Thursday, June 19, 2014

John Henry

My great uncle was one of the most kind and gentle persons I’ve ever known, and his wife was every bit his equal.  Their life was hard, difficult at best, but the only time I ever heard a complaint was when the bag of pecans was getting low.

I’ve written before about Aunt Gertrude’s pies, but I’ve said little about Uncle John.  Sometimes it’s rather difficult to bring back his memory without remembering the loss I felt when he died.  I was almost twelve, and my family had just returned from a week in Missouri, when we were notified that Uncle John had fallen through the unfinished roof on one of his barns.  It took me a long time to adjust.  Even though it was over 50 years ago, the memories are still alive.

I enjoyed being at his farm near Kennedale where the world’s best watermelons grew.  I would go there during the summers with my grandfather to help out in the fields while the giant green orbs grew sweeter in the hot sun.  I don’t believe I was much of a helper, but I was made to feel useful, and always at the end of the day was the big dinner Aunt Gertrude would prepare.  After the pie was finished, we would retire to Uncle John’s sitting room where we would, uh, sit. 

There was no television, but we would watch the radio for a while.  Inevitably Uncle John would open his big bag of pecans, and we would all have a few.  That bag was never empty, although sometimes it would get a bit low; however, the following night it would be full again.  It took me a couple of years before I discovered the secret of the bottomless pecan bag, and it was so simple.  Uncle John kept several big barrels full of them in one of his barns.  Those pecans were used for Aunt Gertrude’s pecan pies, as well as many of the other special treats she made, but they were also used for just general munching.

The Texas state tree is the pecan tree, and they are everywhere.  The native pecan is a rather small nut with a hard shell and a rich oily flavor that no other pecan can equal.  There are many good pecans grown across America, and most of them are much better for decorating than is the Texas native pecan, but the flavor…  Uncle John’s barrels of pecans were gathered from the big native trees growing in the bottom lands along the banks of the Trinity River, but I also remember seeing a few 50 pound bags of paper shell pecans propped up against the sides of those barrels, so apparently any pecan was better than no pecan.  I agree completely.

A few years ago I realized that I have very few recipes requiring any nut other than pecans.  As I inherited or developed these cooking instructions, the pecan was always the preferred nut.  I never use peanuts (I’m allergic to them), hazel nuts sometimes appear, as do walnuts.  Somehow Chiles en Nogada would just be wrong with pecans instead of walnuts, but the pecan is the nut of choice for most of my cooking. 

I have often wondered if I made my choice of using the pecan based on taste preference, or through the influence of Uncle John.  Either way, I do like pecans, and one of my three- or four-hundred favorite ways to consume them in the form of a praline.  This is one of the simplest of candies to make, but be careful, it is extremely hot when forming the patty.

Texas Pecan Pralines
Makes a whole bunch, but never enough.

    1/2 cup granulated sugar                                       
    1/2 cup light corn syrup                                       
    1/2 cup butter                                                 
    1/2 cup heavy cream                                            
    1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract                              
    1 pinch ground cinnamon                                        
    1 1/2 cups chopped pecans                                      

Cook the sugar and syrup over a medium high heat to 250F. Remove from heat and stir in the butter until melted. Slowly add the cream until thoroughly blended (return to heat if needed).

Return to heat and bring the mixture to 242F. The caramel should be a deep golden color. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, cinnamon, and pecans. Beat for 5-10 minutes until almost cool. Mixture should mound on the spoon but still be able to drop and be stirred easily. Drop (using 2 tablespoons) onto parchment. Allow pralines to cool completely before serving.

I don’t know how long the pralines keep.  They never lasted long enough to find out.

This praline is the chewy type.  My favorite, but I’ll never turn down the crunchy type either.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Deer Suit

I have written several times that I no longer hunt.  My body just can’t do it any more, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about it.  One of the things I often think about is my last deer hunt.

It was a simple affair in the mountains above San Bernardino, California many years ago.  I had two tags, one for bear and one for deer, and I had set up a small camp where I could spend a few days if I found it necessary to stay that long.

I arrived in the late afternoon to set up my camp, and later I grabbed my rifle to do some exploring.  I walked around for a few hours, returned to camp, ate dinner, and crawled into my sleeping bag.  By 6:30am the following morning, I was about a mile from my camp looking for deer.  A bear would be bonus, but even if I saw one, I don’t believe I would have taken it.

When the light became bright enough to distinguish the details of my surroundings, I slowly shifted my position for a better look around me.  There was a small clearing a few yards away, and just beyond that was a small flowing stream.  I waited.  And waited.

By late morning, I gave up and moved a few hundred yards uphill and a few hundred yards to the east.  From this position I could see down a long brushy slope to a grove of trees about 250 yards away.  It was a good spot, but the weather was a little warm, so I guessed the deer wouldn’t be moving around for another few hours.  I dug my lunch out of my pack and enjoyed the scenery for a while before taking a nap.

I awoke about 4pm to the faint sound of cracking twigs.  It wasn’t a big noise, but it was not the sound of a branch falling from a tree.  It was the sound of something being stepped upon, and I started searching for the point of origin.

I used my field glasses to examine the landscape around me, and I saw some movement in the shrubs about 200 to 220 yards downhill near the trees.  I focused in as sharp as I could with those 4x glasses, but I just could not tell with certainty what it was that was moving about.  I could tell from the movement of the vegetation that it was big.

I watched it for about 10 minutes before I could finally see a set of antlers moving about.  At first I thought it was just some twigs, but they were closely matched and moving in tandem.  It had to be antlers.

I exchanged the field glasses for my 30-06 and watched the movement through the scope just waiting for a clear shot.  After a few minutes the antlers began to sway side to side, and then they turned around as though the deer’s head was spinning 360 degrees.  Something wasn’t right.

I zoomed my scope to its full 10 power and looked as closely as I could at the deer.  Now I was really confused.  No deer I had ever seen was the golden color of dyed buckskin leather.  I made sure the safety was in place on the rifle, and exchanged it for the field glasses again.  I watched for maybe 15 minutes before the deer stood up on its hind legs, reached up with its front legs and pulled off its head revealing a man with a beard bushier than my own.

What was he thinking?  If I had possessed less patience and had decided to go ahead and harvest the deer I was seeing, the man could have been severely injured or dead.  I could go on a rant for many pages here, but I won’t.  I’ll just say that dressing up in a deer suit and running about in front of other hunters during deer season isn’t the smartest thing I have ever witnessed.

I immediately returned to my camp, loaded everything into my car and drove home.  I’ve never hunted since.