers were not so much “floating” as they were permanently “set” in my jelly jars ... The closest consistency comparison I can come up with is that of Jello Jigglers (but firmer). Turns out that the pectin I bought online from Amazon was a larger package than that referenced in my Ball recipe. I will know better next time!

pepper jelly 2

hot jelly

But I’m getting sidetracked. I was talking about apple butter. I was a little afraid that if I focused solely on preparing and canning apple butter, I might make a mistake and have nothing to show for my hard work. At the last minute, I decided to pull a few jars of applesauce from the saucepan at mid-point. It was a success, and I was able to store a few jars of both apple butter and applesauce. I put it next to the strawberry jam that was my first project and success (It made it through the Christmas season until it was shared as a gift and used as the main ingredient for thumbprint cookies).

apples and peaches

In a way, everything we do in life is based upon risk and reward. Is the time required worth the results? What if you invest the extra time and it somehow still doesn’t work out? You may never know for certain if something was worth the risk if you never try.

This lesson was a safe bet, at least for cooking. Applesauce takes less time to make and is almost as tasty as apple butter. Apple butter takes a really, really long time to make, but when done right, it’s worth the trouble.

Here’s hoping we can all recognize that any choice we make in life is an important one, and we shouldn’t rely solely on immediate gratification or a sure thing. Sometimes what requires the greatest effort is more rewarding than a quick and easy win. So, when you consider your next decision point inside or outside the kitchen, remember that some of the toughest decisions are worth the trouble just as some of the hardest recipes result in the most rewarding outcomes. And the more you practice, the more adept you’ll be in seeing the difference, one ingredient at a time.

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Ohio

There Will Be Chickens (Of Course!)

Mary Niehaus RallesThere’s a bit of hibernating and nesting going on in my house. We’ve had a cold spell, with temperatures dipping into single digits and a negative wind chill factor. In fact, there is a freezing rain warning for travelers. Right this minute I am not loving Mother Nature and all her wonder as freezing rain falls outside.

I know, I know! Winter has it own quiet beauty and its place with the rest of the seasons, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in saying it’s not my favorite season. I always find myself fighting off the urge to wrap myself in a fleece blanket and flannel and stay there until the last frost in early spring.

If I were already settled in to my new place then I wouldn’t even be contemplating sitting still this long. Motivation would be mandatory. Because once I move I hope to have a few extra mouths to feed. And no, I’m not talking about more kids (unless it’s a goat for milking).

I’m talking about my baby chicks — the ones I plan to get once I’ve settled into a place with a few acres and a more rural landscape.

That landscape will be the kind where you can actually catch a glimpse of meteor showers and shooting stars instead of turning your head toward a natural phenomena that is more likely a blinking cellular tower in the distance. Instead there are places where you can get a glimpse of a brilliant full moon and absent telephone and cable wires. There are landscapes where the night is so dark that it hangs heavy in the air, and you feel solitude all around you like a warm embrace from a close friend. I’m guessing most of you already know what I’m talking about and that you might share the same sentiment.

I have lived with this backdrop in the past, and this time around I can promise you I won’t take it for granted. I won’t forget how good it feels to hear the deafening sound of country silence. That is to say, the sound of nature and katydids chirping in the night air. Not that I have denied myself that creature-comfort sound from home; a few years ago I bought a sleep sound machine on Amazon, and I drift off to sleep every night listening to the katydids, with the occasional sound of a siren and other city noises in the background.

Where was I? Oh yes: winter. I have no romantic notions about that rural scenery I’m dreaming about. I know it’s hard work to maintain any land, even on the smaller scale that I plan to purchase. I also know that it’s the kind of work I love the most — the kind where you get your hands dirty and fall into bed, exhausted, at the end of the day. In working my entire life, I finally appreciate the necessity of a career while acknowledging that there is an equally critical need for a bigger dream and purpose after the workday has concluded. A time and place where I can put my creativity and passion to work in different ways, requiring some elbow grease and effort ... away from the lighted glow of a laptop screen or iPhone.

And here I sit on a Saturday morning, considering my own bigger purpose and passion. I have to laugh when I think about how I’ve been sharing my “news” of moving with others. I feel as though I have to provide greater detail on the “why” in moving back to a more rural landscape. So I always add a catchall phrase when I talk about my plans. I smile, talk a bit about my garden last year, how I started canning jam and apple butter ... and finish with the most obvious reason: ”And I want chickens, of course.”

After all, who doesn’t love the cute little puff balls? I know, I know ... they don’t stay cute, and they create a fair amount of aromatic fertilizer. They’re a lot of work and require a team effort with the family.

I also realize that I have friends and co-workers who may be wondering if I'm experiencing some kind of mid-life crisis. Some may wonder why I see homesteading as a critical element to my two boys' life skills and education. I'd say that while my kids are well versed in online internet environments, playing in virtual worlds like Minecraft and Pokemon Go, there is still no substitute for the kind of play that comes from going outside, mucking through a creek bed, and looking for salamanders, crawdads, and the occasional fossil or arrowhead. Because for every "rare" Minecraft rank or powerful Pokemon warrior, there are better discoveries that can't be captured on a cell phone or saved online.

I believe that the parts of life we take for granted — heck, stuff that is mundane and necessary — those are exactly the places we need to make sure our kids don’t miss out on or forget about. For my family, I’ve settled on a romanticized idea that life will be far richer for us if we collect eggs every day from our own flock instead of a quick walk down the dairy and produce aisle of a grocery store. I know it’s not that simple. I also believe it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.

Looking forward to the “chick days” at Rural King and Tractor Supply in early spring, where I can shop in earnest, carefully selecting what will be part of our new beginning. And introducing a new breed of Pokémon to my boys — Buff Orpingtons — said to be a great egg layer (not to be confused with “Pokeballs”) and of good temperament with kids!

Chicks and mother hen
Photo by Fotolia/ananaline

Not My Granny's Thanksgiving Spread

Mary Niehaus RallesThere is one in every family: the one who gets “picked” to host the big holiday meals each year. At some point in my adult life, I was picked as one of those favorite places to stop by for Thanksgiving.

Maybe it’s because I keep all the family recipes in my head. Or maybe it’s because I try to keep a few traditions going, carefully trimming the bird with a hint of nostalgia. Heck, it could just be because I make a mean turkey.

turkey

I’d love to tell you that I learned everything I know from my granny, who, just after Thanksgiving every year, would say that she was “down for a week” after the holidays. This was as close as she came to bragging, a self proclaimed indicator that she had went all out for the festive spread ... a spread that at one time fed a dozen or so grandchildren and a few stragglers every year.

But my granny, well, let’s just say she was a “play it close to the apron” kind of cook. She said that no one had bothered to teach her, and that it was better to learn on your own. So whenever she was in the kitchen, I stayed just a few steps behind, making a mental note of the ingredients (forget measurements, it was a pinch of this and a cup of that — and by a cup of that, I mean a water glass that held an undetermined amount of ounces). If I was lucky, I could watch from start to finish. More often than not, though, I was shooed away to put a rubber band around my unruly long hair. She was a stickler about that. A single hair could ruin an entire meal. Guess I couldn’t blame her. And yes, I picked up on that early and always pull back my hair before beginning any meal preparation.

Granny used to make this chocolate-peanut-butter fudge that turned out like a hard chocolate bar, dark brown like a Hershey’s, but without any uniformity at all. She’d simply break it into uneven pieces and throw it in a pile on a plate (which would later be divvied up amongst the grandkids as part of our take-home goodie bags).

Thirty years later, I’m still trying to perfect that recipe. I’ve made progress over the years, but I have never found the right combination of cocoa, peanut butter, and soft-ball consistency. I am still hopeful and try again every year. I think her recipe came from the back of a can of Hershey’s cocoa powder, when the container was metal and you had to pry the top off with your fingernails. If anyone else has ever made it, I’d be ever so grateful if you could share!

She always made turkey, but ham was her real specialty. She’d take a plain piece of ham (bone in) and turn it into a work of art, carefully pinning pineapples and cloves and drizzling it into a brown sugar mixture of goodness, making your mouth water before taking the first bite.

My granny has been gone for a couple of decades now, and my life is full and rich, so remembering those holidays has less to do with any strong yearning for days gone by and more to do with trying to pass along new memories for my own kids and extended family.

family photo

I wasn’t “down for a week” after my own planning and preparation this year. Not because I didn’t go to any trouble or walk the extra mile. But as a working mom, my holiday planning requires a little more strategic thinking. Unlike my granny’s kitchen — which went non-stop every day, around the clock, up until “T” Day — my own kitchen runs hot and cold (a lot like me some days). I worked around my kids’ schedules, my own work schedule, and even the more mundane ones (like the days when the dishes were done and I actually had a clean kitchen counter to work on).

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Setting my table began a few weeks in advance. And this year, I abandoned the good china for my Fiesta ware. I have a combination of sage and ivory ... though the name, ivory, is misleading, because it’s really more like a cheerful pale yellow in color. I bought some flowers from a street vendor outside my building (yep, city dweller and wannabe homesteader, with just enough of a garden to be dangerous). It looked lovely on my table, carefully arranged inside a repurposed antique mason jar (you know, the ones with the tin and zinc lids).

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As my centerpiece, I had planned this wonderful cornucopia of Indian corn and squash, but was missing one glorious cushaw squash due to a last minute decision to upcycle this fall décor to a Thanksgiving dessert.

centerpiece

I started baking a full week before Thanksgiving, bringing out my homemade jars of peach, strawberry, and blackberry jam. This was my first year of canning, and so I was excited to be able to take my thumbprint cookie recipe to the next level. No more store-bought jam for me!

And getting back to that lovely Cushaw Squash: Someone was mighty neighborly in growing it in their own garden and passing it on to me (along with aforementioned fruit I used to make my jam). Feeling inspired by all this “seed to table” activity, I decided to try my hand at an old southern Appalachian dish, Cushaw Pie. I’d heard it was as good as pumpkin pie.

I’m a firm believer that technology can bring benefits to the homestead, and that just as there is no shame in borrowing a recipe from a neighbor down the road, it’s equally acceptable to make new ones who don’t share the same fence lines. So I started by searching the Internet for a good recipe. I avoided the streamlined blogs and food network types; I wanted a recipe that was tried and true and not dependent upon ingredients bought within driving distance of a television studio. I landed on The Saucy Southerner and was not disappointed. I added some candy corn to the top and substituted sweetened condensed milk instead of heavy whipping cream (spoiler alert: use the heavy whipping cream).

Cushaw Pie

I had a beautiful Thanksgiving with my family this year and wish y’all the warmest of holiday memories. I can personally attest to the fact that even the simplest of traditions and gestures will carry over for decades to come.

I’m so glad to be a part of this new community, and I hope to be able to share as much as I learn!

Mary Niehaus Ralles
Cincinnati, Ohio