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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poem: Potluck: Moon

We have continued our tradition of Tuesday evening farm potlucks, even with the colder weather, though it may be time to quit for the winter. Our tradition has included, in addition to the blessing (usually eloquently delivered by Tom), the reading of a poem. We want our farmers to be cultivated, as well as the farm.

Last night I read one of Gary Snyder's poems. I don't always like them, but every once in a while that translucent simplicity is just perfection. As I read to the hungry circle, I watched the moon, a thin golden crescent, just above the hills. Overnight, somehow, this description arrived. It's all mine, though I hope maybe Gary Snyder in one of his lucid and not too sentimental moments would like it too.

Potluck on Sulphur Creek

November moon: an empty bowl,
shining in reflected light,
dragging darkness behind
like an old coat,
a beggar’s cup,
balanced on the hill.

Come. Join us.
Here, sit here. This is my spot
by the fire pit.
You can borrow my good friend and
this plate, this food the work
of many hands. The sweet potatoes
grew right over there.
Someone has a banjo. There’s a guitar,
and at least one dog.
The creek has stopped to listen.
Tom throws a log
on the fire. We lean in
to the circle of light, watch
the beggar’s cup moon
tip over the hill, still empty,
don’t mind the darkness
it left behind.

Come. Join us. We
have plenty.
It is not much, but it is

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sorghum on Sulphur Creek

Neglect a blog for a couple of weeks, and see what happens...right-wingers take over the country. I'll try not to let this happen again. Meanwhile, let's think about something sweet.

"Did Dr. John ever get that second quart I left him?" The rangy gray-haired man, sporting a Santa Gertrudis belt buckle, leaned over the counter at the nurses' station. The husband of a patient of mine, he had just established that "Dr. Tom" was in fact related to me, and that he and his wife were enthusiastic members of the Dr. Tom fan club. (I benefit from the fringe good will!)

He was talking about sorghum, and no, Tom had not gotten the second quart, and yes, the half-empty quart on our kitchen table was from the James farm in Russellville, Kentucky.

It was a slow day at Stallworth. Here's what I learned about sorghum from this man who is obviously a master.

About half an acre of sorghum cane produced 350 gallons of juice, which boils down to about 40-50 gallons of syrup. But not easily.

After many experiments, he found the best way to grow sorghum is to start the plants in a float bed, trays of cells floating on water, a technique used by tobacco farmers. He then plants them out in precise rows using his tobacco planter, and keeps them weed-free. When harvest time comes, he walks the rows and cuts off the leaves and tops with a pocketknife. A few days later, he hand cuts the cane and piles it on the back of a truck. ("Some folks just crush it, leaves and all, but that just in't right. It'll spoil easy.") The cane must spend at least two weeks stacked, in order to maximize the development of sugar, but can spend a couple of months without harm, as long as it doesn't freeze.

Then he runs the cane through his crusher (bought second hand in Florida and so powerful "you could feed a couple of guys into it if ya wanted to"). The juice goes into a metal tray he custom-built--8 feet by 4 feet by 18 inches deep--which sits on a double row of concrete blocks with the fire built between them , and cooks down. Different impurities and chemicals rise to the surface at different times in the process, and have to be skimmed off--"made my skimmers out of pie plates with holes punched in the bottoms".

I'm not sure how long the juice takes to cook, since I was so distracted by the complexities of decanting a tray of boiling hot syrup measuring 8ftx4ftx18 inches. Not to worry. "Made one corner a little bit lower and have a spigot there", so the syrup can just be drained off into clean buckets, cooled, and poured into the stainless steel honey tank he bought for just this purpose. It, too, has a spigot, and he can fill quart jars at his leisure.

No sorghum this year, due to his wife's very serious health problems, but we hope we have those under control now, so maybe next year will be back on track at the James farm.

What a smart farmer knows: this man and his wife are encyclopedias of Kentucky agriculture. The Japanese designate masters of traditional lore as "national treasures"--I would nominate him in a skinny minute. Santa Gertrudis belt buckle and all.

In the meantime, Sunday biscuits with sorghum.