Yellowstone Fudge

I know it is not Christmas, but all the Valentine’s Day chocolate has started me thinking about my mother’s fudge. She always made it at Christmas time……

Mom's Rosebush
Mother’s favorite rose, The Lady Bankshead and her Irises.

Mother said, “The best Christmas gift was really three gifts; a gift for the mind, a gift for the stomach and a gift for the heart.” Cooking cocoa fudge with Mother was a gift that combined all three.

One of my clearest Christmas memories was making fudge at odd hours of the night, Mother’s favorite time of day. We had our Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve night and Mother cooked for days and nights before. As soon as the turkey was cleaned, trussed, sage stuffing made, the fudge pot would appear on the stove. My older sister Donna and I (Billy was still too young) would stand in our warm Texas kitchen, barefoot on oven-heated linoleum, drinking thermos glasses of coffee that were ninety percent milk, while also drinking in the steps to this favorite recipe. The anticipation of tasting Mom’s fudge was almost as good as eating it. The memory of that flavor lasted year round.

“Hershey’s cocoa, milk, sugar, salt. Bring to a boil, then stir and simmer.”

Mother used wooden spoons, iron skillets and huge sauce pots. I remember her saying, “In fudge making, a wooden spoon makes all the difference.” She would sense the fudge through the wood as if it were part of her hands, which were strong, sun-browned and long-fingered. Measuring cups were optional equipment. Those same strong hands held the right amount of salt or cocoa. “OK, use a coffee cup if you have to.”

We would wait, standing on one foot and the other, for the correct sounds to issue from the pot. “This fudge sounds just like the mud pots at Yellowstone Park when it’s ready. Plop. Plop.” Of course, it occurred to both of us that mother had never been to Yellowstone Park, but that didn’t matter. It was a mother thing. I remember her face at those moments; cheeks flushed with the heat, brown hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun and soft, hazel eyes rich with flecks of green and brown and gray. Eyes that could see right through to your bones over the top of reading glasses. Those eyes had the same sort of automatic sensing mechanism as her hands; she could see if you were lying. Very inconvenient growing up.

Our talk would be about a lot of things while the fudge simmered; movies, books we were reading, who we would cast in the lead roles if the movie were made from that book and family stories. She would talk about the kitchen of her childhood in the ‘30’s. Mother grew up in the countryside of Jacksboro and Weatherford, in a kitchen with a wood cook stove. She had a love/hate relationship with that stove, which had to be stocked with wood and emptied of ashes daily. The kitchen was the warmest place in the house, so you got dressed in the morning behind the cook stove. But be careful how you bent over, or you’d get branded. In back of the kitchen was the porch where you washed your face in the mornings in a metal basin. A coal from the cook stove would melt the ice on the water in the winters. She could still smell and hear that ashy sizzle. God help you if you had to go to the outhouse during a winter night. Your feet would need to be washed with that same freezing water and lye soap before you got back in bed. You didn’t get on clean sheets with dirty feet.

Plop plop. How safe and warm our kitchen felt, with the rich smell of chocolate and memories whirling around us, the darkness of night insulating the kitchen and stopping time.

“Simmer the fudge until a small amount dropped into cold water forms a soft ball.”

What’s that soft-ball thing about anyway? To hell with those fancy, prone-to-crack candy thermometers. “Use your eyes and ears, kid.” Plop. Plop.

21-smBooks were a favorite topic. All the rooms of our house had bookshelves. In two rooms, the shelves formed the entire wall. Mother read voraciously, constantly, for fun and for escape. A favorite challenge during fudge-making was inspired by the movie ending of H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. Going back to the primitive society in the past, the time traveler took back three books to begin a new world. Which three books he took were unknown. “Which three books would you take back? Think, what would be your reasons?” Much discussion would ensue. Through Mom’s books and Dad’s too, (Dad’s topic is history) we traveled through time and across continents.

“Take the fudge off the fire and add the butter and vanilla.”

This smelled wonderful. The vanilla would bubble down through the fudge and reappear as a secret chocolate volcano, belching an almost indescribably sweet steam geyser. Yellowstone again.

Developing good judgment was part of the process of making fudge. Judgment of correct color and consistency as well as when the fudge had been beat enough and was ready to be poured into buttery pans. Mother would say, “Now watch for the fudge to lose its shine. When it does, pour it quickly into the greased pans.” Donna and I both discovered that “shine” and “quickly” are relative terms. Cooking our earliest fudge batches, we always waited that fraction of a second too long, and the molten fudge solidified into an instant stalactite as it was poured from the pan. No matter. Mother was very philosophical about such failures. And we ate the fudge stalactite just as quickly, laughing.

After the fudge cooking was the spoon and pan-licking. Two prizes were to be had. The wooden spoon which mysteriously had developed a two inch coating of fudge and the pot which had those lovely crusty brown layers of pure chocolate sugar at the top. The kind of confectionery-coated dentist’s nightmare that could wrap you in chocolate euphoria for an hour. Simply put, it was warm fudge heaven.

Fudge pans were usually cookie sheets, but any size pan would do. We had been known to butter the kitchen counter if we were in a bad mood. Our childhood fudge-eating capacities were quite legendary. We were to leave Dad some fudge. We did; two neatly cut squares in the middle of the pan. Mom was not amused. Luckily, cocoa, vanilla and sugar were always in the cupboard. And fudge technique must be practiced. Dad got his fudge. Plates of fudge were always on the coffee table on Christmas Eve.

Not long after mother’s death I found my well-worn card for Mom’s fudge. On the back was the name and number of the hospital where my nephew Paul was born. It seems I made fudge in my kitchen while waiting for his birth. A good omen. A gift. Mother’s cocoa fudge was a gift, a gift of time spent teaching, listening and caring. It is a recipe for the love she gave in double-batched size to all of us. With no apologies to H.G. Wells, if I were the time-traveler, I would take Mom’s fudge recipe back to start a new world. It would be a gift for the mind, a gift for the stomach and a gift for the heart.

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Things We Treasure

Day Twenty: The Things We Treasure

Today’s Prompt: Tell us the story of your most-prized possession.

I really hated this prompt. Not just disliked, hated. As in, I turned off the computer after I read it the first time and walked around muttering to myself. Ah conflict! Good for the soul, right? Wrong, it’s not good for the soul and it gave me a whopper of a headache, so I simply refused to think about it for a while.

Three days later: How do you pick your most prized possession? What does that say about me as a person if I can pick a possession that means more to me than anything else in the world? Disclaimer: If you found this easy to do you are a much less conflicted person than I am and I admire you greatly.

If I pick something, do I want everyone to know about it? (Someone from this blog site would divine where I live from this post and race to my house to steal my treasure. Aaargh.) To make it worse we must write a LONG piece about this. Now I’m sweating. I must write  a long read about something I can’t make up my mind over………and then I thought of it.

My most prized possession is not a possession at all. I think of it as a fleeting gift. My most prized possession is my ability to communicate. That sounds really self-serving when you write it down, but not if you realize that communicating is a gift you have to keep perfecting your entire life. I look at what I have done so far and it all revolves around some sort of language.

As a teacher I communicate to my students with words and with body language. Specifically, I teach children to experiment with visual language: color, shape, form, line, space, value, texture. I teach them to not fear the mistake, which can lead you to your visual voice.  I teach them, “Each art work is talking. It is speaking to you from the past or predicting your future. Listen.” I believe that art combines the best and worst of all communication we have to offer as a species. Art serves it up for us; a mirror that is loving and provoking, whispering and shouting for us to pay attention.

Before I came back to teaching I worked helping a very intelligent woman who handled the marketing for a furniture company. She taught me about marketing language, which I define as the fine and sometimes delicate skill of making somebody want whatever you are selling at the price you are selling it. In that world I found out that photography is a language too. Product photography can make anything enticing, a cautionary lesson for this photo-shopped, image-driven world, that I now pass along to my students.

As a child and now as an adult I love music and art. There are things that words can not communicate. Deep emotions come to the surface when I listen to music and performing in band-I was a flautist as a child-taught me the power of group communication. To listen deeply and join in a common language. Music is the language of the spirit.

For now, the art that works its way out of my fingertips is a twin to the students I teach, young and simple, but profound nonetheless. But there it is again, the idea that the gift needs nurturing and grows as I grow. I wonder what my art will be when it is fully grown?

Now words have come back to me. A blog that started as a teaching assignment has become something more. Excuse me mister, but at my ripe old age of 58 I have a few things I’d like to say and I hear the clock ticking. I’d like to communicate. I can’t wait to see where this prized possession, this gift, this journey takes me.

Donkeys

 

Poco
Poco
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Indy
Holly and Perdita
Holly and Perdita
Pretty Perdita
Pretty Perdita

 Donkeys! (say this like Mike Myers in Shrek please.) Well then, Donkeys. My husband and I own four miniature donkeys, Perdita and Poco (jenny and jack), plus their two offspring Holly and Indy (jenny and jack). A jenny is a female donkey, a jack is a male and who knows where this terminology came from. We acquired the original donkey Poco from our neighbor down the street. Story goes that Poco was a retired actor from “The Promise” a live nativity play in Granbury, Texas. (Poco was forcibly retired because he had the bad manners to keep biting the wise men and anyone else he could reach too. Not good for creating a heavenly atmosphere.) So we fell in love with the little guy when we fed him when the neighbors were away. Bingo, first donkey. For those of you who have never seen a miniature donkey, they are about the size of a Great Dane and are the sweetest animal alive. Gentle, although stubborn, as you may have heard, and will follow you around creating the most horrific volume ever heard in an animal cry, accompanied by loud and melodic farting. Very endearing habit that. You just can’t help but laugh. We had to get a mate for Poco of course and procured Perdita, a truly lovely pinto-colored donkey. Indy and Holly followed. Poco is the traditional gray donkey with the black cross-shaped spine and shoulder stripe that earned them the name “Jerusalem” donkey from the story that they carried Mary into Bethlehem. Poco had the nasty habit of “cribbing”, which is a routine where they go up to the fence, latch onto the wire with their top teeth, open their mouth and inhale air into their tummies with a loud sucking noise. It is evidently a little donkey endorphin buzz to do so. Animals crib just like some folks eat chocolate;they are bored and it makes them feel good. We tried everything to get him to stop. We changed his feed, rubbed the fence wire with hot sauce…..nothing. He was a cribbing addict. This used to drive my husband insane. He was convinced that Poco would break the fence wire, which would have to be replaced. (True) He has mellowed over the years and no longer reacts, but in the early years……. One afternoon I heard our truck coming down the driveway. Stop. The engine roars, wheels squeal and kick up gravel as my husband aims the truck directly at the fence where Poco is merrily sucking the fence (cribbing), making a noise that sounds like someone pulling their Wellingtons out of quicksand. Screech! The truck stops inches from little Poco’s face as my sweet husband leans on the truck horn. No reaction from Poco…absolutely none, nada. I hear more sucking noises. This little vignette was repeated several more times as I watched from the garden room window. Then I slowly backed away and lowered the shade. Some battles just have to be fought alone. “How was your day hon?”, I asked as George entered the house. “Fine.” Poco is still with us, although he now no longer cribs. I think he quit when we quit reacting. Hmmmmm….reminds me of some students I have.

When Horses Roamed at Travis

A few days ago I found images from a sculpture project my teaching colleague Skipper Bennett and I did with our 5th graders in 2009. Time flies. Our student artists made a herd of found wood horses based on the work of sculptor Deborah Butterfield. Today I look at this project as an old friend that I found again by chance and would like you to meet now.

Hina
Hina 1990-91 Deborah Butterfield, American, born 1949 Unique Bronze 80 x 112 x 28 inches

What struck me as I looked at this project now is how often artists find their inspiration in nature’s left-overs or in cast-offs from other processes. Somehow the artistic mind is able to put the random pieces of our visual world into their unique art, much like writers take random thoughts and build their writing into a cohesive whole. Small artistic world isn’t it?

Skipper and I had a great process for this project, from the original seed of the idea, which came from another teacher, Mary Fields, showing us Deborah Butterfield’s work, all the way through the finished project.

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Trigger in Front of School

We started with a field trip to Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. Their education department worked with us to highlight some wonderful equine artworks on the trip.

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We took a walking tour to view equine statues in the museum complex area. This included statues in front of the Will Rogers Memorial Center and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

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At the national Cowgirl Museum and hall of Fame.

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Finally a stop at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, to take in Butterfield’s horse. It was an amazing experience.

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A teachable moment with Mr. Bennett and Butterfield’s sculpture.
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A hands-on experience with the art – priceless.

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Next the students toured the Bryant Art Foundry in Azle, Texas, where our kids saw the steps of creating a metal sculpture.  It is an invaluable part of any art form, learning the process of how things are really produced. The people at the foundry could not have been nicer or more willing to share with our students. Remarkable people.

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A connection was made.

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Back at school we had a studio space to work in (a portable building), because this was messy work.

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The wood was procured from the local land fill. Recycling at its best

. Landfill2 Load er up

It was a challenge to get our students to see the bone structure of the horse and how the wood suggests where it should be joined.

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wood Joint

We made maquettes of the horses we were about to build to teach the students the basics of combining wood shapes.

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Still when you are asked to make a horse, then confronted with a pile of branches and a spool of wire, it can be a daunting moment for a 5th grader!

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We forged ahead and after weeks of work and a few thousand wire cuts, the horses were transported from the studio to the front of our school campus and staked and wired into the ground.

Loaded Up
Loaded up for installation.

Staging

Afternoon ShotFront View

The Big Guy

This was a special group of art students and you can see their talent and effort in their work.

The Travis Herd. Hope you enjoy their work as much as we did. The most fun I’ve had with stick horses since I was a kid!