Our Fair Field

The First Day of Spring

Renee headshotHow do you know it's the first day of spring in orchard country?

If you said, "Look at the calendar and see what's written there," you would, unfortunately, be wrong. You might also say something like, "Well, it's the first day of spring when the bees are buzzing and the trees start to bloom." You'd be pretty close, but no cigar!

Around here, the first day of spring is when your house is dive-bombed by a crop duster.

crop duster 1
Here comes the villain

It is always on Sunday — just when you've decided to sleep in before you finally admit you need to drag yourself out of bed to feed the livestock and then be on time for church. Are you kidding? On this first day of spring, there's absolutely no sleeping in.

Why does it have to be Sunday? Think of all the lovely days of the week that are perfectly suitable for the First Day flyover. There's the wonderful Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. There's even Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. But, NO. It's got to be Sunday for some reason. I can just see the pilot maniacally laughing as he does his low flyover on the way to the almond orchards.

"Ha ha! Just try to sleep in! Ha ha! It's the Red Baron in his biplane and I have the controls!" The house rattles. The horses, sheep, chickens, and ducks scatter! You go out the back door and glare and the pilot just tips his wings in acknowledgement and comes back again in two minutes. I can think of a number of ways to exact revenge — none of them safe. I guess I'd rather be dive-bombed than crashed into. However, a giant slingshot loaded with cow manure comes to mind. Ready! Aim! Fire!

crop duster 4
Take that! You scoundrel!

The true solution for the First Day of Spring is to get out of bed early, ahead of the villain, and head for the local cafe for ham and eggs over-easy with a big cup of joe. See you there!

Funny Name, Great Flavor!

Renee headshotMy mother frequently made a simple macaroni dish during my childhood. She called it "slumgullion," and we kids gobbled it up like there was no tomorrow.

I don't know where my mom got this recipe, and unfortunately she's gone, so I went to the internet and looked to see what I could find about this delectable dish. It turns out that there's a few cultures that have recipe using the name "slumgullion," which, frankly, does not sound very appealing. And, as it also turns out, it was not very appealing long ago because sometimes it was made from fish offal. It was described as “the watery refuse, mixed with blood and oil, which drains from blubber," and that sure ain't appetizing, is it? In the Gold Rush of 1849, slumgullion was the name for the muddy deposits at a mining sluice. And, finally, it came to mean a watery stew.

Back in the day, there was no firm recipe; they just used what they had. Meat was scarce, so sometimes sparrows or pigeons went into the stew. Onions and salt were added, presumably to kill the odor of the not-so-great cooking meat. Vegetables would round it out, and if they had flour, they thickened it. Slumgullion falls into the category of a clean-out-the-refrigerator type of meal. My mom made it this way. How do you make it?

My Mother's Slumgullion

8 servings


• 1 (16 ounce) package elbow macaroni
• 1 pound lean ground beef
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 2 teaspoons minced garlic
• salt and pepper to taste
• 1 (14.5 ounce) can stewed tomatoes



1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes according to package directions; drain and place in large saucepan.


2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, brown beef over medium heat; just before beef is browned, stir in onion.


3. Add beef mixture to pasta and stir in garlic, salt, pepper and stewed tomatoes. Mix it all up and cook over low heat, 10 to 15 minutes, or until heated through. I don't know how, but the stewed tomatoes make a kind of sauce over the whole thing so it's moist and delicious.


Celery, mushrooms, and other meats such as leftover steak and cooked chicken are also good to add if you have them. I like to sprinkle bread crumbs or Parmesan cheese on it.

It's super easy and quite tasty. Anyway, we kids thought it was the best thing since sliced bread!

Easy, Homemade, Fire Starters

Renee headshotMy husband, dear one that he is, comes down most decidedly on the side of practicality in almost every situation. For example, for years he has been using lighter fluid to start our woodstove fires. It's cheap and readily available. In our drafty, old, mobile home when we lived on the ranch, I didn't mind so much when the house reeked of jet fuel in the mornings. It burned away quickly, and then we were about our business. He didn't like using newspaper to get the fire started because, well, first you have to have newspaper and there's no way I'm subscribing just to get stuff to start a fire. Besides, paper tends to make a LOT of ash, and who wants to clean more than you have to? So there. We were subjected to jet fuel in the morning.

Here in our new home, with its brand-new windows and no leaks as far as I can discern, the jet-fuel smell lingers just a tad longer than I care for. So, what to do? I decided I would make my own "fatwood" or fire starters. Looking at the expensive fatwood package in the store, I saw that it is nothing more than resinous wood. To have fatwood, we would have to make a trip up to the mountains. Someday we will. Fire starters are easy to make right now instead. The fire starters are only paraffin and wood particles. Luckily, I have paraffin leftover from candle-making. Paraffin is not exactly cheap, but I won't be using that much. A little goes a long way.

I proceeded full steam ahead.

The next question was what to mix in with the paraffin to make what is essentially a hot candle. I looked around. First, we went to the lumber yard. No luck there. All their sawdust was mixed up; I needed straight wood-saw dust, not sawdust with OSB or treated wood mixed in. Remember, I was trying to be pristine and healthful here and not go back to noxious, poisonous fumes.

When we got home, I remembered that we had cedar shavings for the dog kennel. Voila! Let's try 'er and see what happens. After a little experimentation, I found a recipe that works like a charm.

Homemade Fire Starters

7 finished

For 12 small fire starters, enough for 6 fires, you will need:

• 5 ounces paraffin
• no-stick pot with spouts
• small muffin tin with 12 slots
• foil
• a couple cups of cedar shavings
• double boiler (or 2 pots, one slightly larger than the other so they nest)

1. Take your paraffin and put it in the smaller pot, or in the top of your double boiler. I got my small pot from a secondhand store, and it is dedicated to making candles and cosmetics. The best kind of pot is one that you can pour from either side.

2 melt

2. With water in your large pot or the bottom of your double boiler, put your small pot in the slightly larger pot so that it's resting on the sides just above the water. Bring it to the boil. Boil until all the paraffin is melted. Keep an eye on the paraffin and the water level. Two things: don't let the pot boil dry, and remember that the paraffin is flammable. That's why we use a double boiler rather than direct flame; we don't want it to get too hot and burst into flame!

(Important safety tip: if you ever have a fire like this, do NOT throw water on it. I repeat, DO NOT throw water on it. The way to put it out is to smother it with a pot lid. Throwing water on it will cause an explosion!)

4 line

3. While the paraffin is melting, line your muffin tins with foil. Try to make it so there is no way that the paraffin can leak out. It's not a big disaster if it does, but you will have a much easier time peeling away the foil if the paraffin stays inside of it. A single piece of foil is good. I cut rounds and then carefully lined the muffin trays.

5 stuff

4. Stuff as many cedar shavings into the trays as you can. Push them down. Cram them in.

6 pour

5. When your paraffin is melted, pour a little bit of paraffin in each pile of cedar shavings. Just enough to get the shavings wet. You don't want a big old cake of paraffin; little bit of paraffin goes a long way.

6. Then, just let them set on the counter. If you want to speed things up, put the whole she-bang in the freezer.

8 stove

When you go to use them, just put a little platform made from a couple of sticks of kindling in your hearth or stove. Then, put a couple of the "pucks" on top of the little platform. Pile a few more sticks of kindling on the pucks. Light the puck with a match or lighter wand and pile up more kindling. The kindling will light because the pucks will burn for a while. Long enough to catch the kindling on fire. Then you're on your way!

Happy Yuletide!

Homemade Baked Beans

Renee headshotsunny beach

We went to Santa Maria the other day. It's nice to be able to go to the coast, even when it's not hot. There's something about that great, big, huge ocean that soothes the soul. While we were there, I had to get some poquito beans. Now that we don't live up north next to Anna and Ed, I have no way of getting them except by mail order, which I'm not going to do. It's not that much of an emergency. Anna and Ed used to be our reliable suppliers, and we miss those two dearly.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I have to wait until there's a reason to make the journey and get some poquito beans where we're already going. So when we made plans to go to the area where they grow the beans, and where they got their fame as a side dish to the well-known Santa-Maria-style barbecue, I thought, "Well, let's get some beans while we're there!"

We drove around and then had a nice hike to the beach. On the way back, it was time to hunt up a grocery store that sold the beans. I felt that a local store would be more likely to have them than a big chain store. The first place we went to was the local Spencer's. I went directly to the dried bean section and was immediately disappointed. I'm not accepting this, I said, so found a clerk and asked, "Where are your poquito beans?" Sure enough, they did have them. They were just in the produce section and in bulk. I bought three pounds, and now I'm going to make baked beans.

Poquito beans are so nice because they don't turn to mush. They hold their shape. Below is my personalized recipe. My husband likes canned Campbell's baked beans, so I try to make them taste like that.


Serves 6


• 1 lb. dried poquito beans
• 1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, chopped
• 1/2 large onion, chopped
• 1/4 cup tomato paste or 1/2 cup tomato sauce
• 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
• 1/4 cup molasses
• 1 teaspoon dry mustard
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 teaspoon salt
Optional: reserved soaking water with chicken bouillon


1. Cover your beans with cold water and soak them overnight.


2. When you're ready to start, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F.

3. Put a 3-quart or larger, oven-safe pot over medium heat. (I use an enamel-coated iron pot like a Creuset. Mine is a Creuset knock-off that I found at a garage sale. It's a Martha Stewart brand, and it works fine and is a cute red. To make it work in the oven, I removed the original plastic knob and put on a metal knob. I used a drawer pull from the hardware store and fastened it with a locking nut.) A small, iron, Dutch oven would work, too.


4. Add the chopped, uncooked bacon and onion. Cook about 10 minutes, until the onions are nice and soft.


5. Now stir in the tomato, brown sugar, and molasses. Here's a hint: If you coat your measuring cup lightly with oil, the molasses will pour out cleanly, without sticking.

6. Drain the beans and save the liquid. We'll use that in a minute. Now, add the beans to the pot. Then add enough of the saved liquid to cover the beans. I add a teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon chicken bouillon to the liquid for added flavor. Vegetable bouillon would be great, too, and would make it vegan or vegetarian.


7. Increase the heat to high and allow the beans to boil. Now add the mustard, black pepper, and salt. Stir and cover the pot with a lid. Place the whole shebang in the oven and bake until the beans are soft. Check them after an hour passes to see how they're doing, and then on an hourly basis until they are the texture you like. I like them on the crunchy side, but you may like them softer.

This is going to be our dinner tonight with good sourdough bread and a glass of beer. Simple, nourishing, homemade food.

Uncle Carlos' Strange Carrot

From our Family's Album of Gardening Lore:

I found this clipping in my family album and thought it would be fun to share with all the Capper's Readers. I'm sure you all have oddly-shaped vegetable stories, too!

December 23rd, 1976


This strange-looking item was brought into the Time-Republican office by Mrs. Engelbrecht. It weighs three pounds. She stated at the time: "The strange, unusual vegetable is actually numerous vegetables in one. Mr. Seggebruch of Belmont Acres has a beautiful garden each year, and when he showed this strange-looking freak to me, I thought it would be interesting to have a picture of it in the Times. Last year, when he dug the carrots, he picked this one out to put back into the ground in the corner of his garden and see if he could reap some good seed from it. Well, it came up again this spring in a cluster of tops, but no seed. When it was time to dig again, this is what Mr. Seggebruch found. One huge carrot, cracked open in several places, and one can see many little carrots through those 'windows,' twisted and packed inside. A fantastic and unusual sight to behold. I am his sister, and that's the way it is."

What odd looking vegetables have you found in your garden?

A Baby's Bed

Renee-Lucie BenoitMy Aunt J has been cleaning out her attic. I wish I was there to help her. If I was, we'd go through the boxes and eventually discover something she forgot was there. Then we'd tell stories to each other about the thing we found and what it meant to our family. My Aunt J is the last of the children from my Grandma and Grandpa on my mother's side. She's got a treasure trove up there in that attic that she either inherited or was given by many of our relatives. For example, when I found the kraut cutter that had belonged to my great-grandfather that my dad had borrowed to make kraut, it was a momentous occasion. My dad's wife had passed, and we looked around for it in the old ranch house near Laurel, Iowa, and found it in the laundry room in good condition. It sure did evoke memories. When I look at an old piece, I can imagine the person who originally owned it and see them using it. This is our family's history personified in an object.

As for Aunt J, she found a baby crib up there in the attic.

She told me the babies that she knows for sure slept in it: Aunt Audrey, Aunt J herself, me, and her two daughters. That's four generations right there. She thinks some other cousins' kids used it, too, but she's not sure who. She's going to donate it to their local Historical Museum.

There's nostalgia in the flowers that were painted on the frame. They were painted by my mother when I was born.  I think of all the people in our family who are now gone. The baby's bed reminds me of childhood days swinging on the porch in the sultry Illinois afternoons. Picking blackberries in the gigantic patch between my grandmother's house and old Mrs. Roberts and trying not to get poked by the bushes. Having a picnic in the yard at my Aunt Leona's and riding the pony very fast through the corn rows.

 baby bed

I wish the bed was up to the safety standards of today. I would take it for my daughter's kids to sleep in. It's over 80 years old and in really good shape. Things were made better then, heavier, and in those days stuff lasted if you took care of it. Not like the modern plastic. No, it was solid wood, turned on a lathe by hand, painted by hand, made one at a time in the U.S.A.

Raisins — The Inside Scoop

Renee-Lucie BenoitWhen I was a little kid, my mother gave us raisins as a snack all the time. She knew they were nutritious, and the little boxes they came in were perfect for the lunch box. Later, my mother figured out that the little boxes were costing her more, and she started wrapping a handful of raisins in wax paper for our lunch boxes. We kids gobbled them up. We didn't give them another thought.

Picture-perfect Thompson seedless grapes being turned into raisins by the power of the sun.

Now that I am older and live in one of the premier raisin producing areas of the world — if not the most — I have found that there are things I took for granted about raisins and other fruit. I mention prunes as an example: I always assumed that a prune was a type of fruit, and you took a prune off the tree and dried it. Now I know that prunes are dried plums. In a similar way, I didn't realize raisins came from grapes, and I certainly didn't think they came from the same type of grape we ate fresh.

When we first moved to California's San Joaquin Valley, I saw grapes laid down on the ground on what seemed to be paper between the rows of the vines. What was this? Marty, my husband from Bakersfield, said "Oh, those are raisins." Raisins, I said? "That's the way they dry them," he said. That got my curiosity going, so then and there I vowed to learn more.

Fortunately, through my local CSA I found Three Sisters Organic. Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a third generation farm near Fresno. They grow table, wine, and raisin grapes. We visited the farm on a warm September day at the height of harvest. We pulled up to a clean, new office barn and were greeted by Johnni. Joe and Natalie joined us later.

Natalie, Johnnie and Joe

Johnni Soghomonian is the wife of Joe, whose father first farmed the land. Joe's father came from Armenia after making his way cross-country from Cuba and the east coast. He started with 40 acres. Then Joe was born, and the farm eventually grew to 60 acres. Joe's grandfather came from an area in Armenia where the climate and the agriculture are very similar to California's. So even though no one knows for sure, it seems very likely that they were familiar with grape-growing methods. So they started working diligently, and pretty soon they had the grapes, eggs, and chickens that they sold at the early farmers markets.

Years went by, and Joe met Johnni. They married, and today the farm is named after their three daughters: Christa, Celeste, and Natalie. Natalie runs the operation. We all sat at an antique table that came down from Johnni's grandmother. We talked about what it was like to run a small farm.

"You keep your back strong."

Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a successful farm because they live by one special rule: Don't spend tomorrow's capital. This is good advice for the rest of us, especially if we're contemplating or involved in a small homestead. Through hard work and dedication, the Soghomonians put their profits back into the farm and now have 600 acres. They went 100-percent organic in 1979 and were certified in 1982 (before it was fashionable). They did this because Joe was not pleased to find his fields devoid of animal and insect life. Things are much better being organic, even though in some ways they are harder. It's easier to be a conventional grower, but it's so much more gratifying to be certified organic. Customers are coming around to this way of thinking.

Natalie plants her grape vines in late winter or early spring after danger of frost is gone. The young vines are trained up stakes. After the vines are 3 years old, they get their first crop. At TSO, they grow Zante currents, Flame variety for table grapes and raisins, "natural" Thompson seedless for raisins, and Jumbo Thompson for table grapes and raisins. They also have wine grapes: Colombard, Grenache, Carignane, and Muscat. Ribier is their seeded variety. Another seedless is the Crimson varietal.

Natalie says: "Eat the seeds. There's a lot of nutrition there!"

Cover crops are planted in between the rows in winter and tilled under in late spring. The vines are pruned in winter to leave 4-5 canes.

Demonstrating where the cut is made when pruning

Then they take off the existing crop canes, leaving the remaining canes that will produce the next year's crop.

Handpicking is mandatory for the delicate grapes

The grapes are picked when the sugar tests at the appropriate level. They are picked by hand because of their fragility. To get the land ready to dry grapes to make the raisins, the soil is tilled between the vine rows to make it smooth and terraced slightly to the south so the slight slope of the rows catch the rays of the sun better. Also, vine rows are normally planted on a east/west axis to take full advantage of the direction of the sun.

Grapes are laid on poly paper on an east/west axis to take full advantage of the sun

When the grapes are picked and laid on poly-lined paper trays, they dry for 10 days to two weeks. The weather of the San Joaquin Valley is perfect for this, because there's very little danger of rain and there's little concern about ants or birds stealing a few raisins here and there. There's plenty to go around on 600 acres.

Folded poly trays are ready to be picked up

raisin bins
If you're bold like me, you blow off the sand and they taste good right now!

The dried grapes are shaken to get rid of the sand, and then they're washed and stemmed. Three Sisters only ships grade 1 (the highest grade) to be sold as table grapes. What is not selected goes to the making of the raisins. What little is left over after that goes to distilleries or cow feed, so nothing goes to waste. In addition to their own rigorous standards, their product is subjected to USDA inspection and a safety audit before and after processing. They are different from most growers in that they sell their products direct to the consumer or user. Most growers sell their product to packers so there is an extra step that results in the consumer getting a mixture from a lot of different farms. When you buy from TSO, you know you're getting products that only TSO have grown.

The other thing that they have is a unique custom pack where their raisins go to cold storage or are frozen the day they're packaged. With other methods, the raisins will sit out and dry even more. Doing it the way TSO does it results in plump raisins that have a lovely, moist texture. The raisins defrost on their way to the buyer, so they stay really fresh and consistent.

In addition to direct-to-consumer sales, the raisins are sold to the better bakeries for breads, cookies, and pastries, but grapes are also used for juice concentrate and canneries (think fruit cocktail, for example). I bet you didn't know this: all those brown raisins are from the green Thompson grape variety. Golden raisins are Thompsons but with sulfur dioxide added to keep them from turning brown.

I have a greater appreciation for raisins and grapes today. Go have some yourself and enjoy!

Three Sisters Organic/Soghomomian Farms
8624 S Chestnut Ave
Fresno, CA 93725