Monday, March 2, 2009

Mountain Meals---Spring Breaks

We had two big gardens behind the house where I grew up, but the gardens weren't the only source of our meals. The mountain provided lots of things to eat, and Gramma knew how to find many of them.

One thing she gathered in the spring were "Breaks." Breaks were the the brand new, unfurled fronds of the Braken Fern.

They seem to pop up wherever they choose, in meadows and odd places throughout the woods. When they're only about six to ten inches tall, their thin stems make them almost imperceptible through the shade of the trees, but once you find one, you've probably found a whole colony! And once you find that colony, remember it's location as you can probably return each year to collect a batch or two. (see picture below)

They can easily be distinguished from other fern fronds by looking for the rusty-brown "fur" that coats the back of their frond "spines" when they are only a few inches tall. The main stem is usually covered by a thin layer of white fuzz that I would call more of a thin "wool." Unlike other ferns, Break stems are sturdy and bulky, sometimes a quarter inch in diameter at the base, but usually when the fronds are no more than a few inches tall. The stems narrow out as the fern gets taller.
(There are other ferns that are edible, but their stems have no fur and the fronds are full of brown papery flakes. These are called Ostrich Ferns. They're just a good to eat, but for some reason we never gathered those.)
When it came time to pick Breaks, Gramma would throw on an old, full-cover apron, gather the dogs, and head into the woods. As the dogs ripped through the sweet fern after imaginary animals, Gram would stroll under the oaks and maples, occasionally settling on the edge of an old stone row to watch them run. The task was to gather Breaks, but I think that was secondary to the walk.
When we found a good stand of short Breaks, Gram began gathering. To gather Breaks, you need to run your hand up the stem to the point where the frond snaps in half. If it bends, continue up the stem to the point where it breaks cleanly. Get it...breaks? Yup, I think that's where the name came from. Don't cut the frond with a knife. It's tempting to harvest the whole veggie, but if you try to cook that lower part, you'll find it woody and unpalatable.
Ants enjoy Breaks immensely! As she gathered a handful at a time, Gram would give the stems a bit of a shake to get the ants off, but many still clung. Into the apron they'd go, right along with the ferns. Once her apron was full, she'd gather the hem around the tender stems and we'd head for the house. There, she dropped the Breaks into a very large pot of water in the backyard with a "good dose of table salt." The ants hated the salt, and within an hour or so they were all gone.
When the ants were gone, the Breaks went into the house and were washed again in the sink. Then they all went into the pot again with a bit of fresh salt, and were boiled for dinner. Gram simply sered them with a little butter and salt and pepper, as one would do asparagus.
The above is my personal experience, however, I did a little research and discovered that many cooks use these raw in salads, and people have been known to pick and eat them along trail sides. Personally, I suppose there's something to be said for eating plants as close to their natural state as possible, but considering how much ants love these little treasures, I wouldn't want to eat them raw.
Don't give up on breaks just because you live in the city. Even though I've never searched them out, I hear you can find these in Asian markets. If that fails, take a drive to the country to locate them. I've even seen these along the roadside. If you find them, don't pass them up. You might never return to asparagus again.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Time for Every Purpose...Wash Day

There's something to be said for the routines of life...something settling and comforting about pacing each day. Just the knowing of daily events somehow puts life into perspective---gives one purpose and direction.

Gramma knew that. Whether she'd been taught that a routine was the proper way to do things(which is probable), or whether it was just another common sense trait, she knew it was vital to the upbringing of two young girls. She had a schedule. For everything...for every day.

Monday was always wash day. Nothing ever changed that fact. If it rained or snowed, clothes could be hung in the garage.
The bathroom in our big, double-block farmhouse was long and paralleled one entire wall of the kitchen. Bathtub, sink and toilet were at one end, and a Maytag wringer washer and rinse tub dominated the other end.
On Monday mornings Gramma was up hours before us. She'd already have filled the rinse tub with warm water and Downey fabric Softener, and the washer tub with hot water and Tide. Sometimes the low drone of the washer motor brought us out of our sleep. Nevertheless, by the time we were to get up for school, she'd already be wringing out the second load of laundry. When we rolled out of bed about 7 A.M., we stripped our beds and threw our dirty clothes, sheets and pillowcases down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, she gathered everything into an enormous, two-handled wicker basket and off it went through the house to be sorted. By the time we were boarding the bus, she was in the back yard hanging up the 3rd load of wash, and by 10 AM, 5 or 6 loads of laundry flapped merrily on three or four lines out back. These weren't short lines tied, umbrella-like, to a pole. These lines stretched the breadth of the back yard. She'd hang the wash then raise the lines with 6-8 foot tree limbs with a fork at the tip.

Wash day was an all day event. By the time the bus dropped my sister and I off at the end of our driveway, Gramma was sitting on the back porch folding the last of the sheets and towels. The same big wicker basket was filled with sorted and neatly folded sheets, socks and underwear and taken upstairs for storage. The house had a long landing at the top of the stairs from which all 3 bedroom doors branched. That hall was wide, and held an enormous black bureau that held all the linens for the house. Into that bureau went the freshly folded sheets. Just so.

It's impossible to take an empty jar outside, fill it with fresh air, seal it and store it for later. But my Gramma's sheets succeeded in doing what a jar could not. What a joy it was to climb between those fresh, clean, crisp sheets on Monday nights. They still held the fragrance of the sweet air and sun on cotton, a scent that Johnson & Johnson will never duplicate. I remember wishing that I had a bit more time to lie awake and enjoy the simple pleasure of those sheets before drifting off to sleep.

No matter how much fabric softener you add, line dried fabric is never as soft and lifeless as fabric dried in a dryer. And in the winter, that's a good thing. The fibers of sheets hung out in a brisk, cold winter breeze do not flatten down. The fibers stay fluffy, standing out away from their base. As a result, line-dried sheets tend to be more insulating and cozy. But the cold winter winds on laundry can also be source of entertainment...especially when Gramma added her rare sense of humor.

One cold Monday deep into hunting season, Gramma had hung several pairs of Grampa's long johns on the line to dry. Clothes washed in today's washers spin all but the smallest bit of moisture from the fabric, but fabric sent through a wringer leaves much more water residue in the clothing. And on a bitterly cold day, water freezes.

My sister and I were coloring at the kitchen table when we heard the back door shut and Gramma's no-nonsense voice, "Okay you girls. Here comes your Grampa. You better skeedadle!" We turned to look and there stood Gramma holding a one-piece, full thermal underwear suit up in front of her. The lack of wind that day had dried the clothes flat and straight as they hung off the line, and the breathtaking cold had frozen the moisture in the fabric. The full suit of underwear Gramma held was stiff as a board. She held it at the waist and moved behind it, animating it like a headless ghost.

She stepped into the kitchen still playing the part. Lifting one arm of the suit, she shook it at us girls, "You little whippersnappers better pick every last one of those crayons up, or you get no pie tonight" she growled.

Peering from behind the suit, she smiled. "I guess we better get your Grampa in by the stove and thaw him out, huh?"

If her humorous moments had not been rare, I don't think I would have remembered them as vividly as I do. It always seemed as if Gramma knew when to call forth a bit of humor. On the darker days, the colder days, the days when she sensed that Winter was bearing down heavy on her family, she'd lift us with a chuckle. Even after a full day of dealing with a wringer washer and hanging several loads of laundry in the biting cold, she still found a way to make her family smile when it was sorely needed. Thanks, Gram.