Musings From Maine

Bad Blood

Mitch LittlefieldI know it’s been a while since I lasted posted to this blog. It’s been a very busy beginning of fall for me with family commitments, work commitments, and I’ve spent any free time taking in the glorious fall weather with hikes around Bangor and some of the fantastic wilderness of Maine north of Brownville Junction. That said, it’s also because I have been experiencing a bit of creative block. For me, I have to “feel” it, to sit at the keyboard. This not feeling it comes and goes, so I find it a normal and natural part of the process as a writer. In any case, I know that compulsion to write will return — especially when I can't go out and play as often — I admit it — I don't play in the bitter cold much anymore.

So, we are moving into the hunting season here in Maine. Folks have been bird hunting, moose hunting, and now are preparing for the holiest of the hunting grail — deer hunting. With that in mind, I will post a story from my book, “Memories of Shucking Peas,” that illustrates preparing for an afternoon’s hunt — back in the day.

Hope you enjoy.


Bad Blood

Growing up as part of a farming family meant that when we recreated, it usually was in a form that would also be somehow productive to the farming way of life. For example, if we kids wanted to go ice skating, the men would tag along to ice fish. So, we would build a bonfire on the shore for warmth and for cooking, shovel off an area to ice skate on, while the men would auger out holes in the ice and set the traps. This was great fun. We got to fish and ice skate, enjoy hotdogs and melted cheese on a piece of wonder bread, cooked over an open fire, and listen to stories and yarns from the elders. From the elders' perspective, this was a way to let us boys and girls have a little fun while at the same time garnering a little of ol’ Ma Nature's offerings for the dinner table, and for the freezer, while at the same time, they had fun. Even crusty ol’ farmers like to have fun, y’know.

At other times, we would go bass or trout fishing in the spring and summer for the same purpose.

We would go salt water fishing for mackerel, and at the same time go clamming. We would go fiddle-heading. We knew all the best spots to find wild blackberries, raspberries, and dandelion greens. We had fun but we also sustained our family’s food needs this way as much as what we raised and grew.

One of our biggest recreational activities was hunting. All the men and boys, and many of the women-folk, hunted. This meant we needed to spend time cleaning and oiling our guns, and we needed to target practice.

I should point out two things here.

My beloved grandmother, Mamie, despised two things in life more than anything else.

Guns she hated even more than foul smells, and blood she feared … especially the sight of her own.

Heh, yeah, a picture is starting to develop, ain't it?


So, it was common to spend some time target shooting. With rifles, meant for hunting of larger game, such as deer, we would load up the rifles and some paper targets and head to our gravel pit where we could set up a 100 yard range and dial those scopes in. It was considered sacrilegious to wound or miss a deer because the scope was not properly adjusted. One time my Dad bought a semi-automatic 30.06 off from some guy who was hard up for $100, and was proudly showing this gun off at the pit when we were target practicing. It was a great deal, $100 for a Remington .06 with a 3×9 Tasco scope was something to brag a little about. So, I ran down and set up a paper target on the side of the sand bank approximately 100 yards from where Dad’s pick up was sitting crossways on the access road at the edge of the gravel pit, in the backfield of the "other farm." I came back, and noticed that Pup was still sitting in the passenger side of the pick up. He said he wasn't shooting, so there was no need to get out. He was just fine sipping his Narraganset beer and watching the action. Dad takes off his coat and lays it across the hood of the truck, and standing on the driver's side of the truck he lays the rifle across the hood, on his jacket, and squints one eye as he peers through the scope. All went completely silent, sorta like when someone putts on the golf course. Then, a loud cracking KEEEE-Powwww split the silence.

Dad had pulled the trigger.

I was watching the sand bank closely, as it was my job to see the puff of dirt kick up on the sand bank to gauge how far off the scope was.

I didn't see a thing … nothing, and said so.

Dad growled, “You must have been daydreaming about girls … you mean to tell me you didn't see anything?”

“No sir, did you?”

“Nope, not in the scope, but you should have seen something on that sand bank.”

I shook my head and held up my hands, Pup took another swig of beer and chuckled.

Dad, looking quizzical, picked up the gun to look at the scope, and when he did, his jacket slid off the hood of the truck, and there, we both saw a hole punched through the hood. I looked it over and discerned that the bullet had gone through the hood of the truck, narrowly missing the passenger-side front tire and had buried itself in the sand on the side of the road.

This got Pup out of the truck.

“You boys let me know when you can hit that 150 foot tall and 300 foot wide sand bank with that gun. Till then, I think I’ll stand behind you.”


We did manage to get the ol’ girl dialed in without further incident, and Pup decided it was safe enough to resume his position inside the truck. To the day Dad finally sold that pick up, that bullet hole was ever present. He never fixed it. Probably as a reminder that one can never be too safe handling or shooting firearms.

On the other hand, we would target practice with our shotguns most anywhere, including the barnyard. Shotguns were used for hunting birds and other small game such as squirrel or rabbits, and the extermination of vermin, such as rats or anything suspected of rabies. My family feared rabies more than anything else. So, it was critical to the war effort against rabies to be adept with the trusty ol’ shotgun. We would randomly break them out and start shooting cans thrown in the air. Probably this happened when one of the men had a flash of rabies-fear and decided we all needed to have a crack at it, so to speak.

Every year in the late fall, three guys from New Jersey would come to Maine and stay with my grandparents to hunt birds and deer with Pup, Dad, and the Unc’s. Bill and Slim were about Pup’s age and had met him while hunting with another Mainer a few years back. They struck up such a great friendship that the two of them stayed with Mamie and Pup on their hunting trips thereafter. A few years later, George, Bill’s son in law, also started making the annual trek to Maine to spend two or three weeks with this farm family in Maine and to work and hunt with them. They loved it, and we loved them. They would always bring presents for the ladies and the kids, and they would privately ensure that Pup was “compensated” for his hospitality. Class acts.

Ruffed grouse

One afternoon, Unc Stub and George decided they were going to take a ride up to the “mountain” to do a little bird hunting. It was the season for partridge, woodcock, and pheasant hunting. All three were fun to hunt. Walking through the old overgrown — long since inactive — apple orchards on the game preserve located on Frye Mountain, 10 miles west of our farm, one would always flush a few and it was great fun to try your skill at shooting a bird in flight, not to mention the delicious bounty it provided for the next morning's breakfast table.

So, in preparation of this day’s hunt, Stub and George decided a little target practice might be wise before heading out to the mountain. Pup was sitting on the cement steps of the shed attached to the house watching as first Stub would throw up a soup can or two and George would blast away at them. Then it was Stub's turn to shoot a few cans out of the air. The two of them had their backs to the house and were shooting in the air, towards the woods beyond the chicken house. About as safe as it gets. Even for the chickens.

Timing, in life, is, as they say, everything. Just as Stub threw an empty can of Campbell’s tomato soup, with the opened lid bent back and hanging, in the air. George pulled the trigger on the 12 gauge shotgun, just as Mamie opened the shed door to holler that lunch was ready … come and get it. George’s shot was true, he hit the can, severing the hanging lid, which went whistling through the air in an arc to come down and strike Mamie on the back of the hand, as she stood in the doorway. She looked down and saw blood … her own blood.

“Oh my GOD, Henry, I’ve been shot!”

Mamie almost fainted due to the sight of her blood, but it was really nothing more than a scratch. Pup and the boys managed to calm her down and once she realized what had happened, well, she did what she always did. She took her broom to the lot. Whack whack whack! Poor George figured he was gonna be banished to sleeping in the barn. After Mamie calmed down a bit, she even laughed about it. No one, to that point even dared to crack a smile, so it was a big relief when she started laughing.


Later that day over dinner, Mamie giggled and told the story of the time when a partridge flew through the window of the shed, breaking the glass with such force it sounded like an explosion, and leaving the bird dead on the floor. Her elderly father was staying with Mamie and Pup at the time, and slept on a cot out in the shed. He came tearing into the house hollering,

“Get down Salena! The Injuns are shooting at us!”

Good thing it wasn't true … Mamie would have wreaked havoc on those poor Indians with her broom, I’m sure.

Saturday Night Beans

Mitch LittlefieldIt is a long standing tradition in Maine to have home-baked beans for supper on Saturday nights. This was certainly true in our family. In fact there was somewhat of a silent, but constant, competition between my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and the wives of my uncles as to who baked the best pot of beans. Each of these ladies had something unique about their beans — something that set theirs apart from the others.

My Uncle Gene’s wife, Wilda, once whispered to me that her secret was the amount of dry mustard she put in the beans. Although it was never spoken, it was certainly implied that I was never, ever, to breach Aunt Wilda’s confidence and tell a living soul of this baked bean secret. I was no dummy … I loved her beans, and knew when to keep my mouth happily filled with her beans, and her secret locked away from “the enemy.”

My Dad was so impressed with my Mom’s baked beans, that he considered turning our garage into a small “baked bean factory.” He thought, with baked beans that good, he stood a chance of becoming the Andrew Carnegie of the baked bean world. I was all for it … I mean being the son of the wealthiest baked bean baron in the world, plus the endless supply of baked beans seemed like a win-win situation to me.

The problem was Dad never took into account that he and Mom were on the edge of divorce and hardly ever spoke to each other.

Aunt Bev, my grandparent’s only daughter, made, in Pup’s words, “A darn fine bean.” Aunt Brenda, Unc Stub’s wife, was no slouch either … her beans always got “good reports,” as Unc Stub was fond of saying. The queen bean baker though, was my grandmother. Mamie’s beans were always perfect … not too hard, not mushy, not too sweet, but not dry either. In fact, it was Mamie who gave me her own little trade secret in the art of bean baking: add a chunked up smoked sausage to the pot about two hours before the beans are done baking for that slightly smoky flavor that really makes the beans something akin to baked bean nirvana.

Another thing that set my grandmothers beans apart from the others was her homemade biscuits.

Oh My!

You can’t have baked beans without homemade biscuits … if it isn’t illegal, it darn sure ought to be. Now, I am not saying that the other ladies didn’t make a “darn fine biscuit” because they most assuredly did. Biscuits to die for ... but, consider this little fact: my grandmother, by my calculations, made well over 750,000 biscuits in her life.

That’s a lot of biscuits.


No one could make biscuits like Mamie, they would almost float in mid-air they were so light and flaky … smeared with homemade butter from Pup’s butter-churn, and dipped in the bean juice is pretty close to baked bean heaven.

Accompanying the baked beans and biscuits was my grandfather’s home-made sauerkraut. Pup made two 30 gallon crocks of ‘kraut every fall when we would harvest countless heads of cabbage from his garden. The “Making of the ‘Kraut” each fall was a spectacular event in my childhood and I will devote another entire story chronicling this most reverent of traditions.

So, sitting around my grandparent’s table, in their kitchen, in the farmhouse I grew up in, on a typical Saturday night, were my grandparents, my parents, my uncles and their wives, my aunt and her husband, and all my cousins — between 12 to 18 people, depending. To this day, I don’t how that was managed, but it was, and on a regular basis. Besides all those people, practically drooling over the smell of baked beans and hot biscuits wafting through the kitchen, was the food. Huge mounds of sauerkraut in bowls, platters piled high with biscuits, other bowls filled with steaming hot-dogs, small crocks of home-made butter, and others filled with home-made jam, and of course large two gallon crocks of baked beans fresh from the oven. It was an orgy of unbelievable proportions … a flurry of ladles of beans being doled out into plates, biscuits being smeared with the butter and/or jam, ‘kraut being piled on the plate beside the beans, and hotdogs being dumped on top, all to the sound of 18 people talking, laughing, and groaning in anticipation.

It was beautiful.

Bean sandwich

After everyone was gorged, the “men” would retire to the living room for a smoke and for storytelling, while the “women-folk” would clean up the remains, and do the dishes while having their own version of story-telling. We kids would flitter back and forth trying to decipher who had the juiciest story to listen to.

One particular Saturday, after we all had waddled from the table, completely sated and holding our bellies, the men settled into the living room. Pup sat in his overstuffed rocker beside the window, Unc Gene was in the recliner across from him, Dad and Unc Stub were holding down the sofa, while Uncle Roy was in the over-stuffed wingback chair by the TV. Us kids squeezed in where we could, cousin Genie-bub was in between Unc Stub and Dad on the sofa, I was sitting on the floor with my back against the wall beside the sofa, while cousins Randy and Robbie were fighting over who was gonna sit on the padded chest that held my grandmothers Electrolux. My Sis, and cousin Linda were out in the kitchen helping with the clean-up chores and adding to the buzz of conversation out there. Both Pup, and Unc Gene pulled out their rolling papers and a foil pack of Prince Edward tobacco and rolled themselves a smoke, Dad filled his pipe while Unc Stub tickled cousin Genie-bub. Just as we were settling in, and a hush came over the living room in anticipation of a story … Pup cocked his leg and let a very loud and very long fart reverberate through the living room. The cousins and I started to laugh … the Uncs and Dad looked a bit envious and the kitchen became deathly silent. My grandmother appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. She was glaring at Pup and spoke in that voice that typically meant someone was in trouble, “Henry Littlefield! ... you STOP that!”

“Well Mother,” says Pup with a little self satisfied smirk on his face, “perhaps you better stop it….it’s heading your way.”

The cousins and I were doubled over holding our bellies laughing … the Uncs and Dad were laughing but trying to keep Mamie from seeing them do so … even the rest of the ladies in the kitchen were snickering and covering their grins with their hands. Mamie started making that little “tch tch tch” noise that indicated her disapproval, but I think I saw the smallest hint of a smile on her face too. After a few minutes we got our selves under control and Pup began to tell us all a story.

It was a story of how he ran away from home when he was all of 14 years old, along with his older brother … how they had slept in the hay mow of a farmer’s barn where they could look out through the holes in the roof and count the stars … where the temperature was often below freezing. He told us how he and his brother had to work for the farmer to earn the right to sleep in his barn and to get three meals a day. He went on to explain that work included cutting timber and firewood and hauling it out of the woods by horse-drawn skidder, of mucking out the barn and tending to the farmers animals, and on occasion, when the work was caught up, how they would take the farmers hounds and go rabbit hunting. It was a heck of an adventure and none of us ever tired of these stories from my grandfather’s life.

After the story … after the kitchen was cleaned, and all the dishes were washed and put away in the cupboards … everyone prepared to go home. There were the hugs and kisses from the women, the pats on the shoulder from the men, and of course, the pinches on the butt between the cousins and I, and within 15 minutes the house was empty except for Mamie and Pup.

The rest of this story was told to me by my grandmother. She always claimed that this was one of her favorite recollections.

After the family had left to go to their own homes and beds, Pup, as he usually did, went to bed early. He would be up at 4 am the next morning to prepare for his day. Mamie stayed up for awhile and watched TV ... probably Lawrence Welk … that was one of her favorites. Mamie and Pup’s bedroom was right off the living room and Mamie could hear Pup snoring away. After she had watched TV for a while she decided to go to bed too … she shook Pup as she crawled into to bed with him, “Henry … roll over and stop snoring.”

Pup just grunted in his sleep and went back to a lusty snore, punctuated, by one resounding fart after another. Mamie starting putting the elbows to Pup … trying to get him to wake up.

She said, just as she was yelling at him,

“Henry! ... you have GOT to stop snoring … I can't sleep … and YOU HAVE GOT TO STOP passing gas … it stinks something awful!!” that she took a cramp herself … and let one slide out.

Yes, the ole SBD … (silent but deadly).

About that time Pup is half awake … clearing his throat, he sits up in bed takes a couple of big whiffs, and remarks, “By God Mother … them do stink, don’t they?”

Pup immediately rolled over and went back to sleep, Mamie said she laid awake most of the night laughing.

Nothing like them “Saturday Night Baked Beans”.

Pot of beans

The Baked Bean Recipe:

Soak 2 lbs of Yellow-eye beans over night, draining in the morning until just an inch of water covers the beans. Add the dry spices:
1/4-1/2 cup dry mustard
1/3 cup salt
2-4 tablespoons fresh ground black pepper
2-4 tablespoons garlic powder
stir, then add:
1/2-3/4 cup molasses
1/2-3/4 cup dark brown sugar
Stir, then add:
A good sized smoked ham hock (or salt pork)
A large onion, quartered

I like to start the beans at a high temp ... say, 400 F, until they are bubbling. Then I turn the heat back to 325 F, or low (if using a crock pot). The idea is to get the beans bubbling and then slow baked them to ensure the texture of the beans is perfect and the spices and smoked meat flavors are incorporated well. This process takes about 6 hours. When the beans are about 2 hours from being done, I add a chunked up smoked sausage. If you add the sausage too soon, you'll get the smoky flavor, but the sausage with be soft and mushy ... about two hours is perfect. Also, baking beans is a matter of taste ... you can adjust the amounts of the molasses/garlic/brown sugar/salt, etc., based on your desires to have beans that are richer and sweeter, or drier and more mellow flavored. Start out with reduced amounts and add to taste through the baking process until you have a pot of beans that you like.

Now, another tradition here in good ol' Maine, is to make cold bean sandwiches out of the left over beans ... this is an amazing treat. Thick slices of home made bread, thinly sliced onion, the beans, and mayo on both sides of the belly is growling just thinking about it!

Bon ... ahem ... I mean, Bean Appétit!

The Making of the Kraut

Mitch LittlefieldLife on the farm offers a plethora of experiences due the nature of the work and responsibilities. One must become adept at dealing with almost every possible situation that will, sooner or later, arise … and, as important, because of dictates due to financial constraints, a farm family must become as self-sustaining as possible. The farm family typically raises all of its meat … beef, pork, lamb, chicken (which also provides eggs), turkey and duck. The clever farmer also knows all the prime spots to hunt deer, partridge, rabbit and pheasant, as well as the best spots to catch trout, salmon, bass, white perch and alewives (a shad-like fish that spawn in coastal Maine streams and which are caught and then smoked). Also, we would often go salt-water fishing for mackerel, striped bass and blue fish, as well as dig for clams during the low tide. We not only raised and hunted this meat and fish, we also butchered, cut and wrapped all the meat for our freezers. Not much went to waste, I can tell you. We didn’t eat just steaks, although we ate steak … oh no ... there was liver, heart, tongue and tripe too.

Mmmmm … tripe. The lining of a cow's stomach … or perhaps you would prefer some Rocky Mountain oysters? Oh yes, we ate them too. Wanna come over for dinner?

If you do, you should be aware of the “golden rule” … you eat what is put on the table and be thankful for it. Settle down … it isn’t that bad.

Anyway, we would sometimes sell “half of a critter” at times to provide some income … which meant that when we butchered, we would also butcher enough to sell to a few regular customers.

Moving right along, the farmer also raises a huge garden … or more aptly put, several gardens.

There are the main vegetable gardens in which the typical veggies are raised … peas, lettuce, Swiss chard, peppers, beets/beet greens, carrots, squash (summer, butternut, buttercup, zucchini), tomato (several types for eating and canning/stewing), beans (bush beans, yellow eyes for baked beans, pole beans, lima), cucumbers, corn (three types … early maturity, later maturity, and a less starchy for freezing), potatoes (three types … red as they are early, russets for baking, and green mountains for wintering), parsnips, turnips, radishes, celery, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage (red and white), and horseradish (to make horseradish sauce … an eye-watering experience, but, oh, so good) and more I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

Then, there were the herbs, usually raised along the sill of the house as it provided protection and warmth … dill, tarragon, sage, chive, basil to name a few. There was a separate garden for the strawberries, a raspberry patch, and a rhubarb patch. We had apple orchards … the summer apples of Golden Delicious, Yellow Transparent, and Granny Smith, but also Wolf River and Mac for wintering. We had bee hives for the honey.

Pup, the uncles and Dad knew all the best spots to dig dandelion greens in the spring, as well as where the fiddleheads were plentiful. Pup would harvest mushrooms from the fields on the farm … white button mushrooms to be sautéed in butter, onions and garlic … oh my! They knew where to go to get the best wild blackberries. We also made our own maple syrup by tapping the rock Maples on our farm. We made our own butter, in an old-fashioned hand-cranked butter churn, from the milk we got from our milk cows.

The freezing, canning, stewing, pickling and preserving of all that our gardens and Mother Nature had to offer was a big job. Hundreds of jars of pickles of many varieties … bread and butter, sour, sweet, dill, corn relish, tomato relish, pickled beets, pickled green beans and pickled fiddleheads. Hundreds more jars of canned green beans, stewed tomatoes, canned fiddleheads and canned carrots. Bags of frozen sweet corn, Swiss chard, beet greens, rhubarb and peas. Barrels of apples for the winter in the cellar, bushel upon bushel of potatoes, mesh bags of onions, turnip, and squash. Bundles of yellow beans drying, ready to be thrashed for baking beans. Jars of honey, and maple syrup, jars of apple jelly, homemade strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry jams. Jars of horseradish sauce.

We always ate biscuits and bread hot and fresh from the oven. Apple pies, apple crisp, raspberry and blackberry pies, mincemeat pies, molasses cookies, oatmeal and raisin cookies were always available and always fresh out of the oven.

Enough to make a fella’s belly growl, ain't it?

Yes, we ate very well … but it was hours of work to accomplish all this. The women-folk worked feverishly doing all the freezing, canning, pickling and preserving in an attempt to keep up with all the produce us men-folk would haul in from the gardens and forages.

Plus, women did all the cooking and baking for a very large family who ate like they worked. There’s nothing like the smell of apple pie in the oven when you come in from the fields for supper.

The women in my family were all outstanding cooks and it didn’t matter to me whose table I sat at to eat, because I knew I was in for a treat. But, even these women, who were so adept at making hearty meals that would make you moan in appreciation when you ate, from time to time … would make a “boo-boo.”

Aunt Bev chuckles when she recalls the time she and Unc Mo sat down with Pup at Mamie’s table one cold winter night, for a supper of biscuits and corn chowder. Mamie served them and then as they ate, she, as was common, busied herself with cleaning. (Mamie rarely sat at the table and ate with her children unless it was a large family gathering) So, Aunty begins to spoon some of the chowder … it was rich and creamy, lotsa potato and onion … Hmmmm … no yellow corn kernels … strange … Unc Mo notices the same thing and asks Aunt Bev, “Is this fish chowder?”

Pup responded, “This here is poor man’s soup.”

Mamie overheard the exchange … looked puzzled for a moment, and then started laughing. She looked over on the cupboard and noticed a bowl full of corn she had taken out of the freezer to make the chowder … she had forgotten to put it in the pot!

Pup, being the gentleman, bailed Mamie out, “Best damn potato and onion soup I’ve ever had Mother.”

So anyway, we, as a family, spent a fair amount of time involving ourselves in all facets of our food to eat. My favorite of these responsibilities was, “the making of the Kraut.”

Every fall we would harvest hundreds of head of cabbage from our gardens, sometimes if we didn’t raise enough, we would buy more heads of cabbage from neighboring farmers who had more than they needed. We then would pile those heads on Unc Gene’s porch and on tarps laid out in front of the porch where the sun was the warmest. It was important to let the heads dry for a few days as it wouldn’t do to have any water in those heads.

basket full of cabbage 

Then, after the heads were properly dried, we would start cutting. It was a production line of sorts – I would grab a head and toss it to Unc Gene standing over a large cutting board, who would take his large butcher knife and chop the head in two and remove the stem. He would then drop the two halves into a bucket. Cousin Genie would take the bucket of cabbage head halves over to Pup who was standing over the cabbage shredder, which was set up on two carpenter “hosses.” The cabbage shredder was a flat board affair about 3 feet long and 1 1/2 feet wide. It has a series of blades in the middle with a rack that rode back and forth on the inside. Pup would put a few of the cabbage heads in the rack and start pushing it back and forth … the shredded cabbage would fall from the blades into a 5-gallon bucket sitting underneath.

We always did this on a warm sunny fall day, in Unc Gene’s yard, in front of his porch. People driving by would gawk at this scene and wonder what in heck we were doing … others, who KNEW what we were doing, honked their horns and waved.

Still, for the uninitiated, it must have presented quite the scene … some kid throwing cabbages at a guy with a butcher’s knife, who was whacking 'em up like a hibachi chef on steroids … another kid hauling a bushel basket of cut cabbage heads over to an older gentleman who was pushing this board back and forth lustily while shredded cabbage was flying through the air. In the front yard … of all places!

As far as I know, we were never reported to the police.

After this fun little exercise we would end up with all these 5-gallon buckets of shredded cabbage. Then, we would go down in Unc’s cellar and haul out two 30-gallon clay crocks and wash and rinse them out. We then set up operations inside of Unc’s woodshed.

This was the part where my stomach would start growling in anticipation, and I’d get “that look” from Unc.

“You know, nephew, it’s gonna be eight weeks or so before this is gonna be ready to eat.”

“I know, Unc … I know …. I can't wait.”

“Well, OK then … try to not drool in the cabbage.”

sauerkraut in a crockSo, Unc would take this “tamper,” which was a stick of firewood (maple) about 16 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. It had been drilled on one end to fit a 4-foot handle. Unc would mash down the shredded cabbage inside the crocks as Pup would add it … throw in a handful of cabbage, an occasional healthy pinch of sea salt and tamp. Repeat. After a while, both crocks would be filled with this condensed, pounded, shredded cabbage and sea salt. We would then, very carefully, lug the two crocks back down to the cellar and place them in the corner away from the wood furnace and cover them with 1/2-inch thick clay cover that sat inside the crock, then covered that with a towel.

It took about eight weeks for the kraut to “work,” basically pickle, and then we would have to test it, of course, to see if it needed more time.

The finished product was this incredible sauerkraut. It would be crisp, yet not fresh. It would have the perfect flavor … a nice tang, but not too sour. It was the perfect complement to many meals, baked beans especially, but it was fantastic on a ham sandwich too.

Over the course of the winter, the family would work on those two 30-gallon crocks stored in Unc Gene’s cellar, so it meant that he was getting visits from family members a lot. My dad would go over to Unc’s with my little brother to get two bowls of kraut at a time, one to have in the fridge to go with meals or sandwiches, and the other to eat on the way home in the car.

I still to this day eat a lot of kraut, but it is “store bought,” made at a farm in Washington, Maine. It is good … real good, but it doesn’t compare to the kraut we made.

I think ours was so much better because we made it ourselves.


Animal Olympics

Mitch LittlefieldOne of the more subtle things I liked to watch while growing up on the three farms my family operated was the “community” that existed between the various breeds of animals, and the even clearer relationship between animals of a common breed. It was interesting to see how the sheep would interact with the cows, or how the horses and ducks got along. To the casual observer, the larger animals went where they wanted and the smaller breeds would move out of their way, otherwise they would tend to ignore each other.

Not always the case. 

The pecking order on the farm was not necessarily breed specific, although sometimes it was. 

For example, horses were the kings of the pasture. They were the largest, strongest, fastest, and one of the more intelligent of the animals. The cows intermingled easily enough with the horses as they offered no aggression towards the horses, or anything or anyone else either. In fact, the horses would typically look after the cows and would alert them to the fact something was askew, such as someone walking through the pasture on his way to the creek with a fishing pole over his shoulder. The horses would watch intently, while the cows seemed not to notice. They would be contentedly chewing away at the green grass. However, if the horses felt encroached upon or nervous and started moving away from the stranger in the pasture, the cows would dutifully follow them to another section. 

livestock | Fotolia/acceleratorharris

Photo: Fotolia/acceleratorharris

If a bull in season was added to the mix, the horses basically figured the cows were on their own and stayed far away. It’s kinda funny, 11 months of the year, most of the bulls we had were as docile and, frankly, as stupid as the cows, but when they were in season, they became highly combative and were to be avoided. I remember one day when I was a teenager. I was at Unc Gene’s farm, and I decided to climb a golden delicious apple tree inside the pasture about 30 feet from the road. My intent was to snag a few of those delicious apples. As it happened, this bull we called ol' Blue took offense to the fact I was in his crib. He decided to express his displeasure by head-butting the tree I was in, and then he decided to wait me out, pawing and snorting at the base of the tree. 

Cousin Genie and Unc Gene thought this was highly entertaining as they were watching from the porch and laughing it up. 

I figured I wouldn’t starve at least, the apples were really really good. Ironically, I was in this predicament because I figured it would score me some brownie points with Unc Gene, as these were his favorite apples, and I had intended to take him a few of the more pristine ones. 

The two of them did attempt to be helpful however as Genie hollered over, “Jump down on his back and ride him.” 

I recall that I dropped a fantastically perfect apple accidentally when I gave Cuz the ol' one finger salute at this suggestion.

The apple, in fact, bounced off the head of Ole Blue, which was akin to throwing a cotton ball at a rock. It did, however, give me an idea. I figured maybe I could entice the bull to chase after a few apples and forget about me, I didn’t need much, it was only 30 feet to the gate. 

Life lesson No. 9989: Bulls don’t eat apples or chase them. 

Life lesson No. 9990: One should never start throwing a bunch of Unc’s favorite apples all over the pasture. 

At least Unc stopped laughing at me and made Genie send his dog, Rex, into the pasture to yap and drive Ole Blue back to the herd of cows some 300 feet away in the lower end of the pasture. 

None of the animals messed with the dog. The dog was the uber drill sergeant of the farmyard. And, I didn’t mess with Unc Gene. I had to retrieve all the apples I threw … all the while keeping a wary eye on Blue. 

It’s important to note here that my family also operated a farm we dubbed the “Other Farm,” which abutted Unc Gene’s farm. The Other Farm was where most of the livestock were kept, and the animals could easily be moved from one pasture or one farm to another. These two farms totaled about 350 acres of pasture, hayfields, a couple of farm ponds, a fantastic trout stream, and about 100 acres of forest, or as we say here in Maine, “woods.” It remains, to this day, the most beautiful land in this county. 

Anyway, watching the sheep was another interesting slice of barnyard culture. The sheep typically stayed together in a scattered cluster but off to themselves. Sheep are one of the most defenseless animals I’ve ever known, and so they tend to stay away from all other animals, which is somewhat of a paradox. They would be much safer if they stayed among the other animals. This became an ever-increasing problem as the coyote population here in Maine continued to grow through the 1970s. 

sheep | Fotolia/marilyn barbone

Photo: Fotolia/marilyn barbone

Coyotes terrorized the sheep, on occasion, killing several in a night. To further complicate the problem, coyotes are incredibly resourceful, very intelligent, and almost impossible to stop. They are too smart to be trapped, poisoning them was out of the question, and hunting them was almost laughable. The only real option was to let them come to you, which meant spending many nights sitting in the old ‘49 Willy’s jeep, hidden in bushes, on the edge of the pasture, with high-powered rifles, hoping for enough moonlight to pick one up in the scope. Coyotes hunt at night, another sign of their cleverness. They usually hunted in packs of three or four, but sometimes there would be only one. They are very fast, ruthless and fearless. Typically, they would make the kill quickly, eat the organs – the heart, lungs and liver – and then escape to the woods to hunt another night. They would come in cycles, never staying in the same patch of woods or feasting off the same farm for more than a few nights – very clever animals.

Unc Gene discovered a way to tell if his sheep were going to be attacked that night, which I have always thought epitomizes the term “good ol' Yankee ingenuity.” He came to realize that vultures would begin to flock to the farm and perch on the fences at the edge of the woods just before dark. Unc understood that the vultures followed the coyotes and would feast on the remains of the kill once the coyotes had their fill and had run off into the woods.

Unc Gene and Cousin Genie were both excellent marksmen and shot many coyotes over the course of time. Some of us other men in the family would take our turns from time to time and join them in the all-night vigil of protecting the herd. We were basically there to just offer company. The real responsibility of sitting there, night after long night, always fell on their shoulders. Still, they would be on the farm the next day, working side by side with the others. 

The only time the sheep would naturally intermingle with the other animals was during winter months when they couldn’t graze. Then they were forced to eat from the common piles of hay we tossed out from the barn each morning and night. The sheep had a very noticeable community within the flock. I always marveled at how a mother sheep and her lambs could distinguish each other's bleats from the cacophony of hundreds of such bleats in this cluster of over 400 head. I also found it very heart-warming when a mother sheep would accept a lamb, whose mother had not survived, as her own. That didn’t always happen. In fact, it was not common, but it happened enough to appreciate the community of these sheep. More often, one of us youngsters would become the surrogate mother to a little lamb who had lost its mother, bottle feeding it until it was grown enough to fend for itself. 

It was the lambs that were such a joy to watch. Sheep typically have twins, sometimes a single lamb, and occasionally triplets, but most often, it is twins. When the lambs are very young they stay very close to Mom, and the brother/sister tandems become inseparable. They tend to chase each other around, work their head butting skills on each other, vie for Mom’s attention and her milk, and generally seem to be getting a big kick out of life. They even appear to be smiling joyfully as they bleat and jump, kicking up their heels and wiggling their tails. 


In the eastern-most pasture beside the road at the Other Farm was an old manure pile. This pile had been there for years, and over the course of time it had thousands of hooves compact it to a 4 foot knoll in the middle of that pasture. It was about 30 feet in diameter, and the surrounding ground was very flat, so it was a landmark of sorts. 

Just before dark, in the late spring of the year, all the lambs would gather in a big circle around this pile. The lambs were about 2 months old by this time and had become very agile and incredibly playful. These lambs would circle this knoll and then it would start. 

Games of tag.

Two or three of the lambs would rush at each other over the top of the pile and then run back to their place in the circle. Then another two or three would do the same, and so on. This game they played was incredibly orderly. They seemed to be showing off for each other, to see who could jump the highest and click his hooves together or who could wiggle his tail the most vigorously. Sometimes they would jump over each other and chase each other in circles around one of the pear trees, all the while bleating happily. The ewes would stand back 20 feet or so from the circle to oversee the affair and watch their young ‘uns play. Then as darkness fell over the barnyard, the mama and her lambs would find each other and look for a hollow or an alcove of bushes, or that prime property in behind the old hay conveyor for the night's lodging accommodations. They would lie snuggled up with each other in a circle, and the farmyard would become almost silent as the little ones first nursed and then drifted off to sleep, dreaming the dreams of baby lambs. 

Watching this animal Olympics never failed to validate, for me, all that is pure and naturally beautiful in life. It made me feel good to be alive and always made me realize how fortunate I was to be part of this farm and this family. It still remains one of the sweetest memories of my youth. 

It actually became quite a pastime for a lot of folks around here. On many early evenings the driveway leading into the Other Farm would have several vehicles sitting there with a family inside, eating ice cream cones and watching the lambs play their bedtime games. 

I believe that if all of us had the opportunity to take a half hour at the end of the day and spend it with our family, friends and neighbors watching those lambs rejoice in the simple beauty of life, we would appreciate our own lives more.

Morning Glory

Mitch LittlefieldSince this is my initial post on this blog, I'm “planting the seeds” in this ongoing garden of musing and stories from a man who was fortunate enough to be born into a large loving family who owned and operated three farms in rural Maine when I was growing up. I figure I ought to tell a story worth reading to anyone who honors me by reading it.

So, in this first installment, I will tell you the following story as I feel it gives the reader a good sample of my “voice.” In subsequent submissions, I will tell stories of this life I cherished as a farm boy and the people who made it a life that I will continue to honor with the same dry witty humor that was so prevalent from my elders. I hope you enjoy:

It was the summer of 1969. In fact it was the first day after school ended for the year. I was blissful in my sleep that morning, dreaming of all the adventures this 13-year-old was going to have on the farm over the summer, when this distant voice intruded through the depth of my slumber, and popped the dream bubble in my head.

“Time to get up, Mitch, I am heading over to The Other Farm to get some mushrooms, five minutes!”

My grandfather, hollering from the foot of the stairs, had plans that didn't include me lazing in bed all day. I pried my eyes open and bleary-eyed my watch.

4:30 a.m.

It wasn't even full daylight yet.

Then I remembered the mention of The Other Farm and mushrooms, and I knew what that meant! I piled out of bed, ran to the bathroom, did my business, hot-footed it back to my room, pulled on some jeans, my sneakers and a T-shirt, then scampered down the stairs to the kitchen, where Pup was sitting at the table, with a cup of coffee, reading the latest edition of The Grit … four minutes flat. Ha!

I grinned at my grandfather.

“Sounds like a great idea to me, Pup ... need some help?”

He chuckled and looked at me with the ever-present twinkle in his blue eyes,

“I could probably use a little. Don't s'pose you'd be willing to drive me over, would ya?”

My grandfather knew that like all boys who were approaching teen-hood, I craved every opportunity I could get to drive any of the farm equipment, and considered it a real coup to be allowed to drive the pick-up over the public roads from one farm to the other. It was one of a thousand “passages of manhood,” so to speak. It was something that every boy dreamed of doing. It was also illegal. I wasn’t quite 13 yet. My birthday was a month away. It would be another four years before I garnered my Maine state driver's license.

Made it all that more irresistible.

I also knew that a quick trip to The Other Farm to gather mushrooms meant my favorite breakfast was on tap.

Venison backstrap sauteed with butter, garlic and mushrooms. A few fried potatoes, and Pup's drop biscuits, which he referred to as “door-stops,” was a meal fit for a king, or a farm-boy.

So, Pup headed out through the shed, stopped to grab his sage green Dickies cap, then we wandered out to the driveway where his old 1956 Ford sat. The truck was once dark blue but had faded to a rusty blue/brown, and the bed of the truck had been replaced by a wooden body with wooden rack sides that were 5 feet tall. Didn’t want the assortment of farm animals that were occasionally hauled in the truck to get “any ideas” so the rack sides were tall enough so they would feel enclosed.

We climbed into the ol' girl, Pup on the passenger side, me behind the wheel. Even at almost 13, I was fairly tall, so I could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time, but the whole idea of pushing the clutch and shifting the gears was where my inexperience showed. After several attempts to back the truck up, which darn near caused whiplash for both Pup and I, I was able to get turned around and headed down the driveway, a-lurching and a-jerking every inch of the way until I hit the road where the truck and I became one.

Well, at least the truck wasn't shaking like a dog pooping razor blades anymore, and Pup was able to take his hand off his cap.

“Now, that is one way to get a man's blood a-flowing.” Pup commented. “And,” he added, “you didn't hit anything.”

I had a grin from ear to ear, but didn't dare take my eyes from the road to see if Pup was OK. I was thrilled. I managed to get into fourth gear and had the ol' girl racing down the road at 30 miles per hour. I even did fairly well down-shifting to take the almost 180-degree turn from our road onto the Poors Mills road, which led to The Other Farm, without much problem. Of course it was downhill, so that helped. In a few short minutes we were wheeling into the driveway of The Other Farm where we lurched to a stop, a few yards short of the gate into the pasture, beside the barn.

I managed to get the truck through the gate with a couple of backfires and lurches, stopping so Pup could get back in after he closed the gate. Perhaps it was just my imagination but he seemed a little reluctant to climb back aboard. In fact, he suggested we walk to the area of the pasture where the ground was littered with white button mushrooms.

I stepped out of the truck to join my grandfather and took in the scene before me. It was nothing short of amazing. We were facing east and the sun was starting to rise, creating the long shadows of early morning. The land in front of us sloped downward to a valley, which at its lowest point held a babbling brook. The neon green grass of the fields was punctuated by the iridescent yellow of thousands of dandelions, further illustrated by the puffs of white wool and the abstract pattern of back and white cowhide as the sheep and the Holstein cows milled aimlessly about, nibbling the tender green grasses. I could hear the mournful cry of a mourning dove, and the beginnings of the daytime sounds of nature as another summer day in rural Maine came to be.

As we meandered down the slope to the area where the mushrooms had always grown in abundance, drinking in the beauty of our surroundings, the bucolic moment was assaulted by the harsh cries of a couple of crows. Mouthy creatures to be sure. I remarked, “Darned old crows … always making a racket.”

Pup's eyes twinkled as he replied, “I think they may be warning the other critters that you were driving.”

We both laughed at this, as he patted my shoulder and pointed to a patch of button mushrooms standing proudly about 20 feet in front of us. Using our pocket knives, we started to clip them at the base and put them in a paper bag. We didn't take long, within 10 minutes we both had our bags better than half full.

Pup always said, “Don t take more than you're gonna eat. Ma Nature will preserve them better than our refrigerator.”

We walked back to the truck, and it was not spoken but understood that Pup would drive home. I was happy, I was out of school for the summer, and I'd had the chance to drive over. I got to see the sun coming up over what I thought was the most beautiful place on earth, and I was in for a treat for breakfast. Life was good. Who could complain?

So, we drove back to Pup's farm, with him putt-putting along at a robust speed of, oh, say ... 15mph, waving at the one other early morning vehicle as it passed. It happened to be a neighboring farmer, Harry Copson.

 “Harry must be headed over to Bowen's, only place open this time of day,” Pup said.

Bowen's was a little ramshackle country store, located about 2 miles from both Harry's and our farms, and it was indeed open every morning at 5 a.m. Bowen's was the place to go if you were of the farming community in and around the west Belfast countryside.

At this point my belly was growling and I was day-dreaming about back strap and biscuits. We finally made it back to the homestead and lugged nature's bounty inside. I brushed the mushrooms clean with a small paint brush used specifically for this purpose. Never wash mushrooms in water. Pup, meanwhile, was preparing his drop biscuits and had sliced up some of last night's leftover supper potatoes and pelted them with salt and pepper. Next he laid them in a skillet with some home-churned butter, and adjusted the knob on the stove so the pan was sizzling slightly. Gotta be careful with the temperature, butter burns easily.

He dropped large gobs of goo that comprised his biscuit mix on a cookie sheet and shoved them in the oven and then he began to prepare this morning's entree. He sliced the tenderloin about 3/4 of an inch thick, creating little butterfly steaks, sprinkled a bit of pepper and garlic powder on them, then sliced the mushrooms and pelted them with salt and pepper, and a bit more garlic powder. He laid this all in another huge black cast-iron skillet that was just coming to the perfect temp with the butter just starting to bubble. The kitchen was beginning to smell really good and my belly began to growl even louder.

About this time, my grandmother, Mamie, came into the kitchen to prepare herself a morning cup of tea, some toast, and receive a hug from her grandson. As she always did when Pup cooked, she wrinkled her nose and asked, “Henry, what stinks?”

“Must be my feet, Mother.”

I chuckled, Mamie snickered, and she went to the stove to snag a piece of potato to nibble on and gave Pup a smile and a quick hug. She then took her tea and toast to the living room to enjoy with the morning news on TV.

Mamie was beloved by not only her entire brood, but by everyone who knew her. She was truly a mother who nurtured each and every person who spent time with her. And, she was an incredible cook like most women of her generation. But, she had a nose like a bloodhound, and she would often make my grandfather cook out in the shed on a hot plate if he cooked something she found offensive to her oh-so sensitive nose. This particular morning, I think she was pulling his leg a little, but she didn't use garlic and usually complained about the smell of it cooking when he did. Fish was out of the question, but she loved to eat fish. Go figure.

About this time, which was all of 5:30 a.m., my father and my uncle Stubby walked in. They typically joined Pup for breakfast before my dad would head to his job, and Unc Stub would head to the chicken houses to start his day on the farm. They looked a bit bleary-eyed and were customarily quiet until they had a cup or two of coffee to get their systems going. They smelled what Pup was cooking and that seemed to rouse them, but perhaps it was that initial jolt of caffeine.

As we all chatted over the coffee, Pup began to dole out helpings on the plates sitting in front of each of us at the kitchen table. First came the potatoes, perfectly browned and slightly crispy, sizzling with the homemade butter they were cooked in. Then a large serving bowl of the steaming hot biscuits was set on the table beside the small bowl of Pup's own home-churned butter and a jar of Mamie's raspberry preserves. Finally, Pup carried the large skillet containing the tenderloin and mushrooms around the table, shuffling off a helping for each of us with his spatula. Coffee cups were filled and then we all proceeded to eat this incredible breakfast, enjoying the company, the conversation, and the food.

These moments were snippets of time that we all looked forward to, and the memories of those mornings in my grandparents' kitchen with them and other family members are still cherished by all of us who survive today. We often reminisce about those days when we are together at family gatherings these days, and breakfast with Mamie and Pup is always among the favorite memories.

Photo: Fotolia/zigzagmtart