Life has been fairly crummy lately.
As in, there seem to be crumbs everywhere I look.We do not discriminate in this house when it comes to crumbs. We’ve got your garden variety bread crumbs as well as an impressive variety of Microscopic bits of Unidentified Food Objects. They’re M-UFOs and I believe in them because it’s a regular Area 51 around here on the floors, counters and stove top.
I’m in the middle of ages now on top of having worn glasses since age seven, so my vision in any direction, let alone All The Way Down to the floor, is probably not great. But, my toes are excellent crumb finders.
So are visitors, like my mother or grandmother.
And, it’s that time of year when we are tracking the outside crumbs, inside. There are bits of lawn, twigs, and ants that get carried in on our shoes and clothes, even though one of us rarely ventures out into The Nature. Somehow, none of the inside crumbs get tracked outside, which seems unfair. What’s a few crumbs in a lawn or forest? Surely The Nature wouldn’t mind absorbing some of the mess.
Even when we think the house is clean, we seem to find bits of plastic, tomato cores, elastic bands, earring backings, pretzel bits (very sharp) and blobs of chocolate (I have no idea where those come from).
Then, there are the fancy bread crumbs–the ones from Practical Man’s bread. They always make my heart stop in case they are not crumbs but have, in fact, been left by a mouse.
Not to make the sesame seed industry mad, but they sort of look similar.
Black sesame seeds that look like mouse poo–and make my heart stop–are risky. Crumbs are a health risk around these parts, little did you know. because my body tends to think it needs to get woozy and keel over, anytime there’s even a slight whiff of adrenaline floating through my blood stream. And, fainting in a pile of crumbs while a mouse navigates triumphantly around my prone body, nibbling on the spoils, doesn’t sound like a fun day to me.
Rather crummy, in fact. Ha-ha!
Turns out that the exotic crumbs are just garden-variety toasted sesame seed crumbs. But, living in the middle of The Nature, as we do, we are always on the offensive, even with over a decade of mouse-free, country living. Practical Man has a rule: if critters don’t chip in on the mortgage, they’re not allowed in the house. He’s like Gibbs in NCIS, with his rules.
I’m not really afraid of mice, though. Now, if a cow tried to break in, whoa Nellie, I’d be screaming and hanging from the chandelier (I’m sure I’d find crumbs up there, too.) And, all those people who have mocked me for being afraid of cows would be sorry, lemme tell ya. They’d be talking about The Great Cow Attack of 2015 for years to come and apologizing for ever doubting me, don’t you worry.
We do clean up after ourselves, honestly, but the crumbs seem to multiply overnight. I swear, there are crumb fairies throwing parties (and crumbs) all over the place while we’re sleeping because seriously, we wiped off that counter top before we went to bed. The unidentified goo that has stuck to the moulding on the cupboard doors? And, what is that tomato sauce blob doing on the ceiling? It’s gotta be someone else’s fault. I mean, I’m hardly flinging peanut butter around the kitchen when I make toast, now am I?
Don’t answer that.
These are the times I wish we had children.
Or a pet.
I mean, that’s one of the great joys of children and animals, isn’t it? They give you someone to blame things on.
Like, why is there a cocoa powder trail from the baking cupboard to the couch?
Surely, it’s little Beverly’s fault.
My kingdom for a little Beverly!
Practical Man has a bevy of tools to deal with crumb invasions. He’s got sweeping tools and dusting tools, mopping tools and wiping tools. Maybe I don’t know how to use them properly. My irregular attempts at crumb removal only seem to spread them around in a broader, finer layer.
Ashes to ashes, crumbs to dust.
Sometimes, we briefly delude ourselves that we are getting a handle on the crumb situation. That all the sweeping and dusting, mopping and wiping is making headway on the invasion. Surely, all our efforts must be worth something, aren’t they?
Last night, I found crumbs in my bra.
That is to say: there were M-UFOs in my Area 51.
Finally, one of my childhood dreams has come true:
I spent last night in a Little House on the Prairie episode.
At least, that’s what it sounded like, if I closed my eyes.
I wasn’t wearing a calico dress (although, let’s face it, I would have, if I could have found one) but nonetheless, I managed to pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, wearing calico, at a dance in the church/school, swooning over Almanzo (Manly) Wilder.
I was actually wearing jeans and a voopy blouse, at the firehall/library, swooning over Practical Man, so it was kind of the same, really.
After over a decade of living in the country, Practical Man and I went to the Friday night jam session at the firehall/library. The same firehall/library, which has my favourite librarian (her name is also Christine; I don’t think that’s a coincidence) and which, Practical Man rarely hesitates to point out, is just under 5 km from our front door, which is a very good thing because it means that you get a break on your insurance rate. Over 5 km and you’re out of luck.
I can’t believe I know that thing about insurance rates. What is happening to me?
Anyway, the sandwich board sign we have driven past for over a decade advertised “Friday Night Jam Session: All Welcome. 7-10 pm” so even though I wasn’t wearing calico, we decided to go. We were slightly late and smelling heavily of garlic, on account of having just consumed a super tasty dinner of bruschetta made out of cherry tomatoes, basil and garlic from our garden.
Fresh bruschetta is totally worth the social consequences.
We found some chairs at the back of the room and, trying not to exhale garlic fumes too much, settled in to see what was what. There was a couple waltzing near the front, a lady crooning some old, lovely song at the microphone and a plethora of musicians behind her, playing assorted instruments.
The man next to me leaned over (dangerously into the garlic fume zone, I might add), nodded his head in the direction of the waltzers and said, “Can you believe they’ve been married 70 years?”
Since I have entered the middle of ages–and strapping university football players have alarmingly started asking me things during career counselling appointments like, “If I were YOUR son, what would you tell me to do?” even though I feel 23 and FAR too young to be a university student’s parent–I might have described the man next to me as “a young man” except that even though he was easily 20 years younger than I, he and his wife and I were all a good 30 years younger than everybody in the room. Practical Man leaned towards my ear and whispered, “Even I feel young in this place!” and although I, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, have married an older man, I agreed with him.
He DID look young (and not entirely dissimilar to Almanzo Wilder, if I squinted a little).
The man who was young (ahem, like me), appeared to know everyone in the room and told us that this place was “like family” and “don’t be nervous to sing because everyone is really nice”.
I had not come to sing or play guitar: I had come to get the lay of the Friday night jam session land (and to pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Because, here’s the thing:
Not everyone can sing.
I can carry a tune but I’m not sure it’s public-performance-get-up-on-a-stage kind of worthy. And, I have more than one music-loving friend who is completely tone deaf. Listening to them belt out a song with the car radio is sort of torture. But, I always let them do it. In fact, I sing along. When I was a teenager, I used to always roll the windows down with my friend Niggle, because the pain of listening to him sing (I use that term loosely because really, there was only one note) was lessened somewhat if I was simultaneously exposed to fresh air.
And lots of it.
But he loved music and I couldn’t rob him of that. The joy of music is that it’s free to everyone, regardless of talent or tone-deafness.
Sometimes, this is a slightly painful philosophy to uphold.
Last night, the singers were not professional. They were, more often than not, septua or octo-genarians, but enthusiastic and often, quite capable. It really was like an episode of Little House on the Prairie, with Pa playing the fiddle and Ma and Mr. Edwards dancing and Laura and Mary clapping.
Okay, I’m back.
Anyway, the rules of the Friday Night Jam seemed to be:
- if you want to sing/play, sign up on The List
- when your name is called, you get to sing/play two songs, max (don’t be hoggy of the microphone, even though it’s super fun to sing into one)
- no song shall have been written after 1955 (we’ll make an exception for Buddy Holly but only because Don does that stuff really well)
- audience shall clap enthusiastically for everyone
- dance if you’re inspired (waltz, foxtrot, two-step…ie REAL dancing only)
- there will, of course, be a lunch
The musical repertoire was from before my time (because I am oh-so young!) but often recognizable and sweet, even if I didn’t know the words. Practical Man kept singing along.
He seemed to know the words to that one.
And the next one, too.
As in, ALL the words.
This is what comes from having a May-September romance. He really is the Almanzo Wilder to my Laura Ingalls.
Around 8:15, there was The Lunch.
One of my favourite things about country parties and Legion dances is that there’s always The Lunch. It’s so vintage feeling and there is some magical formula that makes those triangle sandwiches always taste so good when you’re eating them in a firehall/library.
Then, it was back to the music. There was someone playing a fiddle (because that’s what you call a violin in the country):
There was also a harmonica, keyboards, guitar, base and even a mandolin (I love to imitate a mandolin, the way my dad does when he’s singing along to the Mr. Bojangles song, but I won’t do that here).
The couple celebrating their 70th anniversary would occasionally get up and waltz.
Mitch (the young man sitting next to us) and his bride Brittany did the two-step to a jaunty number.
There were some mumblers (think: Jeff Bridges in True Grit, not Bob Dylan) and painful singers who hadn’t quite cracked what key they should be in, but overall, it was lovely and rural and vintage-y.
That is, until, Mitch leaned over and said, “I guess you can see that you and us are quite a lot younger than everyone here.”
Before I could nod and act nonchalantly as if I wasn’t old enough to be Mitch’s mother, he continued, “I’m 26 and Brittany’s 22. What are you, 30?”
That’s when this episode of Little House on the Prairie became:
The Best Night Ever.
There was a message on our voicemail the other day.
“Good morning,” said a little voice.
Then, “How are you?”
It was a very polite little voice.
It’s strawberry season in south-eastern Ontario and my fairy godson, age 2 and 3/4, was calling to invite me out for the picking.
Or, as he knows it: the eating.
I like strawberry picking, except for the bending and standing up (which makes me feel faint-ish) and the turning-my-head and picking (which makes me feel spinny-ish) and of course, there is The Nature to contend with.
But, how could I resist an invitation from someone who calls me “Auntie Kiss”?
Oh sure, my name is “Chris” and you might think this is his 2 and 3/4 year-old way of pronouncing my name, but even when he’s 14 and possibly slightly stinky and drama-tudinal, I like to think this will be my fairy godmother name forever.
(As in: one who gives kisses and loves to receive them.)
Is there a better name for a fairy godmother than that? I think not.
So, after the lovely invitation, I met Fairy Godson, his Kitemama and baby Fairy Godsister at the patch.
It was soggy and muddy from all the recent rain, so we wore our rubber boots (one of us had new and very exciting firefighter rubber boots!) and squelched around in the mud in the parking lot.
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
You know how The Nature can get sometimes. Verrrrry squelchy.
Then, we waited for the tractor to come and pick us up to take us out to the part of the patch we were picking.
It was a “big, DEEN TAK-TOR with a bucket!” and someone wearing new firefighter rubber boots was pretty excited. We hopped on the wagon with our empty baskets and the giant, DEEN TAK-TOR tires squelched around the muddy trail to our patch of the strawberry fields.
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
Then, we squatted in the field and searched for bright, red pockets of sunshine to put in our baskets.
Fairy Godson had two baskets because he knew to look for the “really red ones”. He also knew how to deftly remove the stems, fling them into the plants, and pop the “really red ones” in his mouth.
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
As you do.
Kitemama and I got going with the bending and standing up (which makes me feel faint-ish) and the turning-our-heads and picking (which makes me feel spinny-ish) and of course, The Nature had made everything sort of soggy but I was having a great time picking berries and squelching in the mud.
Fairy Godson guarded the berries for me, polite child that he is and soon, the DEEN TAK-TOR came to pick us up for the ride back.
Squelch, squelch, squelch went the TAK-TOR through the mud.
There was a little sprinkling of rain from The Nature but, we didn’t mind as we were already soggy and our new firefighter rubber boots were muddy anyway, and with a belly full of strawberries (at least one of us), we got off the tractor and lined up to pay.
And then, I had my annual, mild heart attack at the price of 8 scant litres of fresh, local strawberries. But, I also remembered about the bucolic, vintage pleasures of the tractor ride and how good the “really red ones” taste and how many were in the belly of a small helper–and no doubt, countless other helpers across the field–and I opened my wallet and handed over the money.
After a stint driving the play structure TAK-TOR at the entrance, we carried our treasures to the car.
Bye, Bye Kitemama and baby Fairy Godsister.
Bye, Bye Fairy Godson.
Bye, Bye, Auntie Kiss.
Squelch, squelch, squelch.
Not the mud, that time.
It’s easy to live a vintage life in the country. For example, our house comes with some property and on it, a little forest.
And having a forest, as we do, Practical Man likes to meander through it daily. He communes with The Nature in a way that I will never understand.
I love him, anyway.
You may recall that The Nature is my fair-weathered friend. Or rather, my only-in-weather-where-it’s-not-too-too-shivery-and-not-too-sweaty-and-there-definitely-can’t-be-any-bugs friend.
That is, approximately 3.6 days per year.
And, any of you who are sympathetic to The Nature and shocked at my cantankerous relationship with it, you can just calm down. The Nature is not all sweetness and innocence. The Nature has its moods, lemme tell ya. Just ask anyone who lives in the Canadian Maritime provinces right about now.
Up to their wazoos in snow, for the umpteenth time, they are.
And, if you don’t know where your wazoo is, well, if you ask a Maritimer, it’s approximately 3 feet above the average bungalow’s roof.
But, Practical Man doesn’t share my suspicion and distrust of The Nature. He’s a frolicker in rain or shine, snow or bugs. It’s weird, I say, from my perch safely indoors, where I am quite content to look outside through a window (in the manner of wise Canadians before me.)
Being a frolicker and fan of The Nature as he is, Practical Man’s favourite time all year is here: maple syrup season.
Very vintage activity.
Did you know that you can make that stuff you put on pancakes out of TREE JUICE?
The Nature is so weird.
In February, Practical Man starts to feverishly check the weather network…I mean, his Farmer’s Almanac…several times a day and then, proceeds to tap any sugar maple trees at the first sign that the temperature is going a few degrees above zero (Celcius) during the day and a few degrees below zero (Celcius) at night.
This year, we are nearly a month late.
The Nature likes to toy with us humans in this way.
We usually have around 30 sugar maple trees tapped, give or take. Some trees are thick enough around, that they can handle two taps:
I feel an affinity with these trees. Being thick enough around, I think I’m a two tap tree, myself.
Hook me up. I can take it!
But, I still say an extra little thank you under my breath when I pass these guys.
Practical Man came up with this ingenious sap collection system, using old (cleaned) water bottles, some sap tubing, a spigot (the part that goes into the tree) and ta-da! plastic wine glasses from the dollar store. The wine glasses have their bases removed and the sap tubing is threaded through their necks so that the glasses hang upside down over each bottle neck. The sap then drip, drip, drips down into the bottle.
This upside-down-wine glass system prevents rain and when it’s warmer, moths, from getting into the sap. The big bottles also mean that on days when the sap is really flowing, there will be no tragic overflows, as can sometimes happen when you use the old system of buckets like these:
There has been enough sap in one day some years that these buckets fill completely and then…shock, disaster! They overflow, losing precious sap on the ground.
Have you ever seen a Practical Man weep?
I blame The Nature.
Now, we leave one “demonstration tree” with its old-fashioned bucket so that kids and visitors can see how it used to be done.
Don’t let that lid fool ya. It’s cool and vintage but, it doesn’t keep out much rain or moths.
Then, depending on The Nature and the speed of sap flow, Practical Man collects sap for a week or so before he boils it off into syrup. You can’t store sap for too long without it spoiling and you can’t keep a Practical Man cooped up in the house, when the smell of Spring is in the air.
Early in the morning, on boil day, Practical Man goes to the stove he built for maple syruping (maple syrup turns into a verb in Ontario in the Spring). He gets some logs and kindling…
And then, he starts a fire in the stove…
It burns at approximately 3 trillion degrees.
Our stove is an old household oil tank, turned on its side. Holes were cut in the (now) top to hold six pans over the fire. A door was cut in the (now) end so that he can load the logs (and chewing gum). He’s got draft holes with tubes running through the firebox so he can control the burn. A chimney off the (now) top/back of the tank draws the smoke up and out.
Those things up against the tank are paving stones. They insulate the tank somewhat so that you can get near it without singeing off parts of your skin (important for when I come out to play, since I come from long line of klutzes, including one person who cut herself on an onion bun.)
To keep the sap until he boils, Practical Man stores it in (new) clean garbage buckets. If it’s getting warm, he packs snow around them to keep the sap cool until boil day.
Yep, that’s sap ice in there. It hasn’t warmed up yet, but I won’t complain (see earlier note about The Nature and the maritime provinces) because that would just be rude to our PEI, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick friends.
On boil day, the sap is gradually put in the 6 pans over the fire. It begins to evaporate off the water and leave the sugar behind. We keep adding more sap as the steam boils off and the remaining sap keeps concentrating and so on and so on. It’s kind of a steamy miracle, really. Or, as I like to call it:
A maple syrup facial.
Then, all day, there is a lovely little dance that involves moving sap from one pan to another. Adding sap from the buckets to the coffee cans around the boil pans so that the new sap can warm up a bit before it’s ladled into the hot pans. Skimming the froth off the top of the sap in the pans, as it boils. Slowly, slowly, over hours and hours, the water evaporates and the remaining sap gets more and more concentrated in sugar.
(Or something like that. Honestly, I’m mostly the photographer, lunch fixer and product tester.)
All I know is, it takes a long time, a lot of work and a lot of patience. At the end of which, you get 40x less syrup than you had sap.
That is…40 litres of sap yields approximately 1 litre of sugar.
I know: all that time, work and patience and we get…what, what, what?!
And how’s this for a little more math: today, we boiled 190 litres of sap and we’ll get around 5 litres of syrup (that luxurious excess is because the first boil of the season is usually sweetest).
This is the part where I confess that I would (might) have boiled sap into syrup once and thought, “Wow, that was really neat (and boy, was it a LOT of time, work and patience.)”
I would never, ever have felt the need to do it again. Nope.
But then, I tend to the indoors and am a die-hard chocolate girl. If you ever find trees that yield sap that turns into chocolate, sign me up! I will boil that baby until the cows come home.
And, I am afraid of cows.
This is maple syrup season #11 for us and Practical Man still loves it.
He looks cute in his lumberjack ensemble too.
What can I say? It keeps me coming back year after year.
The sap is getting syrup-y now. And bubbly. All the better for the maple syrup facial.
Not sure why my eyelashes are sticking to my face.
The fire gets stoked some more:
Slowly, slowly, the pans boil off enough water that the remaining, concentrate sap gets moved to the centre pans. It sounds simple – oh, yes – just move that hot, steaming, scalding pan full of hot, steaming, scalding sap!
Well okay, then.
I’ll stand over here because I am a documented fraidy-cat.
The centre pans contain the most concentrated of all the sap and will become syrup. There is a magic formula that involves a full moon, barometric pressure, the boiling point of water and whether you’re facing east and standing on your left foot (just kidding – you need both feet on the ground when you’re dealing with hot, steamy, scalding sap.)
Anyhoo, today, the super secret special maple magic thermometer had to reach 7 degrees Celcius (that’s hot, steaming, scalding to us lay people) above the boiling point of water before the sap would be the right consistency:
That is to say, it wasn’t SAP anymore.
It was SYRUP!
(I think applause is warranted. It’s taken us hours to get to this point, honestly, I can’t believe you don’t think this deserves a standing ovation).
Finally, it’s time for another treacherous journey: from the last hot, steaming, scalding pan into the first of the filters; a paper one inside a wool one:
Drip, drip, drip.
Yep, it’s definitely syrup.
And, that means that no matter what The Nature has up its sleeve from here on out:
it’s definitely Spring.