Putting Up in Happy Valley

Preserving [My] Sanity in Central Pa.


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Grange Fair WATCH: The Reveal, part one

As I was walking my dog, Finn McCool, this morning I was thinking that this would have been a great day to be waking up at Grange Fair. As not only a county fair but an encampment of 950 tents and 1300 recreational vehicles—the largest of its kind in the United States—the Centre County Grange Fair hosts hundreds (even thousands) of overnight guests for more than a week in late August.

Grange Fair tents

It was in the mid-50s last night; great sleeping weather. Children are still cocooned in their sleeping bags, their parents awake but bleary-eyed (hard work keeping track of teenagers at the Fair!). Gram and Pap are not only awake but already have had their coffee and are reading the obituaries in the CDT (“Hey, Dad, looks like [fill in name] won’t be at the Fair this year”). There is a low fog in the Bald Eagle Valley where I live; no doubt, in Penns Valley at the Fair, as well.

It would be like waking up in Brigadoon. Only in an RV.

Today is the day I find out how many prizes I’ve won in the canned fruits and vegetables exhibit competition. I say “how many” as opposed to “if” because Fifth Place is still a win. I entered canned items in thirty categories and, in the end, managed to finish twenty-six on my list.  Earlier in the week, I had dejectedly  resigned myself to twenty-two entries. I hadn’t enough time to finish (I do have a full-time job, after all) and I was spent. But, at 5 a.m. on Thursday (the day the entries had to be submitted), I got a second wind and rallied to the final count. Raspberry Wine Jelly with Basil & Garlic was number twenty-six.

On Thursday morning, I schlepped my jars over Centre Hall Mountain. At the top of the mountain, if you pull into the Mount Nittany Inn parking lot, you can see down into the fairgrounds. The wide sea of cars, RVs, tents, fair rides, and concession stands below is unmistakeable.

The portable road sign was familiarly flashing  “CONGESTED TRAFFIC AREA AHEAD.” Going down the mountain at 11 a.m. was pretty clear, until I got to Church Street (Route 192), still a half-mile easy from finding a place to park at the Fair. (Finding a primo parking spot is always uppermost in every Fair-goer’s mind.) That night, after the Grange Fair Queen coronation, Your Dad’s Friends was playing at the Grandstand, so I knew that a much longer string of cars would be lined up the mountain later in the day.

Some of these folks were probably going where I was going, the Exhibits hall. Little did they know that my peach jam was going to beat the skin off their peach jam.

After entering Gate 1, and buying my week-long entry ticket and parking pass, I found a spot in Row 7 of the Lily parking section, about thirty cars in. Not too bad. I have two large boxes of filled jars, so they’re pretty heavy. The small dolly I borrowed from my office (for the Fair three years ago) came in really handy walking over the grass and gravel.

The Exhibits hall on Thursday morning

The line at the check-in table at the Exhibits hall entrance was relatively short and I was able to move inside to the catagory-tagging area fairly quickly. The ladies there were complimentary of my lid decoration and, as is inevitable when canners meet, we talked about recipes. I was anxious to see how many cherry-related entries there would be at this year’s Fair, since a hard spring frost had eviscerated  the overall cherry crop in Central Pa., as well as in other cherry-producing areas of the Northeast and Midwest. But it was too soon to tell.

The submition process seemed more organized this year, and I left the hall feeling pretty confident. A warm peach dumpling (baked fresh on-site) awaited me at the Bissinger concession stand.

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“A mango and a green pepper walk into a bar. . . .”

A mango and a green pepper walk into Central Pa. bar.

The bartender yells, “Hey, YOU! Git outta here!  We don’t serve your kind!”

The tropical fruit says (in her best Robert Di Niro voice), “You talkin’ ta ME?”

The bartender says, “No, I’m talkin’ to the mango.”

If you’re not from Central or Northeast Pennsylvania you probably don’t get this joke.

About twelve years ago, in my first summer as a homeowner in Unionville, Centre County, my then-new neighbor Ellen Solt shared with me her recipe for salsa. I was not only touched by her neighborliness but I was impressed with the recipe, which included “2 mangoes” along with the standard tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, etc. “How positively hip!,” I thought. Most of my “town” (State College) friends were foodies and mango salsa was then all the rage. They would never believe that the trend had already made it over Purdue Mountain.

I made Ellen’s salsa and proudly shared it with her and her husband, Rod. I still remember the looks of puzzlement—even suspicion, I thought—on their faces; they kept looking at each other as they tasted my salsa, then looked at me, at each other, again at me, nodding slowly. Clearly, they thought either I was a bad cook or I was crazy, and in my crowd being a bad cook was definitely worse.

A full year later, I was sharing the story with another neighbor, Cathy Spahn, who had offered to let me process tomatoes for sauce using the Victorio strainer that was semi-permanently affixed to her backyard picnic table. It was Cathy who kindly explained to me where mangoes came from, that they were—at least in the context of many a Unionville salsa recipe—GREEN PEPPERS.

DictionRY.COM defines a mango as “the oblong, sweet fruit of a tropical tree,” “the tree itself,” or in the “Midland U.S. (chiefly the Ohio Valley), a sweet pepper.” While all of my Unionville neighbors knew of mangoes and mangoes, no one I knew from Blair County had heard of a green pepper being called a “mango.”

In a September 2010  article for the Winston-Salem Journal, Richard Creed gives some historical background on the homonymous edibles:

“I have learned that [referring to a green pepper as a “mango”] occurs or has occurred in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois and Missouri. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says that it is a Midland usage, mostly in the Ohio Valley. . . . Mangos (the real thing) that were imported into the American colonies were from the East Indies. Transport was slow. Refrigeration was not available, so the mangos were pickled for shipment.

Because of that, people began referring to any pickled vegetable or fruit as a mango. A 1699 cookbook refers to ‘a mango of cucumbers’ and ‘mango of walnuts.’ And it came to pass that anything that could be pickled was a mango. One of the most popular dishes was bell peppers stuffed with spiced cabbage and pickled. The dish became so popular that bell peppers, pickled or not, became known as mangos. In the early 18th century, mango became a verb meaning to pickle.”

COMING SOON . . . my recipe for Mango-Mango Salsa


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Grange Fair WATCH: The entries

The 2012 Centre County Grange Fair and Encampment takes place in Centre Hall, Pa., August 23-30. For me, “The Fair” proper begins on Thursday the 25th, when I make my way over Centre Hall Mountain in my Ford pick-up, schlepping my entries in the Home and Dairy Products Department to the Exhibit Hall for judging.  I have already completed my entry form, paid my $1.00 entry fee (not $1.00 per entry—that’s one dollar PERIOD, TOTAL, for all of the 30 categories I entered), and submitted it by the deadline of August 5th. Judging takes place on Friday the 26th, with the winners usually announced by 5 p.m.

This year I have entered in only two “Sections” in Department 15:

  • Sec. 2: Canned and Dried Products
  • Sec. 4: Butters, Honey Spreads, Jams, Jellies, and Preserves

 

I have won quite a few prizes in years past—including dozens of firsts—but,  in the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that none of the entries in these categories are tasted by the judges. Jams and jellies are judged on “appearance, consistency and neatness of package,” pickles and relishes on “uniformity, clearness, color, and arrangement.” It’s kind of like Aunt Bee’s pickles but in reverse. I’m sure there are good reasons for leaving the food untouched—liability issues, health codes, the subjectivity of “Yum!”, the inevitable intestinal distress one would likely experience after tasting from hundreds of put-up products, including home-canned BEEF TONGUE (just looking at it makes me woozy). Nonetheless, people are surprised when I tell them that taste is not part of the deal.

These are the 30 items I am entering (assuming I finish them all before next Thursday):

  • Pickled beans
  • Pickled beets (I’ve won first four years in a row and placed every year)
  • Pickled cauliflower
  • Chow-chow
  • Pickled peppers
  • Piccalilli
  • Miscellaneous pickle (always my favorite because I can use my imagination)
  • Bread and butter pickle (a VERY competitive class)
  • Mixed Pickle
  • Pepper Relish
  • Miscellaneous Relish (another personal favorite)
  • Salsa
  • Miscellaneous sauce (wait and see; I think I have a sure winner in this class!)
  • Spiced peaches (may not get this one done)
  • Any other spiced fruit (nor this one)
  • Blackberry jam
  • Cherry jam
  • Currant jam
  • Elderberry jam (the birds ate my elderberries, so unless I find some before Thursday, this one will be a no-show)
  • Peach jam
  • Plum jam
  • Black raspberry jam
  • Red raspberry jam
  • Rhubarb jam
  • Strawberry jam (I’m not thrilled with mine this year)
  • Blueberry jam
  • Any other jam
  • Cherry jelly (I usually don’t put up jellies—little room for error, the delicious fruit pulp is wasted)
  • Any other jelly
  • Display of three jellies (a few years ago I won first in this class with red [raspberry], white [apple], and blue [blueberry] pepper jellies)

 

Lest you go all existential and wonder “What is the point?,” there are cash prizes:  Generally, $3.00 for 1st, $2.50 for 2nd, $2.00 for 3rd, $1.50 for 4th, and $1.00 for 5th.

 

A few years back, my winnings totaled $93.00.


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August is exhausting

August may be the busiest month for jarheads (enthusiastic canners). Working full time and getting enough jam, peaches, cherries, beets, various other pickled things, salsa, and spaghetti sauce put up for the winter can be a real BEAR!

A Real Bear. Photo Courtesy Therese Boyd.

You’re lucky if you get the bread-and-butter pickles done in time for the Fair (more on the Centre County Grange Fair to come).

Something I’m probably going to miss this year is Ag Progress Days, August 14–16, at Penn State’s Russell E. Larson Ag Research Center at Rock Springs (west of State College on Rt. 45). Bob Oberheim, APD manager, noted on Penn State Live: “[Ag Progress Days] allows the College of Agricultural Sciences to highlight for the public and producers the land-grant research and cutting-edge technologies that drive our food system. . . . Also, consumers can learn more about how their food is produced and get information on health and nutrition, home gardening and other topics that can help improve their daily lives.”

Among the APD program sessions this year are the vegetable—

  • High Tunnel Research and Education
  • Sustainable and Organic Cropping Systems

 

the mineral—

  • Protecting Private Water Supplies from Natural Gas Drilling
  • Short-Rotation Woody Crops for Biomass Tour

 

and the animal—

  • Fiber: The Unsung Hero of Your Horse’s Diet
  • Equine Acupuncture

 

Speaking as a human who has benefited immensely from the subjects of these last two sessions, I wonder if The Pie’s results are similar to my own.


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What’s in a name

Coming up with a blog name is like a make-believe band name popping into your head. There is never just one—there is an ever-evolving list.

  • The Three Katies
  • ZaZu and the Pits
  • Finn McCool and the Giants
  • Punk Domestics

 

Oh, wait; that last one is taken.

Finally, you settle on one you think is perfect—says everything about your off-beat vision, your seasonal obsession, YOU in a few words.

  • Jarhead Chronicles

 

Jarhead: think slang term for someone who is highly enthusiastic about canning fruits and vegetables, can’t get enough homemade jam, and likes to tinker with recipes year-round. Think cheesehead, crackhead, motorhead, respectively. Also, a canning jar aficionado.

At my first reveal,  however, a few friends immediately made ouchy faces. “This could be an insult to Marines,” they said. “Crap,” I said. I had already done my research. The way I saw it, there was only one degree of separation between Jarhead the Marine and Jarhead the Super Canner. As legend and the Internet have it, this nickname for a Marine may have come from how their tight-collared dress blues gave them the appearance of a Mason jar (see Gunny G). It certainly made sense to me.

In a few days, I was feeling insecure enough in my blog-name choice to ponder a politically correct retreat (these are tough political times, after all). Before I changed it (to WHAT, for God’s sake!), though, I thought I’d better ask, say, someone who actually knew a Marine. My neighbor Cathy Spahn’s husband, Joe, was a Marine, and she didn’t think he would have been insulted at all. I was vindicated, right?

After all that, then, why didn’t I go with “Jarhead Chronicles”? Not to be PC.  You see, I have this tendency when I’m in a restaurant with friends to make the perfect menu choice and then, when the server finally gets to me, to change my mind. The second choice is inevitably more delicious. More e-relevant, however, is that even after I posted entries to my “Jarhead Chronicles” blog I was lost among the many, MANY links for the 2005 Sam Mendes film Jarhead, based on the memoirs of Gulf War sniper Anthony Swofford and starring cute-as-a-button Jake Gyllenhaal. (Rotten Tomatoes lists it as 61% on the Tomatometer.)

Why I picked THIS name is another story. . . .