Acorns are wonderful things. My grandfather used to call ‘em God’s little gift. My grandmother, less prone to flights of fancy, called them poor man’s flour. Whatever your personal opinion on them, these days more and more folks are learning the value of the lowly acorn. A lot of people have lost the tail end of their corn crop (if not the whole thing) due to all this rain; they left it out in the field too long as they expected things to dry up sooner rather than later. Didn’t happen that way. Or for those that didn’t have their crop ruined or washed away, what still stands is snatched by scavengers. Those types are getting bad.
Our fence riders have to run people off a couple of times a week now. Dino’s joined them now that the grape harvest is over and his leg is better, but he always comes in sore. He’s pushing himself more than good sense dictates. I guess though when you are fighting so many without good sense your own has to be put aside on occasion. We haven’t had to do any shooting yet – at least not as far as I have been told – but I had to threaten to. The man didn’t think I would but he was wrong and finally believed me when I cocked the gun and aimed. I was two seconds from pulling the trigger but he started running across the field. Chester and one of the other men spotted him from where they were working and took off after him. I’m not sure what they did when him when they caught him and I haven’t asked.
I would have let him work for a meal but he was intent on being given something for nothing just because he expected it was somehow owed to him. He reckoned I was soft picking seeing how I was a woman and one fat with child. I reckon he picked a bad day to cross my path. I was having to do laundry and hang it up on the porch and it still wasn’t drying so I was having to bring it in piece by piece to dry by the stove with was irking me some. That’s the only one that has had the nerve to approach the house but if things keep running the way they are there is no telling what is going to come about.
On one of the few clear days there’s been Ajax brought Tina and the baby over and we had a fine old time. I hadn’t expected company and had been preparing to take care of some persimmons that Kerry and I had gathered. I started to put them aside but she said, “Oh don’t. Teach me how to do that. Please. Momma Cheryl and Aunt Adona tend to hog the kitchen a bit. I try not and mind but it makes me feel like a little girl when they won’t let me help.”
I was surprised but then again maybe not. Tina has the look of someone delicate and fragile and Cheryl is a protective mother bear; Aunt Adona is not much better for all she’s more refined about it. They’re probably still worried about her after all the trouble she had after the baby. I guess I was just raised different. Work is good for the soul and busy hands are happy hands. Either way I figured she was a guest in Dino’s house and I wanted to make her feel welcome so I gave way to her request.
She got such a kick out of messing with those persimmons it was fun to watch. We made persimmon jam, persimmon marmalade, and persimmon butter. She was more help than she knew and I told her so because I couldn’t move the canners any more. She seemed right pleased with me noticing that. I wish I could have dried some but the air was still too damp. I still gave her a few jars of the other to take home and show off what she did.
For a real treat I showed her how to make Persimmon Fudge. First we washed enough ripe persimmons and put them though a colander until there was one cup of pulp. Then we placed the pulp in a good sized saucepan, added five cups of honey, two cups of creamy milk and one-quarter cup white corn syrup (or molasses if you prefer). Let it come to a boil then turn it down and cook until softball stage (230F) stirring now and then to prevent sticking. Towards the end of the cooking time it is more now than later as you have to be careful to keep the honey from scorching. Set it off the stove and cool to lukewarm, then add one-half cup of butter and beat and beat until it feels like your arm is going to fall off. When it begins to thicken add one cup nutmeats of your choice – walnuts is good – and pour into 12" x 14" size pan. Cut in squares, and serve right away as it is too good to keep. This is not a quick fudge for it requires very slow cooking ... almost two hours … but it is worth it, and it also makes use of a stove that is already set to keep the chill off a room.
One of the last things we made was Pawpaw preserves. I told her, not too many people – even the old timers – pay attention to the pawpaws anymore. Digging the seeds out gets me cranky real fast but I like them nonetheless. The trees are hard to come by though as not many were ever cultivated and the wild ones have disappeared from the landscape except for a few hidden groves for those that know where to look. I just got lucky to find the ones I did. I noted the spot in my harvest book so that I would remember to check them next year. The rain knocked some of the fruit off but I did get a good share. Ripe they are kinda mushy and taste like you imagine a banana might if you’ve never had a fresh off the tree banana. We had bananas growing in the yard in Tampa so I don’t necessarily agree that they taste like bananas but I wouldn’t have dared to contradict my aunt who could act like she was queen of the farm and who could have a mean backhand with the flyswatter for any kid she thought was getting mouthy.
It’s been raining so much that all the cisterns are full to overflowing and I’ve been able to use the overflow pipe from the system, the one that runs excess water off into the gully and away from the house, as an easy way to leach the bitter tannin from the acorns Kerry and I have collected. There’s a couple of places we’ve gone that all we’ve had to do is use a rake and shovel a couple of times and we were able to fill up a bushel basket with little to no effort. My grandfather – whom I’ve been thinking of a lot lately for some reason – used to say that when you saw a lot of acorns on the ground that was God’s way of telling the animals to eat up because it is going to be a hard winter. I’m also thinking that maybe God is showing his human creations some mercy if we just have the sense to take advantage of it. Foraging is getting lean as the cold weather sets in but there are still things about to get us ready for winter for those that pay attention to what God’s world has to offer. My grandfather, had he still been around, would not have been the only one to think we were looking at a hard winter. It isn’t even going to take cold weather to make this winter hard; too many grasshopper are going to go checking out what the ants have put aside. Too many who did nothing are going to expect those of us who did to provide for them ahead of our own. Gonna be a lot of surprised and dead grasshoppers come spring if they don’t watch where they’re hoppin’.
Acorns aren’t the only things that would help those grasshoppers if they’d get a move on but they are one of the better ones. What Kerry and I do with the treasure we bring home is first dunk the acorns into buckets of water to clean off any mud and debris. This is also when we find “floaters” which aren’t worth our time as they likely have worms or are damaged in some way. The floaters go into the slop pail; hogs love acorns. Next, because it is still raining and if not raining too damp outside, we haul the cleaned acorns down to the work tables in the basement. Those tables used to hold the fermentation vessels of the specialty wines but Dino and Alec moved those into the old tunnel that they’ve turned into something they call a “racking room” which is just more wine jargon that I let flow over me. They’ve had to run lights into the tunnel but Alec brought over one of his methane generators and, with sparing use, beats having to use our kerosene all to pieces.
We spread the acorns on old canvas tarps that are laid out on those tables and keep the acorns to a single layer. Spreading them out like that prevents mold from forming if it takes me a little while to shell them. I try and shell at least a bowlful every night. It gets me off my feet which are swelling till they spill over the sides of my house shoes. I set the bowl on the shelf my belly makes and so long as the baby doesn’t kick it off I can get quite a few done in just a very little time.
From here my grandparents differed on how they liked to leach the tannin out of the acorn kernels. My grandmother preferred to grind the kernels to a coarse meal texture and soak it in bowls, drain through a cheese cloth lined colander, soak again, and repeat until she got the sweet of the acorn without the bitterness of the tannin. My grandfather on the other hand preferred to do it the real old way. He put the whole kernels in a croaker sack and then would set it in a water fall from a fresh spring; there was just such a spring down near the old tobacco barn. He’d leave that bag in that running water for a couple of hours then come back and check a kernel. Sometimes it took some more time but usually a couple of house was good enough if the spring was flowing well.
As for me, either method worked depending on what I had to do for the day. Usually though I would just go hang a sack of shelled acorns on the down spout of the overflow pipe and let ‘r rip. Wouldn’t work during a dry year I suppose but this year isn’t dry. Work smarter, not harder is a thing that needs learning by most folks; not me, I had to learn it already and I stick to it.
One of the best reasons I like using my grandfather’s method is because sometimes I don’t want acorn flour or meal, I want to use the whole acorns. I made Acorn Chili the other day and most of the men were half way into their second bowl before they realized they weren’t eating what they thought they were eating. When I told them what they were eating they wanted me to explain how to make it as they had relatives trying to make ends meet just like we were.
Acorn Chili is just about as easy as can be. For a normal pot you take four cups of acorn kernels; rehydrate them if you’ve dried them for storage. Add one large onion you’ve chopped up and two cloves of garlic you’ve minced; if you are using wild garlic you might need to add more or adjust for taste depending how strong the ones you dug up are. Sauté this mess in whatever you’ve got, bacon grease is pretty good though olive oil is just fine too. After you’ve got it all sautéed add in one tablespoon of chili powder, a half teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a teaspoon of oregano, a half teaspoon of tobasco sauce, a pint of cooked kidney beans, and a pint of chopped tomatoes. Bring it to a boil then turn it down and simmer it for around an hour. If you like your chili to be cross-your-eyes hot you can add more tobasco or some other kind of hot sauce. As a normal rule I cater to hot dishes but found I can’t do it with the baby taking up all the room on my insides and pushing my stomach up into my windpipe. Tina warned me that if I was gonna nurse I’d have to forgo some of my other favorite things like onions, garlic, and some other gas inducing delicacies unless I wanted an extremely upset baby to keep me up all night. All these things I’m learning makes me wish for my own Momma so that I could at least tell her thank you and that I was sorry for any trouble I caused her. I hope up in Heaven she knows it.
Kinda wish I had more time to ask Tina things. She isn’t the kind to offer up free advice without being asked but if you do ask she’ll give you the whole truth of a thing and not just the parts she think you can handle. It was her that gave me a list of things that would be useful for the birthing and also told me not to take to my bed until I absolutely had to or it could make the labor take longer.
We’d run the men out of the kitchen with our girl talk and she said, “Trust me Riss, when you are in labor gravity is your friend. I thought Momma Cheryl was out of her mind when she kept telling me to get up and walk around that it would help, especially after my water broke and it felt like the baby was playing taps with brimstone on my bones down there, but it really does help. Plus if you are in bed all you are is miserable. If you are up and moving at least you can chase your man around the house and cuss him for it being you in pain and not him.”
She made a funny picture to think on but I couldn’t imagine blaming Dino for my predicament when it arrived. I wasn’t even sure I wanted him there. I don’t know why, it just seemed … I don’t know … like too much to ask on top of everything else for him to witness me giving birth to another man’s child. I wish the rain would let up soon so I could go ask her some more questions, I’ve got so many and no one to go to that wouldn’t turn inside out with embarrassment. I tried to ask Dino but Tammy had Kerry in a hospital; most of the women had still been having their babies there until it closed later that year.
The one good thing about this rain is it has filled the waterways and cut off our part of the district or we’d probably get more traffic out of the cities than we have. The bad thing about this rain is that it has filled the waterways and cut off our part of the district and we’re stuck with the traffic out of the cities that is already here. It has also prevented us from getting to town to get the paperwork done up so we can get legal. ‘Course even if we could get to town it wouldn’t do any good, the Judge has gone to visit his daughter and has come down with some kind of fever now and they aren’t sure when he is going to get back. Wouldn’t even have done any good for Dino to have gone for him when he originally intended to because he had already left on the train. That doesn’t make Dino feel any better.
“Why in the Sam Hill did I put it off to begin with?” Dino wasn’t shouting but he was close to it.
“Do you realize we could have been married for weeks now and enjoying … er … the comforts of married life?” As a matter of fact I did realize that.
“I wanted us to be married before the baby comes and yet here you are just about ready to go into labor and I don’t even have any idea not only when the Judge is coming back but if he is!” I was having a hard time getting a word in edgewise with him all bent out of shape.
“What?!” he snapped.
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “We could just make it common law.”
“Whu?” The funny noise that came out after he heard what I said and the even funnier look on his face just about made me laugh … just about. But I didn’t ‘cause I knew I needed to handle it real careful.
“I said …”
He shook his head like he was clearing fog out of it. “I heard what you said. But I promised you a legal marriage and that is exactly what you are going to get. I just have to figure out how to get it.”
I shook my head. “You know, for a man with so much good sense sometimes you don’t make any sense at all. Do you really think after all you’ve done for me that I’m going to let you get away?”
“Er …” He was having a hard time coming up with a reply to that.
“I mean to have you as my own Dino Pappas and you can bank on that as if it was tax-free gold.”
That threw him off some more. “Uh …”
I swun, he can be obtuse. “Look it here, you kept your promise about giving me time to get over being thrown over. You’ve done courted me as well as any man could under the circumstances. Harry was keen on the idea even before I was so I’m sure where ever he is he’d give his approval if I felt I needed it. We’ve got most of your family around and they seem agreeable. Your little boy approves. No one is giving us fits about it at all. I’m agreeable. And you’re so agreeable to it I don’t even know what to call it. The only thing that seems to be holding us back is the fact you insist on a certain kind of piece of paper to go along with the promise we’d be giving to one another.”
I took too long and he’d finally found his voice. “Now see here Riss, I promised …”
Well I wasn’t going to have any of his objects. “I know you did, and I’m not asking you to break your promise. Just because a promise is delayed doesn’t make it a broken one.”
He seemed to think he’d made his point. “Then you understand.”
I corrected his thinking. “No I don’t. Common Law marriages are recognized.”
“Not outside the state that it is created in,” he said, aggrieved.
“Do I look like I’m gonna be traveling out of state any time soon?” I asked pointing to my belly that is roughly the size of the Nickajack Dam. “You want a paper then let’s make one up ourselves. I’m sure the dictionary is just full of big words we can use if you want to make it complicated and all. Or, we can just write out promises to each other. We can sign the paper in front of witnesses. If that’s not enough for you then next time Alec comes around he can write it up more official like and we could sign it in from of him and he can file it or whatever it is you do.”
He sounded kinda low when he asked, “But I thought you wanted a church wedding. I wanted to see you walk down the aisle. I thought most girls dreamed of that sort of thing.”
“Oh Dino,” I said brushing a stray lock of hair from his forehead. “The church grounds are flooded out and they’ve had to put all the pews and the pulpit up in the choir loft to try and save them in case the creek gets any higher. Besides, church isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind … you know ‘where two or more are gathered together in His name.’”
“What about your dress?”
That made me laugh. “Well I certainly don’t intend on standing up with you in my uncle’s overalls and my work boots. You know I’m not much for playing dress up but for this I want to be pretty for you. I may look like I’m wearing a sail from the HMS Bounty but at least it won’t be denim blue with buckles at the shoulders.”
The picture I had painted in his head won out. His lips twitched, then he scrunched his eyes trying to hold it in; finally he didn’t have any choice but to laugh. “Riss …” He shook his head. “I’m not laughing at you, I swear I’m not. You know I think you’re beautiful in whatever you choose to wear. But the things you say …” He broke off chuckling some more.
“So,” I asked when he started winding down. “What do you think of my proposal Mr. Pappas?”
He stopped laughing and got real serious, “I want to marry you properly so no one can say anything.”
“Is that a no?”
“No, it isn’t. But I’ve got a couple of conditions. As soon as the Judge or some other way comes about we do it legally even if that means going through another ceremony. That you agree that the baby has my name on the birth certificate as the father and that he … or she … carries my surname. And that if we can’t get the legal papers until after the baby is born we get AJ to make sure there are proper adoption papers so there is never any question that I’m your baby’s father.”
He’d managed to surprise me again. It was so good to know, not just think but know, this man wasn’t after me just to be a mother for his son, a keeper for his house, and to have someone convenient to get warm with. Passion is a fine thing and has its place but trust and commitment are what fills in the spaces between those times of passion and holds the whole together.