The Feeling of Backsliding

This post isn’t so much about any new homemaking/homesteading adventure that I’m trying out, as much as it’s about my new life, in general and an unexpected pitfall I’ve found myself having to address.  Before I got married, I lived in a bigger city and worked full time at a job that kept me fairly active throughout the day.  I was an assistant teacher in a preschool, and so in the mornings I could walk to work from where I lived (it was about a mile and a half away) and then I spent all day chasing the kids around, and walked home in the afternoon.  Exercise was pretty much built into my day, and I liked it that way.  I ate healthily, got in a fair bit of walking as part of my daily routine and found that I could maintain a pretty healthy weight, just by going about my life.  Since I got married, however, that has changed.

I moved to a smaller town and, as much as I love SO MANY things about living here, there is one thing about city life, that I am beginning to feel may have been very healthy for me.  Here, there is not nearly as much opportunity for walking, and so that healthy part of my lifestyle has been largely removed.  I can’t walk to the grocery store because it is multiple miles away.  Plus, I am shopping for two now, so there is no way (short of taking a pack mule along for the journey) that I could get all the groceries back with me.  Secondly, I have been fortunate enough to have a job through my former professor in graduate school, which allows me to work from home part time.  So, I am no longer walking the 3 mile round trip to work and back every day.  Work for me now, consists of sitting on a couch or at a desk, in front of a computer for hours.  Which, as I’m sure many of us can attest to, is incredibly less energy consuming than trying to keep up with 3 to 5 year olds all day.  And though I try to keep busy around the house and find tasks to do to keep me moving around and keep me active, the sad truth is that in the two months since I’ve gotten married, I’ve put on, what feels on my body like, the “Marriage 10”.  (Similar to the college freshman 15, just without all of the crappy dorm food and late night take-out.)

Perhaps for some people. this wouldn’t be that big a deal.  It’s not that much weight, and in theory it wouldn’t take too long to make some lifestyle changes and slim back down to perhaps even healthier a weight than I was when I got married.  But for me, it feels like quite the failure, because this is a battle I’ve fought (and won) once before.  For most of my life, I had a weight problem.  Beginning at the age of around 12, I was overweight throughout my adolescence and into early adulthood.  I was fairly active in extra-curricular activities in high school that kept me at around 165lbs on my 5’6 frame, but there was no denying that I had a bit of extra meat on my bones.  After high school, though, the physical activity that I had been getting was gone, and when I went to college, my weight skyrocketed, peaking when I was 20 years old, at around 240lbs.  I was miserable every day and shut myself away from most people, never wanting to do anywhere or do anything in public for fear of being fat-shamed.  In fact, my worst fear was for people to see me eating in public.  Then, in my Junior year of undergrad, things began to turn around.  I drastically changed how I was eating, and went into kind of a self-imposed exile where I focused only on losing the weight.  And over the course of the next couple of years, I lost about 100lbs.  And for the first time in my life, I felt good about myself and comfortable in my own skin.

So that’s why this set back feels like such a personal failure to me.  I remember how hard it was to get every one of those pounds off.  And it’s hard for me to justify letting the weight creep back on.  But, I’m hoping that since I’ve become aware, I’ll be able to nip it in the bud and get back to feeling good about myself.  The street that I live on does a kind of loop, that makes up about 2 miles and I’ve been trying to walk that at least once, most days.  I’m also trying to fit physical activity into more parts of my day, as much as I can.  I try to stay up and moving as much as I can, and do as many things standing or walking, as possible.  I’m also getting back to trying to eat as healthily as I was when I had lost all the weight.  I’ve been on a post-wedding “I can eat whatever I want now” bender for the past few weeks, so the comeback will not be easy.  But it’s worth it.  I just want to feel good in my body, and look good in my clothes, and be the happy, confident, up for anything woman that my husband married, again.

Adventures in Cooking

Most of the men in my family are hunters.  Dad, brother, grandpas, uncles…  Since I was a kid, opening weekend of muzzle loader season for white-tailed deer has been like a holiday for us.  We all head out to my grandpa’s farm the Friday night before that weekend and on Saturday morning, the whole house is awake by 5:45am to wish the hunters well and see them off as they head into the darkness to climb trees and sit in stands.  My dad has dabbled in other local game, hunting wild turkey, doves and the occasional squirrel (all of which we ate), but for my whole life, the mainstay has been deer hunting.  This meant that when I was younger, a lot of the meat that we ate was venison from deer that my dad killed and that we all helped butcher and filled the deep freeze with every fall.  Because of this, and the fact that my father’s father was a beef cattle farmer, I grew up knowing where the meat that I ate came from, which is so rare in the world these days, and I am so grateful for it.  I intend to pass this knowledge of the food chain and the circle of life and how we should both give and take from the Earth on to my children, should I be lucky enough to have them.

Anywho, I grew up always eating venison, and it was never weird at all to me.  In fact, I didn’t even realize how unusual it was to have venison as a dietary staple, until I started cooking for my husband back when we were still just dating.  When he had venison at my house for dinner one night, he told me that it was maybe only the second time he’d eaten venison in his life, the first being at a friend’s house when he was a little boy.  And he was surprised at how good it was!  So, now that we have a household of our own, I am lucky enough that I have a steady supply of venison from my dad and my brother, to stock our freezer with.  I always help with processing the deer when it’s killed, and my parents and brother are more than happy to share some of the meat.  (This was another first for my husband, who unsurprisingly had never seen an entire animal butchered before his first “Deer Hunting Weekend” with the family.)  We use all parts of the deer and nothing really goes to waste.  But, until very recently, the only venison I really had experience cooking was burger.  I’ve used it in spaghetti sauce, chili and tacos more times than I can count.  The other pieces of meat however, loins, steaks, roasts, etc., were always intimidating to me because of how easy it is to make venison extremely dry and tough.  I never wanted to attempt to cook it, for fear that I could not cook it well.  But, with a freezer full of loins and roasts, and a grocery budget that was bursting at the seams, the time had finally come to bite the bullet and give it a go.

I decided to make an oven roasted tenderloin for my first foray into higher level venison cooking.  I marinated the loin in a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, warm water, and olive oil.  It sat in a Ziploc bag in the fridge all day, until the time came to pop it in the oven.  We generally get about 1 to 1.5  pound loins off of our deer, so I roasted the loin at 325 degrees for about 35 minutes, until it reached a temperature of 140 degrees on a meat thermometer.  I let it rest for a few minutes, and then it was time for the moment of truth.  We sliced it up and ate it with some mashed potatoes and corn from the garden.  And it was delicious!  I always serve my food with the (slightly annoying) disclaimer that it “might be gross” because I pretty much never know what I’m doing.  But even I thought it tasted good, and my husband said it was “really, really good!” through mouthfuls of his third slice.

Vension Loin

It always feels good to conquer a feared obstacle in the kitchen.  Now that I have had a successful experience with cooking venison that wasn’t in burger form, I feel like I’ll really be able to keep it on the menu long-term and to keep this way of life alive and to pass on this aspect of living off the land to my children.  Legal white-tailed deer hunting in my state is beneficial for the land, for the deer population and for hunters. The number of deer each hunter can take is closely regulated, so no one takes a harmful number of animals.  It helps to keep the ecosystem balanced and to prevent overpopulation, disease and starvation among the deer and helps to provide very low-cost (potentially only the cost of ammunition) meat to families, that can feed them throughout the year.    Growing up, we were one of those families.  We had very little money, and though my parents always sacrificed to make sure we had everything we needed (and most things we ever wanted), I know that having this source of meat made a lot of room in the grocery budget and provided us with valuable nutrients in the process.  Venison is one of the leanest red meats you can eat, and is also an amazing source of iron and other nutrient goodies.

Tonight, I’m making venison stew meat in brown gravy, which is a recipe I got from my mom and is soooo good!  Mashed potatoes, green beans and cornbread will be there too, and it reminds me so much of a meal that my mom made for us when my siblings and I were kids.  I can’t wait.

Ingredients for my Brown Gravy Venison Stew
Ingredients for my Brown Gravy Venison Stew.

Not So Green Thumb

Apologies for being so long in between posts…  Last week was pretty out of the ordinary for me.  My husband was out of town most of the week for a work training and I spent the time at my parents’ house, under the weather and without laptop access.  I hope not to let so much time pass between updates from here on out!

So, as I mentioned in a previous post, my grandpa can grow anything.  He always has a huge garden. full of corn taller than my head and tomato plants that look more like trees.  I don’t think he’s ever attempted anything that he hasn’t been able to cultivate successfully.  However, this does not seem to be a trait that he passed along to me.  I have attempted potted tomato plants at several points throughout my life and they have all only made it for a few tortured days before finally succumbing, despite my best efforts.

Still, I have ALWAYS wanted to grow herbs.  I’m amazed by how far into the past their use can be traced.  The same type of plant I could grow at my apartment today, was used to soothe the upset stomach of someone who lived centuries ago.  Herbs healed people long before the advent of modern medicine, and I’ve always wanted to learn to use them in the way that people did when all medicine came from the Earth.

A few weeks ago, I decided to just go for it, and purchased some herb starters at my local Lowe’s store.  It being the end of the season, they were a bit scraggly.  The leftovers from months ago when every normal person decided to start an herb garden. But, I picked the best looking ones, got some terra cotta pots, and brought them home.  My apartment is North-South facing, and the front porch gets several hours of sun each day, so that has become their new home.  And I am proud to report that they are still alive, and on top of that, are actually growing!

Lemon Balm (left), Lavender (center-front) and Sweet Mint (right).
Lemon Balm (left), Lavender (center-front) and Sweet Mint (right).

Not wanting to take any chances, I have been an extra-doting herb parent.  I water them each morning, and in keeping with the old adage, I talk to them for a bit.  I occasionally sing, too.  I’m sure this has earned me quite the reputation around the neighborhood.  But seeing as this is the best attempt I’ve ever made at growing things, I’ll keep doing just what I’m doing.  I’ve even had my first harvest of leaves, already!  When a part of the plant gets crowded, or a leaf begins to look a bit dodgy, I have been pinching them off and bringing them into my kitchen to dry.  So far, I haven’t been able to harvest any Lavender, but I have already started stores of dried Lemon Balm and Sweet Mint leaves.

Sweet Mint leaves, drying on plates.
Sweet Mint leaves, drying on plates.

My technique so far, has been to let them dry on plates for a day or two, turning them every so often.  Then crumbling the dried leaves into Ziploc bags to wait until I am ready to use them.  My plan, assuming everything keeps going well, is to use most of the leaves to make infused oils, when I’ve collected enough.  From what I have read, covering the dried herbs in oil, sealing them up and letting them marry for a few weeks, and then straining them, will result in infused oils, which can be used to make a variety of other things, including balms and lotions.  And I am so excited to try this!  Lavender has always been one of my favorite smells in the world, and it also happens to be known to aid with relaxation, improved quality of sleep, calming itchy skin and getting rid of bloating.  Lemon balm in tea can also help soothe an upset stomach and can also be helpful for a headache or even a toothache.  And mint has been shown to provide comfort to breastfeeding mothers, soothe nausea and alleviate some symptoms of asthma.  I truly cannot wait to start experimenting with making my own teas and oils and balms.  I hope it is something I can continue to do for the rest of my life, and something my family can benefit from, as well.

I’ll keep you updated as my garden grows and will definitely post pictures and write about the process when the time comes to put those dried leaves to use!

An Exercise in Patience…

One thing I’ve never been good at, despite past efforts, is sewing.  When I was younger I attempted to make several things as gifts for people, but they always ended up looking like something out of a Tim Burton movie.  Haphazard, irregular stitches and pieces of them falling off at the slightest touch.  Which was charming back then because, you know, I was a sweet little kid trying to make things for the people I loved.  But, not anymore.  So, I thought it was time for me to enter the world of adult sewing and perhaps make something useful, that didn’t look like it needed to be put out of its misery.

My grandmother, who passed away when I was 13, and way before I was old enough to really appreciate everything that she could teach me, was an incredible seamstress.  When I was 9 she made my entire baby doll costume for a play I was in at the community theater (in which my one and only line was “Mama”.).  She made me a big fluffy dress, and a bonnet.  I wore them as a Halloween costume for several years after that, and they’re still in my mom’s cedar chest to this day.  I could never even conceive of making anything so amazing.  My grandma always had sewing patterns out on a table in her house.  The kind that come in an envelope and I used to browse the racks of them on childhood department store trips, thinking about making some of them one day when I was “big enough”.  And I think now I’m big enough.

Faced with such a daunting learning process, I figured the best place to start was with training wheels.  With a form of “sewing” that would help me keep my stitches small and put them where they’re supposed to go.  So, I decided to attempt a cross stitch (needlepoint) pattern.  If you didn’t catch it from my Tim Burton reference at the beginning of this post, my taste in movies and books and life in general, tends to lie on the nerdy side of things.  I am an unapologetic lover of all things magical, fantasy, historical, or just a little strange.  Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, pirates, werewolves…  The list goes on.  However, as a consequence of the recent Harry Potter Weekend on ABC Family, I was feeling a little extra partial to Harry and envious of his life at Hogwarts, so I decided to start there.  I found a free cross stitch pattern online, and decided to give it a go.

Hogwarts Crest Cross Stitch Pattern!
Hogwarts Crest Cross Stitch Pattern!

I did a quick Google of cross stitch techniques and watched a YouTube video, and dove right in.  One thing I didn’t ever know during my adolescent attempt at cross stitch (I made one pattern and didn’t even finish it, because it had so many trees in it that required leaves…  But my mom still has it framed on her wall.  Thanks, Mom!), was that you are actually not supposed to use the whole strand of embroidery floss as you stitch.  I splits into 6 smaller strands and for the bulk of the work involved in filling in an outline, you’re supposed to use 3 of these tiny strands.  For back stitching (to make outlines and words) you typically use 2.  I also learned that it is “always advisable” to start at the center of the pattern, make stitches the same direction every time, and to stitch from top to bottom.  So I began with the “H”.  It was a lot of counting to find the exact center of the picture, but once I got started, the H and its surrounding gold field, went pretty quickly.  Or so I thought.  At the end of day 1, I had finished only the H and the top of the outline for one of the house symbols.  It actually took HOURS of work, but I was surprised by how those hours flew by.  It was so nice to be able to spend that time doing something productive and entertaining.  And I still had 76% battery left on my phone at the end of the day, which is pretty rare in this age of Facebook and Instagram and constant screen time.

Next, I needed to give life to the house mascots.  Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were waiting to be embroidered by my steady hand.  (Ha!)  Gryffindor being my favorite (isn’t it everyone’s?!), I elected to start there.  I had done the outline and begun the field of red behind the lion, when I realized that I didn’t have all of the colors of embroidery floss I would need to finish it (no brown for his mane…) so I switched to Slytherin.  Which I could complete.  This time I started with back stitching the outline in black.

Gryffindor Outline and Slytherin Serpent Outline

Again, I spent hours doing this, but I didn’t even notice.  I enjoyed it, even in its tedium.  I now fully understand the concept of a sewing circle and how women ages ago could have happily spent days like this.  I only wish I had some ladies (or men… this is the 21st century, after all!) to chat with while I make row upon row of tiny ‘X’s.  The picture above was taken at the end of day 2.  Again, this is not a quick process, but I am enjoying it.  I can sit with my husband in the evening and enjoy spending time together and still be doing something productive.

Day 3 was spent filling in the serpent and the green field behind him, and then on day 4, I moved on to Ravenclaw.  The outline of the bird was sooooo detailed and took most of an entire day, in itself.  But when I finished and sent a picture of it to my mom, she was quite impressed and my inner child glowed with satisfaction.  And that is where I am currently.  After almost a week of working on this pattern, I am about half way finished.  I never imagined, when I selected this image and began to work, how much time would go into it.  But I have spent the time happily, which I also never would have imagined.  I kind of love doing this, and I think I will keep it up, and find something else to stitch when I finish this.  I may even offer them up for sale in my Etsy store (which currently has a very impressive total of 1 listing posted in it…  Link below!).  And I’m also getting some good practice with making small, straight stitches.  I have noticed as I’ve gone that my stitching has gotten way more consistent and the finished product looks more and more polished as the days go by.

Slytherin and Ravenclaw.  I'm half way (almost) finished!

I still have a LONG way to go before I’m ready to make anything of any level of difficulty, but this process has been pretty encouraging, and maybe after a few more (quite possibly Harry Potter themed) pieces, I’ll have the confidence to move on to something without pre-made stitch holes!  And I think my Maw would be proud of my efforts

Belle And Bee Bluegrass Etsy Store:  BelleAndBeeBluegrass

The Beginning

My first foray into the world of homesteading skills actually came a few weeks ago.  And it was in the form of green bean canning.  This is something I’ve seen done countless times by my mother, grandmothers and grandfathers since I was old enough to remember.  When I was younger I even “helped” with the process a bit, when my family would sit around in a circle with five gallon buckets of beans between us and break them for canning.  Snapping off the ends, breaking them into bite-sized pieces and tossing them into a new bucket to be washed and canned.  At least that’s what I was supposed to be doing, but I think more of the beans usually ended up in my mouth than ever made it in the bucket.  But I had never really been involved in the steps that took place later, in the kitchen, until very recently.

For my entire life, my grandfather has grown a massive garden every year.  He lives on a 100+ acre farm in the middle of nowhere (which is basically paradise), and the entirety of the yard surrounding his house is planted with food-producing things.  Apart from the garden which is full of more tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, corn and myriad other vegetables than would fill a grocery store, there are also cherry tomatoes, blackberries, apples, pecans, pears and peaches growing to the road and the fences on all sides.  And these beautiful plants and trees always grow more produce than my grandpa could ever use by himself.  So, since I was able to walk, I spent summers wandering around the farm and eating things fresh off the vine or the tree and helping my parents pick food to take home.  There is a picture of me at my parents’ house with blackberry juice running from my mouth, all the way to my feet.  And the biggest smile on my face.  Though I never truly appreciated until recently, how lucky I was to grow up this way.  To have so much delicious, free food available to me so long as I put forth the effort to reach out my hand and take it.  This is something I hope to be able to provide for my children, and something I hope they will love as much as I did.  Especially after my years of working in child care and hearing the kids say over and over again, that food comes from the grocery store.  With no concept of the fact that it actually originated anywhere else but on a refrigerated shelf.

So, when I got married recently, I registered for a pressure cooker.  The old school kind with a pressure gauge, that my dad’s dad used.  And when I opened it with my husband in our apartment, I was giddy with nerdy excitement.  I genuinely could not wait to get started making the things I grew up seeing my parents and grandparents make.  The only thing left to do now that I had the tools, was to get lessons from a master.  My family and I went to my grandpa’s one very hot summer afternoon and picked row upon row of beans, which by the way, is quite a good leg day work out…  As we sat around on the porch breaking them together and chatting, my mom mentioned that I was planning to learn to can some myself this year.  To which my grandpa replied, “Well, I’ve got plenty of jars.”  And that was it.  The only invitation I needed!

A few afternoons later I stood in his kitchen watching as he heated the jars, helping him to fill them with beans, shaking and smacking the sides of the jar to fill up all the nooks and crannies, and ladling in more heated water and “a teaspoon of salt”.  Then, after what felt like hours of staring at the pressure cooker waiting for it to vent steam until my grandpa told me to “just go for it”, several more ‘hours’ of watching the pressure gauge and willing it to rise to 11lbs, and 25 minutes of nervously adjusting the temperature of the burner to keep the pressure right, I was finished.  A short while later, the 7th and final jar sealed with the most beautiful ‘ping’ you’ve ever heard and my first green bean canning was a success!

Since that afternoon, I have done one more bean canning at home, without any adult supervision and it was also successful!  Though infinitely scarier.  There were several frantic texts to my mother and quite a bit of pacing.  But, in the end, I have 14 jars of garden fresh green beans canned to make for dinner when the weather’s cold and I’m aching for a bit of summer.  And I’ve learned something that’s been passed down through generations in my family, and which I hope to pass down to the next generation as well!

Here are the promised photos of the results of my attempts at learning.  Excuse my obvious lack of skill in photography and also, pay no mind to that little guy on the end there, in the second photo (he is jar #7).  Apparently the pressure was too much for him, but I’ve been assured that all is good and that those beans are safely stored and will be delicious in a winter’s dinner.  And according to mom “I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when I was canning when something weird didn’t happen!”.  So, I think I’m in good company.

Beans in jars with their teaspoons of salt, before canning.
Beans in jars with their teaspoons of salt, before canning.
Beans after canning!  (See what I mean about the lid on jar #7?)
Beans after canning! (See what I mean about the lid on jar #7?)

Hello world!

Welcome to BlackberryBluegrass!  I’m starting this site, and this journal, as I stand at a pretty intimidating crossroads in life, and I’m happy to have people to share the dreams and the fears with. First, I suppose, should be a little bit about me!  I did all of the things that you’re “supposed” to do in life.  After high school I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree that amounted to nothing (as most of them do…) and then went on to graduate school to get a masters degree.  I was the first in my family to graduate from college and I was on the right track.  The path that my parents worked so hard and sacrificed so much to set me on.  Then one summer day during my graduate internship, I was sitting in my cubicle with goosebumps covering my body, staring out the tiny sliver of window I could see across the hall and watching a man mow the lawn of the office building that I was stuck in.  And I was SO jealous of him.  In that moment it hit me that what I wanted more than anything was to be out there.  Instead, I was sitting at my desk, doing what I was supposed to want to do and I was thoroughly miserable.  I was freezing, I had a headache and I had cramps in my legs from sitting in front of a computer all day and I just wanted out.

Thinking on it, the days I love the most in my life are the days when I can get outside and do some work.  When I can plant something or pick something or haul something or stack something.  And when, at the end of the day, I can stand back and look at the results of my work.  When there’s a tangible result of my effort.  When there’s food on the table or in the freezer, when there’s wood in the shed or when I’ve made something with my own two hands, that I can use for years to come.  Those are things that my family, generations of farmers on both sides, have done for centuries.  But sitting in that cubicle, though I was only half an hour away from my hometown, I felt so far from home.  I realized that I didn’t want to be on the ‘right path’ because it wasn’t the right path for me.  I was so disconnected from the things that are in my blood, that make my heart sing and my soul warm.

And so, now that I have done everything right for years, and made it to the place where I’m “supposed” to be in life, I’m casting it all aside and making the, probably crazy, decision to start over.  I want to live a life that will make me happy and make me feel genuinely proud of myself.  I want to spend my days doing something useful for the Earth and my family, instead of doing something that I just happen to be able to do, and accepting the misery that comes along with it.  Most importantly, I don’t want to let the skills and knowledge that have been passed down through generations of my family, the ability to live off and with the land, die with my generation.  So, this blog will chronicle my fumbling, bumbling attempts to learn the things that my relatives before me knew how to do before they were half my age.  And if you care to follow along, maybe we can learn together.  I’ll post my attempts at learning homesteading skills and pictures (no matter how embarrassing!) of the outcomes.  Here’s to living a happy life and planting my southern roots deep.  Thanks for reading!