Sunday, July 29, 2012

Wild Imaginations and Blueberries

My daughter and I have been berry picking twice recently thanks to the generosity of our friend, Kevin, who offered to give us all the blueberries we could pick from his property. Despite that day’s heat index of over 100 degrees, Deeds and I grabbed two pails and squeezed ourselves into Papa’s little 4-wheel drive Beemobile for the short trip “up the mountain” to Kevin’s farm. Now anyone from Mayodan knows there’s not a real mountain for miles around here, but if climbing an incline forces your vehicle to chug at a rate of 3000 RPM before it eases its effort, that’s either good enough to qualify as a “mountain” or you need to have your truck serviced...or both.

How did we fit in there?
Gardening and preserving said garden’s harvest is a summer-long family affair for us but we don’t grow blueberries. Quite truthfully, summers past have found us too busy with our own garden to accept such “U Pick” offers for free fruit and vegetables from our friends, so we’ve missed having fresh blueberries until this year. Deeds and I were simply beside ourselves with anticipation as we sped in the Beemobile past two particularly brazen farm dogs hell bent on biting our truck’s tires as we interloped on their patch of country road. We laughed as we banged our heads on the Beemobile’s rooftop when the truck’s tires found the deep ruts carved into the packed, red clay down by Kevin’s farm pond. Imagine our excitement once we entered a clearing and saw not blueberry bushes but something that much more resembled a grove of blueberry trees! Kevin’s berry bushes are ancient and beautifully wild.

Each with our own pail, Deeds and I lumbered out of the truck and agreed on who would pick where - she on one side of a row of bushes, me on the other. Our chatter quickly faded under the hot sun as we applied ourselves to the task at hand. Our intermittent exchanges dealt primarily with musing over where we’d last placed our water bottle or the precise nature of what either of us had just felt crawl across our feet while we stood knee-deep in a thicket in flip flops. Deeds gifted me with one of the best belly laughs I’ve enjoyed in a long time when she shrieked unintelligibly and bolted from the thicket swearing at an errant branch that tickled her arm, feeling ominously like a spider. We frequently wiped sweat from our brows and felt our shirts cling to our backs. We heard frogs splash in the nearby pond and listened to their throaty belches echo across the water. The sharp ping of blueberries hitting our pails’ bottoms soon turned into a soft patter as the fruit’s harvest deepened with our efforts. We tuned into the earth’s summertime song of buzzing insects, inquisitive birds and leaves rustling as an afternoon thunderstorm approached warning us to finish our work quickly. It was a hot, dirty job but more than worth the effort expended. Laboring in comfortable silence alongside my daughter was as good to me as the awesome cupcakes I baked later.

Blueberry Cupcakes with Lemon Buttercream Frosting

For the cupcakes:
2 cups fresh blueberries, divided
1 ⅛ cups + 1 tsp sugar
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line muffin tin with foil or paper muffin sleeves.

Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 tsp sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon or potato masher. Cook until the berries have broken down and the mixture thickens, stirring frequently. Let cool to room temperature.

Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk the eggs and remaining sugar together in a medium bowl until thick. Whisk in melted butter and oil until just combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until just combined. Fold egg mixture and remaining cup of blueberries into the flour mixture until just moistened. Batter should be lumpy so be careful not to overmix.

Divide batter equally across prepared muffin cups, filling each cup entirely. Spoon a scant teaspoonful of cooked blueberry mixture into the center of each cup of batter. Bake until golden and slightly firm, about 18 minutes.

For the frosting:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 generous pinch salt.

Combine butter, sugar and salt, mixing well. Add lemon juice, zest and vanilla extract. Beat on high speed of electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Frost cooled blueberry cupcakes.

And finally, a haiku plucked on that day -

berry picking -
my daughter wishes
herself taller

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cobbler and Aunt Grace

I’ve had my Aunt Grace on my mind lately. She passed away a few years ago, living a good, full, long life. Aunt Grace was one of eleven siblings (including my father) who grew up on a tobacco farm during The Great Depression. Being frugal was never a choice for a lot of people at that time. Frugality was a necessity. You simply had to make ends meet. You had to stretch your food dollars, rely on gardening and canning vegetables and, quite often, hunt or fish for your next meal; if you didn’t do these things, you would go hungry.

I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think I paused long enough to savor the times I spent at Aunt Grace’s table. I visited Aunt Grace nearly every weekend during the 60s and 70s. As a young boy, I suppose I didn’t think that a time would come when I would not dine at Aunt Grace’s table, which makes the memories of her and her kitchen all the more special to me.

I recall a snowy day spent squirrel hunting with my dad and uncles Bill and Herbert. I enjoyed such outings, especially when I became old enough to carry and use a gun of my own. What started out as a great adventure in my young eager mind quickly became a cold and wet miserable ordeal by the end of the day. Having no luck at finding game, the four of us retraced our steps back to Aunt Grace’s kitchen. We were famished when we sat down at the supper table, nigh starving in fact. Aunt Grace didn’t disappoint in delivering a fine frugal meal that warmed us from the inside out. We gorged ourselves on crackling cornbread, pinto beans, creases with a side of bacon. For dessert, we had peach cobbler, fresh from the oven, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream added on top. Aunt Grace knew that I enjoyed watching that ice cream melt into the cobbler.

If time travel were possible, sitting down to a wonderful meal prepared by Aunt Grace would be high on my to do list and I’d savor every moment and every morsel of food.

Okay, I’ve bitten the bullet. I listened to my sensei and bought self-rising flour. Life is about learning and this ole dawg has learned to make a decent cherry cobbler. I’ve been told to follow the cuppa, cuppa, cuppa rule when making cobbler, which translates to 1 cup of self-rising flour, 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of milk. I followed the cuppa rule, but added ½ teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon into the mix.

Here’s the recipe I used for the cobbler in the picture. 

Cherry Cobbler

1 cup of sugar
1 cup of self rising flour
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup of milk
1 stick butter
1 can cherries

Place stick of butter into a casserole dish or pan. Put the butter and casserole dish into a 325 degree heated oven. While the butter is melting, thoroughly mix the first four ingredients. Add milk, continue stirring.

After the butter has melted, pour mixture into the casserole dish. Spread cherries on top and bake for about an hour or until the cobbler is a golden brown.

Grace Departing

When it’s time for me to go,
I want to exit
like Aunt Grace
being the oldest,
raised eleven siblings
after her mother died of pneumonia.
She breathed her last breath
one evening
sitting in a recliner
surrounded by loved ones,
watching a favorite TV program.
Her final words:
"No, I’m not ready for bed;
I feel so good,
I think I’ll sit here a little while longer."

The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature - October 2010 edition

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Peach Pits and Pitfalls

I’ll have you know that somebody stole my peaches!  Yep, picked every single one of them straight off of the tree the week I’d begun more closely monitoring their progress.  Mind you, I didn’t count them - Papa told me years ago that counting the fruit before it ripens on a tree will surely cause it to fall off before you can eat it.  While I still don’t believe that particular tale, it’s the honest truth that every peach I’d excitedly watched begin to blush and become plump was gone.  Not one left.  I was stomping and hopping mad! 

What kind of person would do such a thing?  I can’t fathom that someone truly hungry and down on his luck would steal every piece of fruit growing on a tree promising a bumper crop.  I like to think he’d have taken just enough to eat right now and maybe a few to keep for the days ahead.  It can only be pure meanness and greed driving somebody to do such a thing.  And to top it all off, those peaches might have looked just the right color, blushing red with well developed clefts, but that fruit was as green as a gourd on the inside!  You’d think when the thief touched the first piece to throw it into whatever he planned to haul it off in he’d have noticed that it was a mite too firm - you couldn’t have bruised it if you tried hard!  Those peaches would have served a better purpose at batting practice than in a cobbler or pie.  Well, if whoever took them is reading this, remember that you reap what you sow (well, most of the time unless someone steals what you sowed).

It hasn’t taken me very long to get over this little episode despite the fumes that are nigh leaping off of the first two paragraphs written here.  A friend of Papa’s visited to gift us with an entire bushel of the prettiest peaches you’ve ever seen.  Fruit Thief, observe!  I could smell how ripe and sweet those peaches were before Sam ever made it to my back porch with them.  As I picked through the fruit while profusely thanking Sam for his thoughtful generosity, I couldn’t resist biting into one.  The peach’s warm syrup trickled down my chin and bled around my fingers.  Juicy stains bloomed all over the front of my tee shirt -  yum!  I immediately began thinking about who I could share such a bountiful gift with - Curtis usually gets the first such phone call but he’d already demonstrated that fruit cobbler ain’t exactly his forte.  Maybe he could figure out simply slicing and freezing some of them.

From where I stand on this little patch of Carolina red dirt, I see honest friends from almost every angle (as long as I’m not looking at my peach tree).  While I grilled tomatoes and other vegetables for preserving salsa, tomato bisque and marinara sauce, I used a beautiful hand-forged roasting pan gifted to me by my wildly talented friend, David Collins.  Much to the consternation of our parents, David and I gave each other haircuts when we were childhood friends.   (Do yourself a favor and visit his website at  There’s precious little this man doesn’t know how to make! Oh, and he’s a much better blacksmith than barber.)   Just yesterday Curtis ran barefoot across the street from his house to mine to lend me a volume of haiku written by an author who had gifted him with an autographed copy.  My new neighbor, Lisa, dropped by last night to keep me company in the kitchen while I canned marinara sauce and brought a pint of preserved pears from her mother’s pantry.  Every week I correspond with a circle of haijin (haiku poets) where we freely share our work and offer friendly, constructive critiques in an effort to become better at what we do as poets and artists.  What a wonderful world!  (unless you’re looking at my peach tree)...

Roasted Tomato Bisque

6 lbs. vine ripe tomatoes
4 cups yellow onion, diced
3 cups carrots, chopped
2 sticks butter
1 gallon chicken stock
10 ounces tomato paste
1 cup fresh basil, minced
½ cup fresh parsley, minced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
½ tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
*1 quart heavy cream (optional)
3 cups celery, chopped
⅓ cup garlic cloves, chopped

Toss all vegetables in olive oil and liberally sprinkle with kosher salt.  Roast on a fire grill until slightly charred (can be done in a very hot oven but fire-roasting is better!)  It helps to roast tomatoes separately from the other vegetables as tomatoes produce so much juice.

Melt butter in a large stock pot.  Saute garlic about 4 minutes (don’t burn it!)  Add all roasted vegetables, except tomatoes.  Cook until tender.  Add tomato paste and cook about 10 minutes more.

Add tomatoes and chicken stock.  Toss in herbs and simmer about ½ hour.  Cool.  Puree soup until very smooth in a chinois or blender.  Be careful if you’re using a blender as hot liquids expand when whirring about and will burn you.  Strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove lumps.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  *Slowly add cream if using it.

Garnish with a good-quality shaved parmesan and croutons if desired.

And, finally, a haibun to mull over...


my granny was a small bird of a woman with a sweet way about her unless crossed. she never grew to be more than five feet tall, but made up for her size with her actions. she divorced my granddaddy back when women didn't do such things, and raised two daughters with the help of her mother. she worked in the cotton mill for a meager living and took in extra sewing when she could find the work. when i was going through my divorce and the most abusive details of my marriage's demise came to light, she offered, "Let me kill him. I'm old and have lived a good life."

red stitches
across a field
of plain muslin

Contemporary Haibun Online (December 31, 2010, vol 6 no 4)
Republished in Contemporary Haibun 12, edited by Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, and Ken Jones. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2011. 5.25" x 8.25", perfect bound, 112 pp. ISBN: 978-1-893959-099-6. $17 USD.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Frugality, Phish and Peppers

Team Frugal. I like the sound of that. In the time that I have been at Poet’s Cottage, I’ve come to realize that I’m not the only one who has taken an interest in becoming more frugal in our day-to-day spending. The other day my daughter, Alana, opened the refrigerator door, looked inside, then said, “You’ve got to stop wasting money, Daddy.”

Surprised, I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Apparently, you didn’t pay attention at the grocery store. You bought two containers of buttermilk instead of a container of regular milk and a container of buttermilk.”

“Noooooo, I’m fairly sure I bought regular milk and buttermilk,” I said, defending myself, to which Alana, delighted at having an opportunity to point out my error, reached into the fridge and produced two half gallons of buttermilk.

I made a lot of cornbread that weekend, gifting two pones to a couple of my neighbors. I dislike wasting anything, especially buttermilk.

Frugality extends beyond the kitchen into other areas of our home and, at times, can save significant amounts of money. Alana and I have been diligent in turning-off unnecessary lights. During the cold winter months, we’ve been great about keeping the doors to our home closed, reducing our gas and electric bill.

A few months ago, I received a notice from Duke Energy stating that my electric bill would be reduced by $40 (I’m on the year-round average payment plan). The reduction was directly related to our attempts at saving energy in our home. Susan’s daughter, Deedee, suggested that we put our $40 savings aside each month for a travel fund. If you put things in perspective and consider Deedee’s suggestion, saving energy in our home could pay for a beach trip.

Frugality definitely has its benefits.

My daughter will be 13 years old tomorrow, but I’m the one who feels like he’s been gifted a birthday present: A highly intelligent, caring, witty, beautiful, frugal daughter. :)

A few notes from this week:

Susan has been canning veggies from her father’s garden nonstop for the last three or four weeks. I offered to write for Frugal Poet today, giving her a break from wordsmithing. (I ain’t crazy. There’s a chance I could be gifted a jar or two of veggie goodness!)

I received a phone call the other day that could have been an attempt at infecting my computer. I’m very cautious when I receive phone calls from people asking me to connect to a web site. Here’s the gist of my conversation with the “computer security expert”:

Curtis [answering the phone]: Bartle Doo?
Phone Guy: Excuse me?
Curtis: I said, "Bartle Doo?"
Phone Guy: Yes, well, my name is Raj and I work for Microsoft Security...
Curtis: Microsoft Security? Isn't that an oxymoron?
Phone Guy: I'm sorry?
Curtis: Don't be sorry. It's not your fault that Microsoft makes the most insecure operating systems on the face of the planet.
Phone Guy: Well, I'm calling to...
Curtis: ...In fact, I'm installing Linux on an old laptop as we speak...
Phone Guy: Linux?
Curtis: Yes, it's a free operating system and it's more secure than Windows. You should try it! [Phone Guy starts laughing...]. Seriously, go home, download Linux -- there are many varieties -- and install it over Windows! You'll be a helluva lot less prone to computer viruses.
Phone Guy [laughing]: Yes, well...thank you...[and he hangs-up the phone]

Bottom line, be wary of phone calls that could be attempts at phishing your private information or infecting your computer.

I had surgery a year ago today. I penned this poem a few days after my surgery:


i am told
my thyroid was shaped
like a butterfly,
a butterfly whose wings
had grown disfigured
with lesions

a surgeon’s
skilled hand
untethered my butterfly
a smiley face scar
on my throat

--Curtis Dunlap (July 27, 2010)

Susan gifted me with enough jalapeno peppers for 4 ½ pints. I canned what you see in the picture. Here’s the recipe I used.

3 parts white vinegar to 1 part apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon sugar (per jar)
1 teaspoon canning salt (per jar)
1 clove garlic (per jar)

If you don’t know how to prepare your jars and lids, leave me a note in the comments section below. It’s easier than that cobbler recipe I attempted last week. :)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cobbler, Karma and Unpleasant Odors

I’m not a sweet freak. Oh, I like a good slice of cake or pie from time-to-time and I’d likely walk a mile in 100 degree heat for a bowl of homemade ice cream, but sweets are not the first thing I peruse when looking at a menu. And good heavens!--I do not want sugar in my biscuits, chili, soups or stews. I’m of the mind that sugar is best utilized in sweet tea and desserts.

A few months ago I stopped at a local diner and ordered a good old country, soulful meal of pinto beans, collard greens and cornbread. I took a bite of cornbread and immediately tasted (egads!) sugar! The cook stepped out of the kitchen to talk to a waitress. Unable to control my disappointment, I asked, “How much sugar do you use in your cornbread?” The cook replied, “Not much.” But the fact is, any sugar in cornbread is too much for me. If I want something sweet that’s comparable to a slice of cornbread, I’ll eat a moonpie or an oatmeal cookie and wash it down with an RC Cola!

Now, before I receive a flood of emails or comments chastising me for my distaste of sugar in the aforementioned foods, please understand that these are my taste preferences. To each his/her own. Different strokes for different...oh well, you get my meaning. I’m not going to look at you like you’ve grown a third eye in the middle of your forehead if you like sugar in your cornbread. Nope. Not me. That’s just not my style.

There is, however, another variety of food that I enjoy to the point of braving the summer heat for its natural sweet goodness: Berries! Yes, all varieties of fresh berries. I’m like a honey badger going after larvae in a beehive when it comes to berries! And so, last week, when my good friend, David Collins, sent an email to me asking if I’d like to pick blackberries at his home, I borrowed a bucket from Susan and drove to see my friend in record time. In fact, I was in such a hurry that I didn’t dress appropriately for berry picking. Trust me folks, shorts, sandals and a short sleeve t-shirt are not blackberry picking attire...but that’s okay. I learned more that day than the fact that blue jeans and boots will repel thorns and chiggers better than shorts and sandals. I learned that it’s okay to eat two blackberries to three picked when in the company of a good friend. Sure, it makes for slow blackberry picking, but I enjoyed talking to David. The heat, thorns, chiggers, the threat of stepping on a snake are things I didn't think about.

What I did think about were those succulent blackberries and the fact that I’m fortunate to have a friend who’s willing to share.

Okay, I’ll likely take a little heat for this, but I’m going to fess up and admit that I botched a cobbler recipe recently. I was going to share the recipe here today, but doing so would be detrimental to my reputation as a cook. I consider this cobbler snafu bad karma for my brashness at publicly denouncing my cooking sensei’s use of self-rising flour in her squash fritter recipe. Why? Because, dabburnit, I was supposed to use self-rising flour in the cobbler recipe! What goes around comes around or some such... Payback’s a...well, you know...

Are there any followers of this blog willing to share a tried and true cobbler recipe? If so, please post your recipe in the comments section below or send an email.

I have no recipe today, but I will leave you with a frugal tip: Recently my truck was inundated with a very unpleasant odor, one that offends the olfactory to the point that driving down a country road at 60 miles an hour with the windows down is about the only thing you can do to alleviate the stench (the skunk population in Rockingham County is alive and thriving--minus one).

If this happens to you, or rather, your vehicle, place a dryer sheet (Downy will do but I buy generic) under either the driver or passenger seat. Roll the windows up and park your vehicle in direct sunlight for at least eight hours. The scented sheet will help eradicate the bad odor.

I’ll close with one of my Southern Legitimacy Statements. For some odd reason, I was reminded of this particular SLS during my blackberry picking adventure.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #6

My daddy used to say that if you ever felt lonely, run naked through a patch of weeds. “There ain’t nothing like a family of chiggers to remind you that you’re not alone,” he’d say, with a chuckle. I don’t know whether or not he was speaking from personal experience, but I can tell you one thing: A mason jar of moonshine will make you do foolish things.

The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature - April 2011 edition