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9/8/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWarning: Graphic descriptions contained herein. Rated: PG for disturbing images.

Grabbing something hard enough that is covered with bugs so the bugs squish in your hand is not high on my list of wonderful things to do. But, honestly, folks when I was young, we all wanted to get hired for corn detassling and bugs were just part of the program.

I was employed as a corn detasseler for a couple summers when I was around 15 years of age. I worked for Pioneer Seed Corn out of Tama, Iowa. It was a coveted job because Pioneer paid well for the unskilled labor and Johnny-on-the-spot. All we had to do was walk down the rows of corn and yank the tassel out of every plant on certain rows. I can’t remember how many acres I was responsible for but when you’re standing alone in a big field with corn surrounding you in every direction, it seems like the rows are endless and you’re being swallowed up. I was grateful for the fact that most fields were rolling hills so when you came to the top of a hill you could see how far you had left until the end.

It was a pretty easy job for the most part. I started out with gloves but quickly realized that they were a hindrance for being able to grasp the tassels effectively and pull them out so there was nothing left. You had to grab hold of the tassel pretty firmly because the tassel was attached to the plant very well. So every once in a while you’d grab a tassel that had bugs covering it and, of course, some of the bugs squished in your hand. Doesn’t that sound just peachy?

This was the summer that I got over being prissy and doing things with a high “yuck” factor. This has stayed with me all my life. Now I’ve moved on to castrating bull calves and other such things. Having a high tolerance for the yuck factor is a good skill to have on a farm or ranch. All you guys and gals out there know what I mean. If you don’t, start cultivating it. Eventually you’re going to be alone with no one to bail you out and you’re going to have to do something yucky. Man up. You can do it. I have faith in you!

The reason we had to detassel was because this was hybrid field corn that was used for seed. Corn, if you don’t already know, is both male and female in a single plant. The male part is the tassel and the female part is the silk that forms on the ear. If you have a certain hybrid you want to produce, you have to have a few rows of intact male plant and female plants with their male parts removed. Then there will be two plants of different kinds that will cross pollinate, and you will have a “new” type of seed corn. If you don’t detassel, the plants will self pollinate and your plans for hybrid seed corn will be ruined.

cornfield | Fotolia/Kybele 

Photo: Fotolia/Kybele

I think machinery is used a lot nowadays to speed up the process, but back in the day it was all hand labor. The manager hired dependable people, told them which rows to detassel and set them loose with their deadline. There was a certain window to get the corn detasseled and some days my mom and sister came out to help me. Some days were very long. We had to finish before the silk came out.

This was before the day of those Steven King movies having to do with Children of the Corn so there was no weirdness about going into a field alone. Just the gleeful recognition of how much money we were making. Being alone in the corn gave me plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts. There were the hawks wheeling over head and sometimes we whistled to each other. The weather was usually hot and muggy but we were working on our upper body tans so that was a perk for us girls. We wore tanks tops and doused ourselves with cool water at the end of the rows.

Now I live in a place that doesn’t grow seed corn. Here it’s either dry land grazing or nut and fruit trees. I look back on those days when I was young and physically strong with fondness and sometimes wish I could go back again. But I’m grateful for the experience and I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories of my family and me in the field doing a rewarding job.



9/2/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWD-40 is common on a ranch or farm. Everyone has it. Everyone uses it. But does anyone really know what it is? I sure as heck didn’t so I did a little research. I found out that WD-40 was – or is – the trademark name of a spray developed in 1953 by a guy named Norm Larsen who was the founder of the Rocket Chemical Co. in San Diego, California. It was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion for nuclear missiles. But just like any magnificent discovery (penicillin comes to mind), it turned out to have more uses than the original intended purpose. Where did the name come from, you may ask? I bet you wouldn’t guess this: "Water Displacement – 40th Attempt.” This is science at work. Not Mad Men. But, hey, don’t you think it works? Dub-ya Dee Forty! Just rolls off the tongue like it was meant to be.

WD40 | courtesy www.MiniTruckinWeb.com

Photo: courtesy www.MiniTruckinWeb.com

I had always had used it for one thing: fixing squeaky hinges. Recently I was in a local tractor supply establishment looking for a product to help de-tangle the impossible tornadoes that had made their way into my horse’s manes and tails. The product that looked the best to me had a ridiculously high price tag on it so I hunted up a clerk for some advice. She told me her dad told her to use WD-40. Applied liberally.

So I went home and tried it. What a disaster! It was way too oily and it didn’t get a single tangle out. My hands just got saturated with chemical product. It was terrible, but it got me to thinking what people out there might be using WD-40 for other than its intended use. So I started looking into it and here is what I found.

WD40 | courtesy www.Inspire21.com

Photo: courtesy www.Inspire21.com

House cleaner Sharon uses it for removing crayon and old cellophane tape. She also uses it for removing stains from clothes and carpets, and mildew from refrigerator gaskets. Mel the plumber uses it to spray on air-conditioning filters. He says it filters dust out. Tony, our mechanic, uses it for cleaning the grill and bumper of his car plus removing oil spots from concrete. My cousin Sandy uses it for untangling jewelry chains and freeing stuck zippers. My husband used it on the fence to keep ants from climbing up the fence and into the dog food. My friend Roberta used it once to remove a ring stuck on her finger. I suppose it would work for a toe stuck in the bathtub faucet or a finger stuck in soda bottle.

WD40 | courtesy www.MetalDetectingWorld.com

Photo: courtesy www.MetalDetectingWorld.com

Here are a few uses I have heard of but would not recommend:

  • Cure mange. According to "USA Today," spraying a dog with WD-40 gets rid of parasitic mites. Maybe the dog, too.

  • Prevent dead insects from sticking to your car. Spray WD-40 on the hood and grill so you can wipe bugs off easily.

  • Make hangers glide over a clothes rod.

  • Thread electrical wire through conduits.

  • Remove baked-on food from a cookie pan. Spray on cookie pan and wipe clean.

  • Keep dogs, maggots and flies out of trash cans. Coat the trash cans with a thin layer of WD-40.

  • Free a tongue stuck to frozen metal. Spray on the metal around the tongue.

What do you use it for?



8/25/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitTimes have changed, my friend. Some things have changed for the better. Some things would have been better had they stayed the same. The point is we can’t go back in time, but we can remember what was and that gives us pleasure, peace and contentment. Also sometimes the stories about the past can teach us how to live our lives correctly in the present.

4gens

Gramma Frieda, my mother, me and Gramma's father, William

My Grandmother Frieda was quite a storyteller. I remember sitting in her kitchen in Watseka, Illinois, and she would tell me stories about “the olden days.” Through her stories, those days would come alive for me, and I could see them in my mind’s eye. I knew that Gramma was a girl with a lot of life in her. Maybe she got it from her father whose nickname was “Wild Bill.” Her mother was just the opposite. Isn’t that the way it goes sometimes? Marriage partners who offset and complement each other’s personalities. Mother Tina was the firm disciplinarian. Father William was playful. His photo doesn't show it but trust me, he was.

One story Gramma told me was of an escapade that cost her dearly. She never forgot it, and one day she told me what happened. It was haying time on the farm. Everyone had an important job to do because the hay had to be put up swiftly and correctly. The winter feed was dependent on it. If it wasn’t done right, the hay would spoil and then not be good. The women working in the kitchen – cooking all day preparing a big breakfast and dinner – was integral to the men working in the fields. It was a team effort and everyone worked hard. Lunch was called dinner then, and it was the biggest meal of the day. Supper was light. Everyone was tired at the end of the day. The day might last well into the evening. If the hay was ready to be mowed and shocked the men were at it from sun up to sundown.

haying

Courtesy of Old St. Andrew's

Here’s what Gramma told me:

“I was born in 1896 so the year was 1912. I was 16 at the time and not fond of helping my mother in the kitchen. If I had any choice in the matter I’d rather be out helping the men in the fields. I didn’t like being cooped up in the house. I thought men's work was more fun.

"But this was not what my mother wanted me to do and besides she needed the help so I had to obey her. There was a big dance coming up at the Grange in Onarga. I had been looking forward to it for weeks. I planned what to wear and I talked about it with my sisters Esther and Martha. My special 'beau' Bernhard was going to be there. You know we eventually married. He was the son of the local Lutheran minister and shy. (Here she giggles.) I was more than enough outgoing for the both of us! He won my heart with his good looks and calm, confident manner.

"On the day of dance, my mother Trientje but who was called 'Tina,' instructed me, 'No lollygagging' and 'to be home by 10 p.m. There is a lot of work to do tomorrow!' My father William took us girls in the buggy and dropped us off at the door. Then he hitched the horse to the hitching rail and went inside to have a bit of fun with his friends before going home. We girls were again instructed as to the curfew and then Father William went home confident we would obey.

"The 10 p.m. curfew came and went and only my sisters obeyed. I was just too sassy. I was the oldest and it made me mad that I had to be home at a time I thought was too early. I was old enough to be married so why couldn’t I stay up and dance? I loved to dance! So the curfew came and went and I just ignored it.

"Pretty soon I realized that it was starting to get light. Everyone else was going home so I just hiked up my skirts and made my way through the fields back home. When I got to the house I hoped everyone was still sound asleep so I could sneak in, get in bed and hide the fact that I had come home at such an hour. Just as I opened the door to the kitchen I heard my mother call 'Frieda, is that you?' There she was at the sink washing something. She never said a word further about my disobedience. She just told me to start my chores. 'No sleeping for you, young lady!'

"So I had to work all day just as though I’d had a full night’s sleep. Mother never said anything more about my disobedience. Having to work all day with no sleep was enough. Mother didn’t get angry. She simply meted out the consequences of my thoughtlessness. Always after that I would think before I did something. She taught me a valuable lesson in thinking ahead about what might happen if I didn’t do the right thing."



8/15/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitI couldn't help but post an image of my finished product from last week's blog post. Look at these beauties. Delicious, too. Come on over, and we'll have some with pumpernickel and cream cheese.

 

dried



8/15/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWe don’t have much weather here at the ranch. Not what I would call weather anyway. It’s pretty much the same every day. In the summer, it’s clear and dry or partly cloudy with highs in the low 90s. In winter, it’s also clear with highs in the 50s. In winter, we will get rain, and it could be a lot and the creeks will begin to fill and flow. But we hardly ever have thunderstorms. When we do, maybe once or twice a year, they’re only all right. I mostly like them because it means a bit of much needed rain. But they’re nothing to write home about in terms of energy or power.

Storm watching in the Midwest is a whole different kettle of fish. When I was a kid in Iowa, we had Weather with a capital “W”! The old saying was “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes. It will change.” I loved watching the approaching thunderstorms, and I took it upon myself to learn what the different clouds meant or could produce. Tornadoes were a distinct possibility in any summer storm of a decent size. At the very least you could always count on wind, lightning and thunder, and maybe even some hail. It was Mother Nature at her most terrifying and awe inspiring. It made me feel little all the while electrifying my soul.

It might be daytime and we could see the storm coming, or it could be night and we couldn’t. At night, the tornado warning siren could go off, and we would be ushered into the basement. Doppler radar prediction systems weren’t developed until the 1970s. Before that it was simple observation and, I suppose, people getting on their telephones and telling the siren man to turn it on! There was some story that the TV would glow like a sword predicting Orcs if a tornado was near but no one wanted to test that information out.

We just hurried down there with our blankets and pillows to wait it out. It was recommended that we hunker down in the southwest corner of the basement because someone said tornadoes traveled from southwest to northeast. Everyone was full of information of unknown origin. Mom and Dad were hurriedly cracking the upstairs windows on the northeast side of the house before joining us. That was supposed to help equalize the pressure if the tornado passed close by so the house wouldn’t explode like a bomb. The pressure inside the house was going to be less than the pressure in the tornado as it passed by.

Luckily our house never exploded and a large tornado never came close, but it was all very frightening in any case. The crack of the lightning and the simultaneous crash of the thunder hurt your ears, and it could be one right after the other. If the storm was farther away, Mom would instruct us to count 1, 2, 3 when we saw the flash and wait for the thunder to have an idea how close the storm was. It was supposed to be one mile for every count. I think this was something to distract us because the storm was obviously right over our heads.

Mom told us that tornadoes left us alone because Indian lore said to build the camp in the crotch of the “Y” juncture of two creeks or rivers. Our little town was fortunately built in such a place. I’ve never heard any scientific explanation for or against this notion but it seemed to work. Tornadoes were always around our little town but never right in it.

wallcloud

Photo courtesy of ExtremeInstability.com

turbulence

Clouds above Paris, Texas – Courtesy of Topix.com 

If it was daylight, we’d stand on the back porch and watch the storm approach. Many times it would be that ominous black and green “wall cloud” that just raises the hackles on your neck. All you Midwesterners know what I’m talking about. Mom said that tornadoes came out of these kinds of clouds the most, and without knowing anything more as a kid I couldn’t argue with that. They just looked mean. Like the gates of “the other place.” It wasn’t just a black cloud. It also had a greenish tinge to it that was really eerie. Just before the wall cloud gust front hit, the air would become deathly still. No birds or crickets could be heard. Just a leaden quiet for minutes and then it hit with a fury and the rain would be so hard you couldn’t see more than a few feet.

Sometimes there would just be turbulence in the clouds and no rain. I remember looking out our window once and seeing little tornadoes form and disappear. How could this not fascinate a person? How could this not spawn a life-long interest in weather and clouds of all types? Well, folks, it did in me and now I even go out and take pictures when we get “lennies” in the mountains to the west. I’m referring to lenticular formation, which is indicative of high winds aloft.

lenticular

Those days are long gone now. But they still live on in me. If I ever go back “home” and a storm blows in, you know where you’ll find me. Living out my childhood memories on the back porch watching the storm.



8/11/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitThis is my French way of saying we got a lot of figs this year! Now the question is what to do with them? Let me say right from the start: I love figs. I like them best right off the tree. It’s just like finding a big patch of wild blackberries. You pick one. You eat one. You pick two. You eat one. The only trouble with fresh figs is birds like them, too! They like them a lot. So it’s a race to see who can get the fresh figs first when they are tree ripe. Is it going to be me or the birds?

This year I am ahead of the birds. Maybe it’s because there are so many figs that the birds just can’t eat any more. (Bird: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!”) As a strategy to make sure I get my share, I have been picking them when they begin to get soft. Just on the verge of being tree ripe. I’d love to let them stay until they fall off the tree but I absolutely know those durn birds will get to them before I can so that’s my strategy. Anyhow, I’m not worried because they ripen nicely on the counter. What a treat!

We were lucky to have the mature trees on our property when we got here. They are Black Mission Figs. They are a common fig in these here parts. Fig trees are so great to have in a garden repertoire because they are tough, tough, tough. They don’t need a lot of water and are resistant to disease. However they aren’t impervious. Last year, when we weren’t looking, the feral burros stripped and ate the bark off the lower trunk of one of the two trees we have.

I’m sorry to say that the part above the bare trunk is slowly expiring. However, the tree still leafed out and bears a lot of fruit. I’m happy to see that new shoots are growing from below the stripped section. The Force is strong in this one! So if the upper part does eventually croak, the root stock will grow a new tree around the failed one. Aren’t they amazing? Now we’re keeping those feral burros far, far away!

fresh

Fresh Figs

Go ahead! Eat them whole right off the tree. Hike your skirts up like an Italian farm girl with her hair in a kerchief and think of Bacchus playing his Pan pipes. There’s something very lusty about eating fresh figs. Figs have a mildly sweet taste. I like them precisely because they aren’t too sweet. Eat it whole. The skin of the fig is 100-percent edible. Just twist off the stem and pop it in your mouth. If you don’t like the texture of the skin, you can peel it off, but I’d never tried it. If you do, let me know how it works!

I also like to eat figs with cheese. My first introduction to figs was by my college boyfriend. What a romantic he was! He’d bring dried figs and cream cheese over to my house and feed them to me by hand. Maybe that’s why I love figs so much. They remind me of my youth and the romance from those times. Fresh or dried figs – it doesn’t matter – are also good with blue cheese or Gorgonzola. I think that whatever dairy product you choose should be sweet and tangy rather than sharp. That is what tastes best in my humble opinion. Halve the figs, spread with cheese and pop them under the broiler for a couple minutes. You can also try mascarpone or crème fraîche. They all work well with the flavor of figs.

Poached figs are lovely and easy. You can poach them on the stove or in a slow cooker. Use roughly 2 cups liquid for every 8 figs. Try red wine or wine that has been simmered with warm spices, like cinnamon, cloves or star anise. You can also use fruit juice or flavored vinegars like balsamic vinegar. Instructions: Simmer the figs for 10 to 15 minutes on the stove or cook the figs on low for 2 hours in the slow cooker. Try poached figs on Greek yogurt or ice cream.

Fresh figs can be used in breads, cakes, muffins and other baked goods. For instance, you can add chopped figs to your favorite peach cobbler or blackberry pie recipe.

drying

Dried Figs

I like to save some of my bounty by drying them. The best indication that a fig is fully ripe is when it falls to the ground. They should be really soft. Pick figs that are whole and don’t have bruises or broken parts. Rinse off any dust or dirt and then pat them dry.

I used welded wire and made a covered rack. Whatever you use make sure it has plenty of ventilation holes for lots of air flow so they don’t get moldy before they’re dry. If insects are a problem, lining the rack with a layer of cheesecloth before setting the figs on top might help. You may need to cover the figs with cheesecloth, too. Tuck the cheesecloth around the drying rack, securing it if necessary to make sure it won't come loose. One layer is enough. We don’t have insects so I just layer my figs inside my little welded wire cage.

Place the rack in full sunlight. It works best when it is very dry and hot outside. A California drought is not much good for anything except sun drying fruit or vegetables. I count my blessings! Don't place the figs in the shade. They won't dry as quickly and may spoil before they've dried all the way.

Let them go for two to three days. Each evening take them inside unless the temperature where you live does not drop more than 20 degrees at night. In the morning, turn the figs over so they dry evenly on all sides. The figs are ready when the outside feels leathery and no juice can be seen on the inside when squeezed. Squeeze one. Then eat it. When they’re done to your satisfaction store them in a cool, dry place.



8/5/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitMy hands are pretty messed up from living on a ranch. My nails are short on purpose and unpainted. The skin is wrinkled. I think of my hands as yet another important tool to get the work done. Not some fluffy, pretty things that are a fashion statement. My husband feels the same way I do, so no argument there.

I sometimes look at my opposable thumb and marvel. Without that evolutionary adjustment we wouldn’t be the Handy Men and Women that we are. The archaeologists called us “Homo Habilis” and it’s so true. We take our abilities for granted, but I like to remind myself what a precious thing it is to be able to hold something. I count my blessings every day.

lineup 

The one thing I can say about my hands is they’re not all banged up. Wrinkled, yes. Dry, yes, Banged up, no. This is because I wear gloves all the time. It seems like I have about 100 pair of gloves, but it’s really only about eight. In the picture above I didn’t include my winter gloves. Those are my summer gloves. This is my favorite pair of gloves.

favorite

They have a leather palm, and they’re washable. They also have a Velcro closure to keep debris from getting inside. Everyday when I feed the critters I use these gloves. Alfalfa isn’t the softest thing in the world and the stems will really poke your hands if you don’t wear gloves. My husband grabs the flakes with his bare hands, but then he’s a MAN and they “don’t need no stinkin’ gloves,” do they? He comes in from working and his hands are all banged up. I think he’s a little bit proud of his ability to endure discomfort. I can endure only so much so I have a lot of gloves. When we go to the hardware store I always go over to the glove display and see what new gloves are there. I’m maxxed out right now so I don’t buy them, but I always like to have at least one pair that is new so if the pair I’m wearing gets soaking wet or some such thing I have another pair that can jump right in and take its place.

My line up of gloves includes one pair that have the tips cut off so I can pick small things up without taking the glove off. I also have a pair of left and right hand golf gloves – of all things – because they turned out to be thin enough so when I need protection for doing something fine they are just the ticket. I have some deer skin gloves that are great for riding horses.

I think there should be an art exhibit of gloves somewhere sometime. I think it would be interesting to gaze at each pair and speculate what the owner did and how they must have saved the owner’s hands from discomfort while helping them do a task that would have been very unpleasant un-gloved. I think there’s beauty in a mundane object like a well-worn glove.





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