Mail Call: November-December 2009

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Tri and Hope sit with a rooster that is clearly undeterred by their scarecrow.
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While they're not the smartest tools in the shed, chickens are 'cheap therapy.'

Scarecrow in the Pumpkin Patch

Recently my wife, Nancy, and I were flying back from a family wedding in Boulder, Colorado, with our granddaughter, Hope. I had taken the May/June copy of GRIT magazine for reading material during the flight and happened across a short article on the history and folklore of scarecrows by Ruth Ditchfield (“Homemade Garden Guard”). It was a fun article and after reading it, I informed Nancy and Hope that we would make a scarecrow to guard the pumpkin patch when we got back to Timber Butte (our ranch in Idaho). We had planted several hills of giant pumpkin seeds in the spring with the idea that Hope might carve jack-o’-lanterns in the fall. The pumpkins had been rapidly gaining weight and size with nearly two months of the growing season yet to go. We all have high expectations of a personal Timber Butte record.

As planned, we spent the next afternoon constructing our garden’s very first scarecrow. I built a basic structure out of pine poles, while Hope and Nancy designed and constructed the head, hair and face. We wrapped the body with empty feed bags, to give it shape, and dressed it with Nancy’s bib-overalls and a worn-out pair of boots. 

For our first attempt at such a task, the final product came out remarkably well except for the fact that it wasn’t very scary. Our mystery chicken, previously named Ladyhawk (who recently turned out to be Theodore the Rooster – see entry No. 91 on, was not the least bit intimidated. He, in fact, found this new garden ornament a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the grasshopper-seeking activity of the Barred Rock hens (see entry No. 104).

All in all, the project was a success, with much thanks to GRIT magazine for the idea.

Tri Robinson
Timber Butte Ranch, Idaho

Tri, from the “Adapted Bread Oven” last issue to your garden guardian, we love it when our readers leaf through with such a creative, resourceful eye. You make our jobs so rewarding! – Editors

Young’uns, Please Don’t

I read your Betsy McCall paper doll article (“Gift Opened New Worlds,” September/October) with a smile on my face. Many years ago I was traveling with my folks, and paper dolls were easily packed so mine came with us. One morning when the folks slept in and I didn’t, they woke up to find my paper dolls had real hair (mine) cut from (where else) the very front of my forehead. I’m guessing every little girl does it eventually.

Patricia Brown Morgart
Bedford, Pennsylvania

Oh, my, Patricia, this brings back childhood memories involving siblings … – Editors

Rooster Doesn’t Quit

I live in a suburb of Austin, Texas. My neighbor has a rooster in a cage that is kept on their back patio. This thing crows every 30 minutes, on the hour and half hour, all day, every day. The timing never changes, as I can set my clocks by his crow. I have NEVER heard of this. Why does he crow every 30 minutes – even after dark?

Debi Hicks
Pflugerville, Texas

We tackled the subject in the January/February 2008 issue. Search for “Secret of the Rooster’s Crow.” It seems roosters crow any time of the day or night, and we only associate it with a morning alarm clock. But why Debi’s neighboring rooster crows every half hour, well, that’s a mystery to us. Grit readers, any ideas? – Editors

Dog Days

Regarding your article in the July/August issue about dog days (“Good Things to Know,” Page 9). I don’t know any scientific reason, or if there is one, but during Dog Days, a mockingbird does not sing. Do you know why? I really enjoy Grit.

Lee Glisson
Metter, Georgia

Lee, we have a sneaking suspicion that this has something to do with the dry, hot weather that runs from late July to early September. Readers, any ideas? – Editors

Cast-Iron Care

In response to Belle Zike, Williamsburg, Ohio, seeking help to care for her cast-iron cookware (September/October Mail Call), we received a slew of letters. Here are a few. Thanks to Sue, Esther, Joan and Patti for sharing. – Editors

Heat Treatment Seasons Cast-Iron

The purpose of seasoning cast-iron cookware is to prevent rust and foods from sticking. Begin by washing the pan with mild, soapy water and a stiff brush, then rinse and dry thoroughly. Rub a thin layer of oil over the entire surface of the pan and lid. Place both in the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Turn off oven heat, but keep the door closed and allow the pan to cool to room temperature inside the oven. Cast-iron cookware will continue to turn black with use and the pores of the iron will be sealed. After each use, the pan should be washed, rinsed and dried. Never scour or put in the dishwasher. Always apply a thin coat of oil to the cooking surface before storage.

Sue Harness
Batesville, Indiana

A Simpler Tact

To clean cast-iron skillets: wash as usual, dry and then spray lightly with cooking oil and use a tissue to wipe the entire area to keep the pan from rusting.

Esther Leppo
New Oxford, Pennsylvania

Multistep Process

First of all, I assume the pan is rusty now. Use regular table salt with just enough water to make a paste and a paper towel to scour the pan to remove the rust.

Rinse it with water.

Immediately heat it on a low gas burner until all the water is gone – you’ll see droplets jumping in the beginning, and then it will appear dry. Turn off the gas burner. While the pan is still hot, lightly oil the pan with canola or vegetable oil. Wipe excess oil out of the pan.

Cook in it.

After you’re done, there are a couple of cardinal rules:

1. Never store food in the pan after it’s cooked. It will take on a metallic taste and won’t make good leftovers.
2. After you’ve cooked in it and removed the food to a serving dish, wash the still-warm pan in very, very hot water – only water – and scrub with a scrubbie to loosen food particles. Dry it over the still-warm burner and oil again as above. If you are going to store the pan and not use it for a week or so, put a paper towel in the pan to absorb humidity – this should prevent rust. If you only use the pan every three or so months, you can oil it pretty heavily, but keep in mind the oil will become rancid, and the pan will need to be cleaned prior to using it next time.

I keep my cast-iron skillet on top of the stove – no reason to put it away, I use it every day, sometimes just to sear meat that I cook in the slow cooker, sometimes just to caramelize onions and vegetables when I’m fixing microwave steamed fish, etc. But, by using it almost every day, it stays seasoned and doesn’t rust.

Enjoy your cast iron. It’s much better than Teflon or other modern nonstick – it can withstand very high heat, makes a flavorful crust on seared meat and can last for years without scratches or dents!

Joan Q. Horgan
Columbiaville, New York

Bacon and Flames

I wash my cast-iron cookware with soap and water and dry it on the stove, on high. I cure it at times by cooking bacon in it and letting the grease sit for a few hours. Every few years, I throw it in a fire outside. That seems to get the grime off it.

Patti Lolley
via e-mail

In Defense of Chickens

If I were new to your magazine, pondering chicken keeping and came upon Jerry Schleicher’s tongue-in-check article on the trials of a chicken foreman (“Adventures in Chicken Keeping,” July/August issue), I would be very discouraged from ever considering owning those ‘nasty, smelly creatures with the reasoning power of a turnip and the survival instincts of a lemming.’

Thankfully, I’m not new to chicken keeping. Also, thankfully my chickens don’t smell. A clean coop, using the deep litter method, is all that’s necessary to keep my coop and my chickens from stinking to high heaven. While it still doesn’t smell like a rose garden, it’s not nearly as offensive as the commercial chicken houses just down the road from us.

I also disagree with Mr. Schleicher’s assessment of the chicken’s brains. OK, so they aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, but they can be trained to do a lot of things, like find where I hid their morning treat by checking each location I’ve been known to stash it in, one after another, until they find it. My chickens are also smart enough to free-range under cover of brush and trees most of the time, and they all manage to hide when Mr. Hawk pays a visit.

Cleaning out nestboxes? Only if you’ve not put the proper planning into designing your coop. Proper roost placement, with the roosts being higher than the nest boxes, means nobody’s sleeping in the nest boxes and if they aren’t sleeping in them, they aren’t pooping in them. Only on rare occasions do I have a hen soil the nest while in there for egg-laying. When it happens, I simply pick up the whole wad of nest hay and toss it out the door of the coop for the cows to eat. (Cows! Now there’s a dumb creature for ya!) Replace the soiled hay with a fresh pile, and we’re good to go.

Mean roosters that chase anybody don’t belong on a farm with children. I have one rooster with my hens. His job is protection (from predators – a job he takes very seriously), peacekeeping (keeping all the hens in line) and procreation. He’s very respectful of humans because that’s the way I want it. The minute he forgets to be respectful he’ll be soup.

I really felt the need to make sure readers took Mr. Schleicher’s story in jest. Owning chickens can be a wonderful experience. I call them my “cheep therapy.” What other pets can you own that make you laugh with their antics, are super easy to care for, and provide you with breakfast besides?

Kathleen Tucker
via e-mail

In jest, indeed, Kathleen. We love our chickens and constantly hear the chirps of mail-order chicks arriving at Grit headquarters! – Editors

Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em

I enjoyed your article about work clothes (“Work Hard, Feel Great,” September/October), but noticed an important area missing … socks. Cold feet can ruin any day, and I have always found that layering two pairs of socks is the best remedy. The inner layer should be synthetic, to wick away moisture, and the outer sock should be wool, for warmth. The two layers will also slide against each other, instead of a sock against your foot, cutting down on blisters and hot spots. Of course, boots should then be tried on and purchased with two pairs of socks on, so that they aren’t too tight for you to wear with two pairs.

John Brauer
Elmhurst, Illinois

Excellent point, John. Nothing worse than getting out into the forest, felling a big hedge tree and realizing your feet are so cold you can barely stand it. – Editors

Getting Chile in Here

First of all, great article (Associate Editor Jenn Nemec’s “Where’s the Heat?” September/October issue). I also like all kinds of peppers and grow them every year for salsa and hot sauce. Secondly, you probably know there are two peppers known as “Bird’s eye.” The one you show is a South African, and the other is from Mexico, both very hot. I will attempt to send you a photograph of the Mexican “Bird’s eye,” which is basically round, about the size of a pea. 

Don Rogers
Topeka, Kansas 

A New Fan

I saw an advertisement for Grit magazine on a website. I ordered it because I thought it might have good information. I am in love with this magazine! This is the first one that I can read cover to cover. I told my aunt about it and also gave her a subscription. I also love the backyard poultry. Keep up the great work.

Rachel Brakensiek
Foristell, Missouri

You’ve made our day, Rachel. – Editors