In the area where I live in Southern Illinois, many of the traditions connecting us to the land survive. This is a place where towns are small and neighbors are friendly. People are self-reliant. They take pride in what they can do for themselves. They fix things that are broken. They live in modest homes, drive sensible cars, wear jeans wherever they go and work for a living. Entertainment is usually connected to church, school and community events. Festivals are popular and it seems almost every community has at least one.
I tell you this because I was reminded again over weekend just how fortunate we are to live here. Our neighborhood is made up of six streets - just thirty houses. Our lots are generously sized, so the area is large enough for a good long walk. We are kind of out in the country though, so there is rarely anyone on our streets who doesn't live here. As far as I am concerned, that's a good thing.
When we moved in four years ago, our neighbors, Kenny and Phyllis, explained that there used to be an annual neighborhood get-together, but no one had organized one for a while. Together, we decided to revive the tradition and set about choosing a day in October and delivering flyers inviting everyone to our backyard for a potluck picnic.
So this year was our fourth annual get-together and the turn-out and the food were both excellent. Nothing is organized, everyone is welcome, just bring a dish to share and maybe some chairs. We build a fire and provide hotdogs and s'mores. In our yard, we have a big jungle-gym, a little playhouse, a huge open area, and a pond with a bucket of food for feeding fish from the dock. The grown-ups stand around and talk, while the kid run around. Eating is when and what you want. Drinks are in the cooler. Yesterday, MFH got so busy chatting that he forgot to put out the stuff for the s'mores. He and Kenny had one while the four of us sat by the fire after everyone else had gone home.
Tonight, Kenny and Phyllis called to say they had been out today and picked a big bunch of autumn olives which they were going to make into jam. Did I know what autumn olives were and did I want to come watch? No I didn't, and of course I did. You see, I am two generations removed from the people in my family who lived close to the land. Kenny and Phyllis have maintained their ties in both personal and professional ways. They are a wealth of information on these matters.
I got my lesson with autumn olives and so much more -- just as I expected -- as I watched Kenny make a batch of jam with the bright red berries. The taste is somewhat like a pomegranate, but a little sweeter, and the lycopene content is much, much higher than tomatoes.
Kenny and MFH talked about all the mushrooms this year and which were edible. I doubt that MFH will be foraging, but he likes to know these things. We talked about raising hogs, which Kenny's family did when he was young -- back when "heritage" breeds were just plain old pigs. We talked about pecans and hickory nuts and tasted some delicious little pecans from their trees. We ate the last few raspberries from their garden and tasted zucchini relish Kenny made earlier in the summer.
I asked Kenny about his plan for getting a hive of bees next spring. Dan, our neighbor to the side, has had bees for a few years, but his left last year, so both he and Kenny are getting new bees next year. I have always been fascinated by bee keepers, so I'll be there checking that out.
I'm also getting a pecan tree to plant from Kenny. And I came home with enough autumn olives to make my own batch of jam. We tasted persimmons they picked today to take to Phyllis' mother to be baked into bread tomorrow. I hadn't tasted a persimmon since I was in grade school, where one grew next to the playground. Phyllis gave me a copy of her mom's recipe and promises a taste of bread when it's made.
Tonight was a reminder of just how important it is to stay connected to the land. It is possible to grow your own food and even to forage for it too -- really eating local. We're not all farmers around here anymore, but most of us know someone who still is. Some may see our area as rural and economically depressed, but they are not seeing what I see. We have gardens, and trees, and woods, and ponds, and fields, and neighbors. We are connected to the land and to each other. And that makes us rich in so many important ways.
PHYLLIS'S MOM'S PERSIMMON BREAD
1/2 c. vegetable shortening
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1 1/2 c. persimmon pulp
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 to 1 c. chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour loaf pans. In a large bowl, cream together shortening and sugar. Blend in water, eggs and persimmon pulp. In a small bowl, blend flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Add dry mixture to persimmon mixture and stir until well blended. Stir in chopped pecans. Pour into prepared loaf pans and bake 1 hour. Makes 1 large or 2 medium loaves.