A Bag Full of Memories

On the way back from a family gathering this weekend in Bluffton, South IMG_5179Carolina, we drove past a stand selling boiled peanuts, one of the south’s classic roadside treats. We circled back and were greeted warmly by a guy that called himself “Georgia Boy.” Georgia Boy’s real name is Sam, and his eleven-year old son Trevor was along to help, as well.

So it turns out that Sam is actually from Florida. How a guy from Florida can call himself Georgia Boy and be selling peanuts in South Carolina, I just don’t know–but he did sell us some pretty good peanuts.

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If you aren’t acquainted with boiled peanuts, they are typically green peanuts that are boiled.peanutsboiled for 8 to 12 hours until they are soft and salty. They are easy to shuck and have a much mellower taste than roasted peanuts. For generations, country roads in the south have been dotted with stands run by friendly folks like Sam and Trevor, waiting to serve you up a pint or a quart or a gallon.

For me, the smell alone is a ride right back to childhood. I lived in the south for a few years as a kid, and one of the constants of family road trips was a recurring conversation between my dad and mom that happened almost every time we drove past a boiled peanut stand. It was the quickest negotiation on record–generally occurring in the space of a few hundred yards, even while going 50 miles an hour.

02-27-2011 023The stands themselves were often pretty sketchy—a public health inspector’s dream, probably. But the experience was always positive and it generally went like this: a friendly conversation, a brief negotiation, a slotted spoon dipped into a huge pot, a paper bag filled with warm wet peanuts, and smiles all around.

Once back on the road, my dad would dump a handful of peanuts in his lap and drive with one hand while popping shells and tossing the empties into an overflowing cup holder. My siblings and I would share the remaining peanuts in the now-soggy and sometimes disintegrating paper bag, often dumping the empty shells out of the open windows in between the passing pick-up trucks (certainly bad form by today’s standards).

Nowadays, the paper bags have IMG_5188been replaced with sturdy plastic ziplocks–but that’s about all that’s changed. It’s the same chance to make a snap decision at 50 mph, the same soft and salty treat, and the same little slice of southern culture.

As we started back to our car this weekend, I mentioned that I was bringing the peanuts back home to Virginia, and Sam gave me some advice. “Don’t open the ziplock before you get back, or they won’t last.”

“Oh, really,” I said. “They go bad that fast?”

Sam responded matter-of-factly, “If you open the bag, you’ll eat them all.”

It turns out Sam was right.

Blogging is Like Making Sausage

Souzz and I drove a few hours west this weekend to a “dry” cabin (no running water) for a quick fall getaway, and we’ve decided that cabins are the perfect place to push the envelope on food options. Picnic tables and covered porches combined with crisp fall air create a lot of dinner inspiration. And as long as one brings the right gadgets and enough fresh water for clean-up, just about anything is possible.

As we mulled over menu ideas ahead of the trip, Souzz’s mom suggested an Octoberfest theme–which somehow led to stumbling into quotes from folks as diverse as George R. R. Martin, Otto von Bismarck, and Mark Twain about the unlikely topic of sausage. In most every case, the general theme was that you may want to eat sausage…but you definitely don’t want to see how it’s made. If that describes you, then stop reading now.

DSC_0424The weekend’s destination was Silberman Trail Center in south central Pennsylvania. Like many of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) properties, Silberman Cabin has no power or water–but it does have plenty of prep space and a kitchen with lots of pots and pans. The plan was to make sausage from scratch, as well as a favorite Italian pasta/pumpkin dish called tortelli de zucca (complete with home-made pasta). We also had salad and fry-bake bread on the menu, and a dessert recipe that is trending on Facebook right now called Baked Apple Roses.

We stopped at nearby Cowans Gap State Park on the way, which offered up beautiful fall colors (maybe only a week away from peak) during a great hike where we worked off some of the calories to come. The hike alone was worth the trip!

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Then it was on to the cabin and off to work on dinner. Souzz relaxed for a bit on the covered porch while I started the process of grinding and seasoning pork shoulder, mixing in fat, and then stuffing the resulting mixture into casings. Thankfully, after seeing my futility, Souzz was compelled to jump in, too.

While sausage making is totally worthwhile, it was a somewhat messy project that was sure to take away one’s appetite…until the actual sausage was cooked and served, of course. It also turns out that sausage making is a process that could probably make the Queen of England crack a naughty joke (if you bring your toddlers to London to share a kitchen with Her Majesty, choose a different dish).

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Based on a sample size of one, it seems that the key things are having the right equipment (until two days ago, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a sausage stuffer), the right mix of meat/fat/salt, and the right temperature for storage (the meat should be super-cold before grinding). It probably also helps to bring along the right attitude, as a few things will always go wrong (and did).

With the sausage making complete, next up was the pasta. With a pumpkin filling, tortelli de zucca is a popular fall treat in northern Italy. Granted, it’s a colossal effort to prepare, but it’s also a colossal delight to eat. This is a dish that we make a lot at home, and it’s a favorite recipe by way of our friend Ivano, who lives in Mantova, Italy. 

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As with the sausage, we did the prep on the porch on a picnic table over a plastic table cloth. This kept the mraccooness to a manageable minimum–although, it turns out, not so manageable that a pasta-loving raccoon didn’t pay us a visit. We named him Ricardo, and he left our place hungry. If you find yourself in the mountains of Pennsylvania any time soon, watch your pasta.

DSC_0387When it was time to eat, we par-boiled the sausage for a few minutes before cooking it over charcoal, and we boiled the tortelli for just DSC_0395a minute and a half before topping it with butter, olive oil, fresh sage, grated parmesan, and fresh pepper.

The sausage was flavorful and was cooked about right, a nice first effort, and the tortelli (and the bread and salad) were good, too. All in all, it seemed like a meal fit for a queen (and hopefully a queen with enough decorum not to make sausage jokes during Grace).

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DSC_0407Oh, and lastly, the Apple Rose dessert was, umm, totally forgettable–suggesting that choosing a dish based on what is trending on Facebook might not be the best idea. After all, Face7d7a50bf28c14e6cb758975ea1fe6500book is the land of Candy Crush, cats with Donald Trump hair-dos, and an app that tells you what kind of office supply you would be (I got stapler). From now on, we are taking our menu recommendations from Bon Appetit.

Right at Home

I’m in San Juan, Puerto Rico this weekend as the volunteer videographer/photographer for an annual reunion of Army veterans that served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971. Gatherings like this aren’t so much about the food or the place; they are about the people and the experience that connects them–people like Manuel and Brian and Charlie and Rolla, guys (and now their families, too) that see each other maybe once a year, and each time in a different city.

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IMG_5126Folks did enjoy the place, too, of course. Puerto Rico means Rich Port in Spanish, and San Juan is the second oldest European settlement in the west (after Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic). The city was first settled by Ponce de Leon in 1508, and it is chock full of history. The fort here dates to the 1500s, and it was still in use as late as World War II. The island also has a proud history of military service, with nearly 50,000 Puerto Ricans serving in Vietnam–including SGT Manuel Rivera, who hosted this year’s reunion.

The weekend has been packed with activities like tours of the Yunque Rain Forest and the Yunque_waterfallcity, including a visit to the Governor’s mansion and the Capitol–but the main attraction is the people standing in this room. There are nearly a hundred folks here from places ranging from San Juan to Maine to California, and they have more in common than one might think–especially when one surveys a room mixed with suit jackets and tank tops.

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PFC Mead’s monkey

Conversations ranged from catching up on the past year to good-natured kidding about things that happened almost 50 years ago–like the time that PFC Mead bought a pet monkey in Bien Hoa, or img113the time that Ken “accidentally” bumped the Colonel into a trailer full of ice water. Oh, and apparently getting a bulldozer stuck in the mud is something that stays with you for life (I’m going to keep that in mind the next time I set out to clear a few acres).

Mixed in with the tours and banquets was a touching memorial service for the 21 members of the unit that didn’t make it home, a ceremony that has become the centerpiece of each reunion going back to 1996. A candle was lit for each of the soldiers lost in Vietnam, a somber moment in the midst of a weekend that otherwise felt like a celebration. I never served so I can’t even pretend to understand, but it seems that remembering these soldiers is the very least that we can do–just as was done last year in San Diego, and just as will be done next year in Indianapolis.

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All in all, it’s a wonderful weekend of fellowship and remembrance. The veterans and their families that came to Puerto Rico traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get here, some even having to dodge Hurricane Joaquin on the way, but right now they are all right at home.

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