Sleeping Pills and Wood Stoves

I don’t like this scratchy, just missing the point, thousand yard stare feeling. I haven’t slept through a night in I don’t know when. It started a couple of years ago with having to get up to feed the wood stove it’s four a.m. diet of hickory and red oak. The hickory I try to save for outdoor cooking and firepits, but its ability to burn almost all night long trumps it’s savory smoke for ribeye steak and whole chicken. I would stumble to the stove, load it with its delicious fuel of taste and then stagger off to bed, usually with my eyes still closed.

Until I burned my foot. A glowing hot coal rolled, unbeknownst to be, out of the stove onto the mantle upon which it rests. I stepped on it. Have you ever had a hickory coal stuck between your toes at four in the morning? I didn’t scream, at least at loud, although my mind was a soundstation of mostly words that would send me straight to hell, if I didn’t feel like I was already there. My conundrum was this: What do I do with it? The coal, I mean, which was firmly imbedded between my first and second toe on my left foot, scorching me to no end. I’ve dealt with pain. Within my family and friends, I am a running joke for setting off alarms at airports, random surgeries to put rods back into place and arthritis in places that no person should have. But this was something huge. I plucked the still-burning ember from my foot, burning my hand in the process and threw it back into the stove. Great. Now I’m awake.

So began a trend of sleeplessness. Insomnia? I don’t really think so, just habit. My problem is that Ambian (I think the spelling is right here) hits me like a ton of bricks. I don’t just go to sleep, I go into a coma. I feel better the next day, but always with worried looks from my wife. “Did you know you made a pizza last night? It was delicious, but I don’t think you were awake.” Maybe it’s the pizza that makes me feel better, I’m not for sure. Maybe the Ambian. I do know one thing: I’ll be happy to sleep through a night.

But that is becoming less of an option as time passes. Nolan, the name that we have given our first child, is proving to be quite an actor. He responds to my voice and his mother’s actions. Vigorously. We may have our hands full when he is born, but I am going to be ready. Maybe this is training ground for the start of a new life – so that I am used to being without sleep.

Heritage, Time and Squirrels

I slid slightly forward, carefully pulling the bolt back on my single-action .22 rifle that my great-great grandfather had owned. My first dog, a big mastiff cross breed of some sort carefully crawled behind me through the stands of laurel and oak. Beneath the laurel, we were mostly invisible. Buck, the dog, had learned the nuances of stalking from a previous life, one that had occupied him for years before he became my dog, no doubt from running lost across the Appalachian coal fields until he found a family with a little boy, and through some dim memory in his doggy brain, bonded to them with the dedication and commitment that only a dog can. No matter where he came from, he was my dog and I was his human. I still can’t speak of his death, that terrible morning, without tearing up.

But this isn’t about that, exactly, although it does make an excellent human side note. I had to walk away from the computer for a few minutes after writing that, and I didn’t even intend to go there. Instead, this is about a seven or eight year old boy in the forests of his childhood, those haunts that only a child can know so well. As a kid, I ran wild in the mountains of our home. I knew when and where the trillions would come up every spring. I knew where the best crawfish were. I knew where the orange spotted salamanders would be every June – I also knew where the squirrels were.

For whatever reason, as I have previously established, I am not a hunter. Can I kill? Yes. I’m the first one in my family to put a wounded animal out of misery. If faced with the horrible choice of survival based on the sacrifice of another mammal, I am the first to pull the trigger. As my mother so recently heard my brothers discussing, I never miss. But I would prefer to allow someone else to do this for me, provided that it is done in a humane and gentle manner – as gentle as so violent a task will allow. Unfortunately, that is becoming less and less of a luxury in our society – and those of us who demand to know where our food sources come from are being required to pay more and more for that knowledge.

All of this was unknown to me that early morning, just at dawn, hiding beneath the laurel with Buck. I was just simply a little kid with a gun. My grandmother, who was as dear to me as anyone in my life, loved squirrels. LOVED THEM. She would lovingly swoon over a fresh squirrel, and could skin and clean one as quickly as a magician performing a disappearing act. She was a true Appalachian woman – as ambivalent with a food item as any one of our ancestors could have been. Chickens could be named, cherished, cared for and then harvested with no more thought than someone making canned soup today. She had no illusions of food sources. She grew up in the Great Depression, a remnant that hid during the Trail of Tears and that left a long-standing impact on her world view of not just food, but politicians and coal barons alike. Deeply suspicious of the outside world, she, along with the rest of my grandparents, influenced my early development in a very profound way.

Sunlight found its way through the fog as the wind shifted from night to the dawn, swinging in the sweet smell of the stream and the laurel blossoms, along with my Mom’s day lilies. I was mostly deaf at this time in my life due to recurring severe inner ear infections, but I had coped without anyone really knowing the extent to which I had lost my hearing. Buck sneaked behind me as I carefully moved forward, intent on my target, a big fox squirrel that was just waking up from his roost in the forks of a long dead wormy chestnut tree. My little rifle was equipped with open sights, but it shot unbelievably straight. My Dad would toll out bullets to me on these trips, then count to confer that I had one squirrel per bullet. It was imperative that I did not miss.

This morning, while enjoying my tea and watching the fog lift off the mountains, I heard the barking of one, and then another, then another squirrel and I was reminded of that moment in the mountains of my childhood. The simple nothingness of hunting the one thing that never really bothered my conscience. I was later embarrassed by my heritage as a young adult, but I now cherish it with all my heart. I feel a strange urge to vanish into the forest with my dog in tow, but I am no longer that silent child with a .22 rifle and six bullets. I am a different creature now.

I picked my way through the laurel leaves, emulating the Cherokee kids from the reservation. They never raised their toes, sliding through the leaves as silently as a cloud knifes over a mountain. Buck doggy crawls behind me. I view the big squirrels head through the open sights of my little rifle. He yawns. I close my left eye and exhale slowly. The gun jumps in my hands.

My grandmother Audrey is thrilled beyond belief. We have braised fried squirrel for dinner the next day and squirrel brains with scrambled eggs and government cheese the next morning.

So it is, with some rumblings in my stomach, that I watch the squirrels play this morning. They are safe, so far. Laura is repelled by the thoughts of eating squirrel. But, I remind her, it was not that long ago that she was equally repelled by the notion of eating rabbit.

I rarely endorse cookbooks, particularly since I don’t get paid for it, but one of my favorites is “Hunt, Gather, Cook” by Hank Shaw. More of a story than a cookbook, he nevertheless has many recipes for game animals, including squirrel and it is a great read. I highly recommend adding it to your collection.

Outdoor Cooking

The hummingbirds have begun their migratory flights south, in search of more recent flowering plants. That’s not to say that we still don’t have any – my yard is still awash in the storm ravaged remnants of butterfly bushes and all sorts of flowering trees, but they are diminished a bit as fall approaches. I honestly feel that one of those most amazing of creatures, those tiny birds that can fly so far and so fast that it is impossible not to believe in a divine creator while watching them, said “Goodbye” to me this morning.

I was sitting in a deep wicker chair with a cup of mint tea, somewhat of an obsession of mine, which is lucky since we have a deep bed of mint that threatens the strawberry patch every year with hostile takeover. My Mom firmly believes that if you count the number of deep fogs every morning in August, those so dense that you can’t see Laura’s Mountain, then that will equate to the number of heavy snowfalls we will get in the winter. If she is right, then we are screwed this season. In superstition, I have put new snow tires on Laura’s Caddy and oiled the tire chains for my old Ford. As I was contemplating the possibility of a beautiful winter, a gorgeous hummingbird, with wings whirring audibly, appeared out of nowhere and started feeding on the butterfly bush closest to me. I was afraid to even breathe. I’ve never in my life been that close to a hummingbird. It fed, pivoted and I was riveted by its ability to perform aerial maneuvers that have never, not once, been duplicated by any human invention. As I sat in my chair, afraid to move, this little marvel of creation noticed me. It flew so close to my face that even I, as deaf as I am, could hear its wings. It was honestly as if it acknowledged my presence, said hello, and then vanished as quickly as it arrived, no doubt headed south for more succulent flowers. I lifted my tea and bid it a great journey…

I was not outside this morning to marvel at nature. Embarrassingly, I was admiring the remnants of the coals of my cooking fire from last night. I finally committed to stacking rocks and countersinking a fire pit near my garden beds and cooked entirely over the fire. Momma Sue bought me an awesome Lodge Dutch Oven for Christmas and I seriously put it to use. Laura absolutely destroyed her meatball sub and I was not far behind – but I had to laugh, she hid the leftovers from me in the back of the fridge. When I asked her why they were in such a weird place, she told me it was to make sure I didn’t eat them! Pregnant women are serious about their food.
Here’s how I did it:

½ pound of ground pork (or beef, but I like the texture of pork, and pork is a bit leaner)
One hot chili pepper, finely minced
Half of one Vidalia onion, finely chopped
Three pieces of stale bread, finely chopped, soaked in milk and then squeezed almost dry
Sage and Chives, finely chopped, to taste
Salt and Pepper
One large egg
One jar of canned tomatoes, pureed or finely chopped, don’t worry, it will cook down
One head of garlic, smashed
A handful of fresh basil, finely chopped
One tbs. of red pepper flakes
One tbs. of paprika
One tbs. of finely chopped fresh rosemary

What to do:

If you are using a fire pit, then start a fire at least one hour before cooking. Combine the first seven ingredients in a large bowl with your hands, and mix well. These meatballs are extremely delicate, which makes them delicious, but hard to work with. I form them into two-inch balls and put them in the fridge to jell while the fire is burning down to coals. When the fire is right, put about three tablespoons of olive oil into a Dutch Oven placed on the coals. Add the chilled meatballs after the oil is smoking and brown on all sides. Remove them and place them to the side. Strain as much water as you can out of the tomatoes – if they are home-canned, it will be a lot. You want this to be thick. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and reduce until the consistency is similar to your favorite pizza sauce. It should stick to a spoon, not resemble soup. Add the meatballs back in and cook for another ten minutes. Take two baguettes, split in half, and dig out most of the bread on one side, creating a bowl for your ingredients. Butter, toast over the fire and pile high with the meatballs in marinara. Top with Swiss Cheese and, if you have it, yellow tomato and molasses salsa. Yummm.

New River Grille

I’m a huge fan of the familiar. My wife often comments that I was most likely a dog in a former life, and she may be right. I can think of worse things to have been. Like a Republican. Or a Democrat. Or a Vegetarian. Damn Vegetarians. But she is correct in that I become upset when a fixture of my life, and of the community, is forced to change, for whatever reason. So it was with great sadness that I witnessed the closing of the New River Grille. Steve, Kathy, Mitch and Stephanie Akers, along with so many others who worked and ate there, had become close friends of mine. They consistently served great food, remembered everyone’s name and were always a waystation for me on my trampings about in Giles County. Not to mention their always famous Buffalo Burgers and homemade Onion Rings. Good God.

So, I am glad to mention that they have resurfaced, and from what I can tell, will be doing better than ever at their new location at the Castle Rock Golf Course in Pembroke, VA. Only minutes off U.S. 460, their new location, once finished, will seat 50 plus. Right now, they are limited to a short menu, but let me tell you, the quality of the food is off the charts. Today, I dropped in, sans camera, just to say hello, and was treated to the best blackened shrimp po’boy I’ve had this side of the panhandle of Florida. Chef Mitch complimented it with slaw, freshened with garlic and a side of Old Bay Fries, all perfectly seasoned while Steve and I caught up on local gossip. Locals from other restaurants were laughing and talking on the outside dining area while I was toured through the opening full service restaurant. Right now they are open seven days a week – after the full restaurant opens it’ll be a limited seating, so be sure to check in! You can find them on facebook and at Go. Eat. Tell them hello!

The Ending of a Year

There is a subtle shift in the air. In the breeze. It’s cooler, somehow. I know that when I look at the thermometer in a few minutes, it will read around 68 degrees, just as it has nearly every morning this summer, except for those few weeks after the June storm when nearly everyone in Virginia lost power. Those days, the temperature rarely fell below 80, regardless of the fact that we are in the mountains and by the New River. No, today, I think, is it – the beginning of the end of the year. I lie quietly beside my wife as dawn just breaks, a little later than last week. I’m canning the last of our tomatoes, the vines of which, despite my care and pleading, have simply stopped producing. My cucumbers have died, carrots wilted and the greens are dead. The apple trees are loaded, producing their fall products. I believe my corn, beaten down by the storms and eaten by greedy deer, will produce once more, but it will be a small crop.

I am not the only one that feels this change, this precursor to our seasonal variations, the small warning of things to come. Without turning my head, I watch a big fox squirrel stuff a cavity left open by a branch torn away from a big white oak tree full of acorns. He fluffs his tail, as he does every morning, but he does not cough out his customary bark. Instead, almost worriedly, he flees back down the huge trunk to collect more of this summer’s bounty, the almost foot deep piles of acorn mast that was prematurely shaken off by the wind and storms.

My Dog, Axl, is a big square-headed Labrador Retriever. I always notice a shift in his behavior this time of year, for, you see, it is time to go hunting. His Sire, Ramblin Man, was one of the most famous working Labrador’s ever. Many times over a world champion, he was a tireless hunter. He was featured on the cover of the publication “Hunting Labrador” as well as in numerous other enthusiast based magazines. Axl’s dame, a beautiful Labrador named Cary, was nearly as famous, and a better hunter than his sire. I have no doubt that their instincts and bloodlines run through Axl as deeply as my ancestors do through me. It is during this time of year that I feel a bit sorry for him, as I watch him listlessly pace through the house and smell deeply of the air at any open window or on the porch. It is this time of year that he is most belligerent that I throw the ball and when he stomps his front feet at the appearance of a firearm. He knows what he is built for – it is a shame that I do not follow his needs.

I have pledged to learn to hunt, and I have no doubt that I will hunt this year, trailing the elusive game bird through the spent fields of corn with my father-in-law and whisper quietly to my brother and dad as we pursue the so-called elusive white-tail deer. But I will do so out of a desire to feed my family, not from the thrill of the chase or the exhilaration of the kill. I will feel a deep sorrow for the animal whose life I have taken, and respect what they have given us – sustenance for yet another year. The pig who has been happily raised will give its life for us, all such that someone else can live.

So, it is no small wonder that I feel a bit remorseful this time of year. To me, this is the ending of yet another year, not the symbolic last calendar day of the year. This time of stacking wood, canning everything, a time of simmering stews, endless jars of chicken stock, a time of butchering – a time of carefully taking life so that life may be sustained.

Each year at this time I look back on the life that I have lived and I wonder – was it enough? This year has been full of change, on a fundamental level. I am going to be a father and my wife a mother, for the first time. I will meet Nolan closer to the end of the calendar year than now, but I am preparing for him. For the first time, it is with sheer love that I put up firewood, can endless jars of tomatoes and store the best food items I can get my hands on.

A young man visited the other day to purchase a bar table from a time well past when Laura and I were a bit more irresponsible than we are today. We walked into the pantry to retrieve it. His eyes became huge. He asked, in a thick European accent, “Are you guys’ hoarders?” I just grinned at him. Nope, I thought. I’m just country – and a Dad.

One of the most common requests that I get are about canning – I can tell you this: Water bath canning is just about the easiest thing that you can do. Out of the risk of someone not following the directions correctly, I’ll hold off on direct instructions, but one of the best books on canning is “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” It’s a great way to get started and it’s available on Amazon for less than $15! Trust me, you’ll love yourself in February when you open a jar of freshly canned, ripe peaches!

Olive Oil

I’m still reeling from the news yesterday that I’m having a boy. I was still reeling before that over the fact that I was having a baby, but the news seemed, well, distant, somehow. After seeing the ultrasound, and watching what is most definitely another human being, one that is anchored to me for life through a great span of family, distance and space, I am honored. I never, ever thought that I would have a child, much less a son, another small version of what could be me. Yet, here he is, sucking his thumb, kicking around and then, much like one of our bloodlines, aggressively lashing out when he realizes he is being observed. The fleeing from one side to the other of his Mom, trying to get away from the prods and pokes of the wonderful doctors and technicians.

They were wonderful. They laughed and talked and calmed me down. Our doctor, Dr. Jamie Jennell, immediately instilled in me a sense of ease and security. I haven’t truly, really prayed in years. Yet, while the nurses were performing the ultrasound, that modern marvel of technology, while they were measuring, checking heart rates, limb lengths, brain activity and everything else that is important, the room was spinning. I was praying. Please…Dear God, let it be ok. Please…

It was. Or rather, he is. Mr. Nolan Gray Matney, named after his Dad, his grandfathers on both sides, and in honor of generations of Matney’s, is fine. He is a bit more active than normal, but that’s good, you see. He likes his Mom and enjoys running with her on the mornings that she sneaks out of the house to relieve some stress. Axl, the dog, seems to know that something is up, as he smells Laura’s belly every day. My mom assures me that I was a good child, prone to reading and isolation, except that I had a crazy streak a mile wide, no doubt fueled by “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Smoky and the Bandit.” Except that we didn’t have a T.V. I crashed everything that I ever owned, excluding current vehicles – including my very first Green Machine. Remember those? Only the coolest bigwheel ever. I managed to jump it off the front porch of our house and broke the front wheel off.

So, here’s to being a New Dad. I write this as the smell of olive oil from whatever wonderful concoction that Laura is cooking wafts through the house. Some very dear friends of ours pulled into our drive a few months ago and were laughing that they could follow the smell of olive oil, garlic and sourdough to our front door. Well, I can only hope that little Nolan enjoys all this as much as we do. I’m going to assure him that the “Clown is evil, and children are known to vanish at Mickey Dee’s. Don’t go there.” While teaching him knife skills. When he’s two.