Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat in 1975

Each year on Halloween my Dad took his kids out to select friends and relatives prior to us terrorizing the neighborhood and hitting up any house with the porch light still burning. When back home, we set up a trading post in the family room. The four of us (Jim would not be born for another year) piled up all our candy, divided it in categories (think gum, chocolate, sweet tarts, suckers, and on), and exchanged our haul in a “what will you give me for this” manner. Everyone knew how I loved bubble gum. I lost a lot of chocolate for that indulgence. We did this every year--a tradition we built for ourselves.
Halloween evening 1975. We started at about 5:30, skipping dinner out of excitement and anticipation of our annual sugar overdose. Dad began the rounds, stopping at the five or six obligatory homes. The last one, due to proximity from my grandmother’s house, was Miss Julie’s. Her old mansion set back far, far from the road with steep steps and a spectacular leaded glass front door didn’t feel haunted but it always felt erie on a dark Halloween evening.
Miss Julie opened the door and as usual invited us in to pick up treat bags on the parlor table. There they sat: four fish bowls with little guppies swimming in circles. Wow, I thought: much better than the expected carmel apples! And shrewd she was--each bowl had three guppies to increase the likelihood that there would be a male and a female in each fish bowl.
The night’s trick or treating that followed lacked the usual allure this year even though it was a Friday night. The guppies had captivated our imaginations and the candy was, well, just candy this year. By the time we arrived back home, Hartley already had baby guppies. The next morning, we all had babies and by school on Monday, we had more than we could count. Show-and-Tell hour could not start soon enough--no one I knew ever received guppies for Halloween.
Unfortunately our excitement dimmed by the day and a sad couple of weeks ensued. Our twenty-pound alley cat Tiger had no use for the new pets. Over a period of a week or two, the fat cat knocked the guppy bowl off of each perch, leaving a soaked carpet and dead guppies. Even Tiger had no desire to eat them. I suppose this was his version of catch and release fishing. My parents appeased the trauma of the murdered guppies by adopting  a single goldfish He swam in an oversized brandy sniffer set on the fireplace mantel, one of the only places Tiger could not roam.
Trick or Treat? I think Miss Julie had Treat or Trick on her mind in 1975, with the later being her prerogative.
Baby Guppies

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tales From A Missouri Chestnut Grove

Twenty years ago a crooked, dying tree caught my mother’s attention. The shape intrigued her as did the unfamiliar green pods with fine sharp needles. Her curiosity drove her to the Missouri Conservation Department where a tree specialist determined that it was an American Chestnut tree--and a rare survivor in the state due to the great Chestnut tree plague that killed over 3 billion trees in the first half of the twentieth century. My parents worked with the department to use the tree’s nut for a grafting project. Their dedication and tedious labor resulted in about 35 nutgrafts; 29 survived. These nutgrafts grew a couple of feet the first year and required some staking to force upright growth but now form a Chestnut grove of trees that are prolific bearers of nuts enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. 
A good Chestnut harvest requires daily wrestles with the squirrel population for just-fallen pods. During the month I wandered through the grove, my eyes peeling the pasture’s floor for the green or velvet tan spiny burrs. Chestnut burrs should be picked up with thick work gloves as the needles will stick in the skin making it almost impossible to gather the burrs barehanded. Ideally the pods brown on the branch and fall to the ground and are gathered before getting squirreled away. If the burr is on the ground, I roll it with my foot to see if i beat the critters. If intact, the pod goes in a bucket, sometimes coming home full, other times just a few burrs. 

Each burr contains three plump Chestnuts, making each one an important find. Toward the end of the harvest, I climbed the trees and shook the upper limbs, catapulting the remaining pods to the ground. The final climb is my favorite part of the harvest season. It releases my inner monkey child and allows my body to succumb to muscle memory from my youth.

Last year we were spoiled by a bumper crop that did not repeat itself this fall (cicadas and the drought paid their toll on many trees and gardens). Even though we can’t sell the surplus to the farmer’s market or give bags to friends this year, my Chestnuts will still be roasting over an open fire this winter. If you see some Chestnuts at the market or successfully talk me out of some of mine, give this a try. The aroma alone will draw your friends and neighbors from blocks away.
Roasted Chestnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Clean Chestnuts.
  3. Use a sharp paring knife to cut an X into one side of each nut. This keeps the Chestnuts from exploding in the oven.
  4. Arrange Chestnuts on a baking sheet or in a shallow pan, with the cut or pricked sides up.
  5. Roast in oven for 15 to 25 minutes, or until nuts are tender and easy to peel.
  6. Peel the nuts when they are cool enough to handle but still warm, and enjoy.
Removing Chestnuts from Burrs
A Day's Work Ready for the Open Fire