There were white flakes in the air when my good husband and I awoke this morning. We stood and gawked as they thickened and began accumulating on the ground and courtyard wall. An unusual occurrence in our neck of the woods. It quickly became apparent that the storm system had made itself comfortable over the Huachuca Mountains and the surrounding area. It was a good day to stay in. Inspired by memories of homemade hot cocoa and toast sticks that my mother would make on wintry days, I stirred up a steaming pan of cocoa. In case you didn't know, plain old toast with butter is magically transformed into something extraordinary when it's cut into sticks. It was so as a child and is still true today as a grandma. I quickly made a batch and settled in to read and drink hot chocolate.
I'm finishing up a new book by a good friend, Brenda Shipman entitled Embracing Hospitality: Help for the Hesitant Host. Brenda's insights, encouragement, and biblical foundation in her debut book is well worth reading. If you're avoiding extending hospitality for whatever reason, or if you're a seasoned hospitality giver, there is wisdom and practical help for all between the covers of this little book. You'll find Brenda's book on Amazon in paperback or for your Kindle.
Now, I read a lot--both fiction and non-fiction. If you're looking for some possibilities for the coming year to challenge and strengthen your faith, here are four non-fiction books to consider:
1. When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight for Joy by John Piper. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." An excellent read and it's not wrong to pursue joy. Joy in God that is. He is the source of true joy.
2. Prayer - Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. Practical and energetic instruction in deepening your prayer life. Life changing stuff.
3. Why Should I Believe Christianity? by James Anderson. A foundational apologetics book that is understandable and shareable with those who have serious questions about Christianity and the Bible.
4. Valley of Vision. The Valley of Vision is a classic collection of Puritan prayers and meditations. Now, before you dismiss it as stiff and irrelevant which was my preliminary opinion, it is not. While there are thee's and thou's it is full of gems that encourage and challenge, and warm the heart. It's highly recommended to add to your devotional reading.
All of the aforementioned books are available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
In the realm of fiction, historical-fiction mysteries are my current focus ... er ... addiction. Please allow me to recommend a few authors, all of whom I totally enjoy for attention to historical details, clean writing, believable characters and well-constructed plots.
1. Anne Perry - The Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series and William Monk series are set in Victorian England. I've been reading Anne Perry books since the 1980s and she's still writing. Perry weaves intricate plots and creates complex characters. Settle in for a slower read.
2. Candace Robb - The Owen Archer series set in medieval England. Full of details about medieval life with captivating characters, and clever mysteries.
3. Charles Todd - The Ian Rutledge series and Bess Crawford series set in WWI era England. These are slower-paced plots, but wonderful characters, excellent mysteries, and details about WWI and the post WWI era.
4. Ellis Peters - Brother Cadfael series set in the first half of 12th century England. This series has been around for some time, and is now available on Kindle.
5. Ashley Gardner - Captain Lacey Regency series, set in England of course. Faster-paced plots, colorful characters and excellent mysteries with a bit of romance.
The snow is still falling and it's piling up. Three and four inches at the moment. We've not had such a snowfall since we left Western New York 15 years ago. Wherever you may be, find a comfy chair, a hot beverage, and I hope a good read. Blessings in the New Year.
For those of you who like a good story, especially if it involves the West, I have to share this rather bizarre, but true tale of the early 20th century. It all happened about 30 minutes from from Casa Wallace in the little border town of Naco, Arizona along with its counterpart, Naco, Sonora on the other side of the line.
The year was 1929. It was before the big crash in October, but things weren't so great in Mexico in the spring of that year. The people were fed up with heavy taxation, corruption, and the government in general. Hmmm...has a familiar ring to it already. Well, some rebel forces organized and began giving the Mexican army a hard time. Naco, Sonora was a pretty rough place with lots of saloons and gambling establishments, so more government intervention in their way of life wasn't welcome. The rebels and the army dug in around Naco, Sonora and began to have daily skirmishes. Since there wasn't much happening in Naco, Arizona, which is still true to this day, residents brought out chairs to watch the bullets fly between the Mexican army and the rebel forces for entertainment. Every once in awhile, a stray bullet would come across the U.S. border and send the spectators for cover. In general the Mexicans didn't want the rebellion to get out of hand and have the U.S. Army come in to settle the matter. So it remained a fairly orderly rebellion as rebellions go.
As time went on more gawkers gathered from Bisbee and outlying areas, sitting in wagons, makeshift benches, or vehicles. One of these folks was Patrick Murphy, a pilot with a bi-wing plane sitting idle. Being a good Irishman, he had a few whiskeys in Bisbee and decided to go down to Naco and offer his services as a bomber pilot to the poor under-equipped rebels. He also offered to make some custom bombs and make a run at routing the army. It was all quickly arranged with the rebels who promised some significant pesos for his services.
Murphy went to work assembling homemade bombs with dynamite, nails, scrap iron, and bolts. He stuffed them into old suitcases and iron pipes.On March 31 and April 1, he made two attempts at bombing the army, both of which failed since the bombs didn't explode. On his third attempt, he flew low over the town of Naco, Sonora and let the third load fall. Unfortunately, it hit the customs house and sprayed shrapnel toward the U.S. audience. Undaunted, the pilot hastily flew back to his hangar and made four more bombs. He was getting better, or so it seemed.
He continued his bombing raids and on April 6 he made his most magnificent strike. He managed to kill two Mexican soldiers in a trench and then things really went south or rather north. Murphy grossly miscalculated and continued his raid on Naco, Arizona. He managed to bomb a garage, broke the windows out of the Naco Pharmacy, wrecked a touring car, damaged the Phelps Dodge Mercantile, and the U.S. Post Office. The pilot who sensed he might be in trouble with the U.S. government, parked his plane and slipped into Mexico. The U.S. Army came out and immediately disabled the plane, while Gen. Topete of the rebel forces promised the U.S. there wouldn't be any more bombings.
Now, lest you think Patrick Murphy ended up in Acapulco sipping drinks with umbrellas in them, here's the end of the tale. Mr. Murphy crept back into the U.S. on April 30 when he determined that facing American government officials was eminently wiser than facing a Mexican firing squad. The Mexican troops had by then squashed the rebellion and Murphy was persona non gratis to the Mexican government. He was arrested once back across the border and carted off to the Tucson jail. He wasn't ever prosecuted and was eventually released. And no, he never did get paid for his aerial antics either. But he may go down as one of the worst bombers in history and as the only pilot to bomb the U.S. mainland from the air. His exploits have been immortalized in song entitled "The Bombing of Naco" by Dolan Ellis, Arizona's official balladeer. So there you go, another strange tale from Cochise County, the Land of Legends!
It's springtime at Casa Wallace. Pink salvia and Spanish lavender are blooming; the roses are budded. The rabbits are chasing one another amorously through the mesquites and cacti. Our feathered friends are a warbling choir in the trees--finches, curved-bill thrashers, silver cardinals, black-throated sparrows, and verdins searching for that special someone. And then there are the roadrunners. A pair of them who are in the mood to build a nest. In fact, they've considered the three acres comprising the Casa Wallace territory and decided that the garage is the perfect place to construct their abode.
They're of course completely wrong about the location. I can see the attraction though. Inside out of the wind--no obvious predators for babies. They're also close to the bags of seed for the bird feeders. It's sort of like room service.
We have no intention of allowing squatters to live in the garage. It just won't work. My good husband has cleared out their construction of mesquite twigs, grasses, and feathers at least three times so far. They tried the top of a cabinet and then decided that the tines of several rakes hanging on the wall was a good idea. Engineering is not their strength. After being foiled once again over the weekend, they've begun another attempt with humble nesting materials situated on top of the cupboards. Now mind you, the usual nesting places of roadrunners is in cacti, trees, and shrubs---outside. These roadrunners have different ideas and seem mostly indifferent to my instructions to vacate. Their beady little eyes stare at me as if to test me or frighten me back in the kitchen. It is a little creepy to see one atop the step ladder or on the raised garage door when I step out to shoo them away. Maybe Hitchcock's The Birds has scarred me.
Roadrunners are part of the cuckoo family which explains a great deal about them. They like to eat a variety of critters including scorpions (YAY!!) and even rattlesnakes (YAY!!). They supplement their diet with seeds and fruits. They are monogamous and usually raise about four progeny in a nest. Their flying ability is dismal, which accounts for the occasional flattened one on the roads. They are rather speedy when running and reach speeds of 20mph. In case you're wondering, coyotes are faster with speeds to around 40mph. They don't beep as a rule, but make an odd clacking sound with their beak accompanied by cooing. Their normal lifespan is seven to eight years.
The ones around Casa Wallace tend to be rather brazen and unafraid of people. They keep us company when raking or working in the garden and now they want to live with us. Oh boy!
Well, the garage door is down--no admittance for Mr. and Mrs. Roadrunner, who really should consider that cozy cactus in the side yard. We are determined to win the war against the feathered trespassers. But I will be watching my back.
Our youngest daughter and her husband are getting ready to move. It's a military lifestyle thing.Their three-year assignment is up and they're moving to a new location. Thousands of miles to travel. There are so many details to arrange and they're trying to prepare. All things we don't like at Christmas. I like my family around, lots of comfort food, and time to slow to a crawl. That's a perfect Christmas - savoring the moments and doing everything the way we've always done it. I think most of us want the familiar traditions of home and hearth for the holidays.
But the first Christmas was nothing like that. A very pregnant Mary was enduring an uncomfortable three or four day trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I can't imagine riding a donkey or walking 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem while nine months pregnant. She and Joseph were obeying orders from Caesar Augustus. A decree had gone out for people to return to their hometowns for a census and to pay taxes.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:4
That wonderful night when Jesus was born, shepherds who were outside of Bethlehem received startling news from the sudden appearance of angels in the night sky. They were to leave their sheep and go see the long-awaited Messiah. The journey wasn't far, and they wasted no time in finding the lowly stable and the baby lying in swaddling clothes in the manger.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Luke 2:15-16
There were the Magi (the wise men) who had studied the Scriptures and were watching the skies for one very special star, which they found. Without hesitation they loaded up their camels and headed out to follow that star for probably over a year before they found Mary, Joseph, and the very young Jesus in Bethlehem. They weren't sure where they'd end up or how long it would take, but they came prepared with gifts for the King of Kings. They took a real step of faith.
...they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. Matthew 2:9
The one who made the longest trip of all was Jesus himself. He willingly left heaven's glory and became flesh and blood, man yet God --Emmanuel, God with Us. The Son of God humbled himself to walk in this world, showing us how to live, and laying down His life to save us from our sins.
Who,(Jesus) being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Philippians 2:6-8
None of these moves were about comfort or tradition. They were in fact downright uncomfortable, inconvenient, and even dangerous. But the common thread is obedience which ultimately displayed God's plan for the best move of all--the way to heaven to live with Him forever. When God is getting ready to do a great thing, He starts moving people. Each person who experienced the first Christmas had to step out of his or her comfort zone, trust God, and change locations.
Things to ponder as the New Year approaches.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6
A Christmas short story for my faithful readers. Did you ever peek at the presents before Christmas? Here's one boy's misadventure about that very topic. It's family-friendly , so read to the kids.
The packages have been arriving in the mail almost everyday. There was one that came today from Grandpa and Grandma Harding that Mom whisked upstairs to her secret closet. We're not supposed to go anywhere near the secret closet starting the week of Thanksgiving. But it's not really a secret since my brother and sister and I know where it is. In the hallway between Mom and Dad's bedroom and my brother, Jerry's room is a closet with a special lock at the top of the door. I can't reach it and neither can Jerry or my sister, Darla. My hand can just brush the bottom of the deadbolt if I stand on tiptoes, but I'm not tall enough to pull it back. Not yet, but maybe next year.
I wish I could open that door to see what's really in there. Mom says peeking will ruin Christmas. What? How could knowing ahead of time ruin anything? If I don't get what I asked for...now that'll ruin Christmas morning for sure. There's this really great race car set that I've wanted forever. It wasn't under the tree last year, and I asked Dad for it again weeks ago. He got a funny look on his face and rubbed his whiskers like he was thinking it over. He gave me the same old answer. "We'll have to see what Santa brings you."
Santa? Do they think I'm dumb? The presents are already in the secret closet. Mom took some shopping bags upstairs last week. Nothing looked big enough for the box the race car set would be in though. I'm probably not getting it again. But, that's all I want. Why can't I have it? It isn't fair. Jerry and Darla got what they wanted last year. Jerry got a dumb dinosaur that roars and Darla got the Barbie Dream Castle--a hunk of ugly pink plastic. I got a robot. It was OK. Maybe it's time to come up with a plan to see if my Christmas is ruined or not.
Mom had Christmas music on and the house smelled like gingerbread--my favorite. There were already some frosted gingerbread men piled up on a her special cookie plate. She said "Donny, you can have two," so I grabbed them and sat in the big chair by our huge Christmas tree in the living room eating and thinking. Gingerbread cookies must be good for thinking because I came up with a plan to get into the closet right away. I'd have to keep Jerry and Darla from seeing me, otherwise they'd tell on me for sure. They were always following me around, except for right now. Where were they? I checked each room looking for them. Finally, I went back to the kitchen and asked Mom. She said they were at practice for the Christmas program at church. That's right--the Christmas play was next week. It was the first year I didn't have to go. The little kids Christmas program was for kids who were younger than nine. I was tired of being a shepherd anyway. I'd been one every year since I was three.
Then Mom said she was going outside to get the mail. She already had a jacket on. Here was my chance! Dashing up the stairs, I got the red wooden stool from the bathroom. Darla still stands on it to brush her teeth. It had to be tall enough. It was so easy! Why hadn't I thought of this before? I ran to my bedroom window to see if Mom was still outside. She was, and old Mrs. Gardener was talking to her. They'd be out there forever. Dad calls her Mrs. Gabby Gardener because she talks a lot. I can't ever understand what she's talking about. A lot of stuff about when she was a kid, I guess.
Well, anyway I shoved the stool in front of the secret closet door. The stool made me tall enough to slide the bolt back and then I was standing in front of piles of boxes and bags stuffed in between old coats hanging on a pole. There was a doll for Darla--it figured. I pulled a game out of a big bag. It looked kinda interesting. I pushed it back behind the coats. There was a bag with pajamas, and some candy. More girl stuff for Darla. Why did she get so much? Nothing--no race cars. Then I looked up. The two shelves above the rod where the coats hung had lots more boxes. There was the one that had come from Grandpa and Grandma. But that wasn't big enough. I put the stool inside the closet to get a better look. There was a bag--a really big bag with something really big in it on the top shelf. It could be the race car set. I stood on my tiptoes on the edge of the stool. If I could just reach the bag to look inside.
But then it happened. I tipped and grabbed the edge of the bag to catch my balance. The bag came crashing down on my head and I fell into the coats, knocking bags and boxes everywhere. I felt something trickle from my nose and when I swiped my finger under my nose, it was blood. My shirt sleeve took care of that problem. The bigger problem was the mess of packages that had tumbled into the hallway. The front door hadn't slammed, so I might still be OK. It's a good thing I'm nine and pretty strong because I got all those packages put back in the closet. I couldn't get the big bag on the top shelf though, so I shoved it behind the coats and shut the door ... very quietly.
Then I pushed the bolt through those little hoops and locked the door. The bad part was that my nose was still bleeding and I had to wipe it on my shirt again. I sat on my bed wishing that it would stop. Some Kleenex from the bathroom helped when I stuffed it up my nose. The front door opened--Mom was back in the house.
She called for me, but I couldn't go downstairs with blood on my shirt. So I answered that I was busy doing homework. Then she asked if I was sick. I hollered "no" and pulled off my shirt. I took another one out of the dresser drawer and hid the bloody one under the bed. Carefully, I pulled out the Kleenex. No blood. Good! But then, I remembered. Oh no! The stool was still in the hall. If she didn't come upstairs, I could sneak it back to the bathroom. Tiptoeing like a Ninja, I picked it up and put it back---everything was OK.
Then I realized, I'd never looked in the bag. It had been for nothing. How dumb! But I hadn't gotten caught. Maybe doing my homework was a good idea after all. And waiting for Christmas might be OK. Maybe a really smart thing, even if there wasn't any race car set.
Merry Christmas Readers! If you'd like access to more free short stories, become a Mystery Maven Society member by subscribing to my occasional newsletter.
P.S. Donny did get his race car set.
It's time to get the Christmas movies and TV specials DVDs out. Since Christmas is just four weeks away, we'd better get started. The stack of DVDs at Casa Wallace is about ready to go, but we might add something new. As bonafide Christmas junkies here's what our viewing will include this month.
1. A Christmas Story - We've already watched this one. A Wallace family tradition for over 20 years, we kick off the Christmas season by watching this 1980s classic on Thanksgiving night. We continue to laugh over "You'll shoot your eye out," "a major award," "I double-dog dare you," and "You used up all the glue on purpose. Then there's this little exchange between Ralphie and his mother after he said the worst word of all time:
Mother: All right. Now, are you ready to tell me where you heard that word?
Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. But, I chickened out and said the first name that came to mind.
This movie never fails to bring a smile and a good laugh. And if tradition holds, the USA network will run the movie continuously for 24 hours starting on Christmas Eve. My personal opinion is that if you can't crack a smile during this movie, then you're taking life way too seriously.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas - Having been a kid when it first came out on television in the 60s, I love this animated story. The music by Vince Guaraldi is fabulous and I even have it on my iPod, so I can listen to it year-round. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye as the Christmas story is narrated by Linus. A must see every year. Charles Shultz was an absolute genius when he created this special.
3. It's a Wonderful Life - Yup, I cry when I watch this one too. I think it's entirely OK during the Christmas season to shed a few tears. It's the joy of the season that wells up inside and makes us feel good about what really matters - integrity, sacrifice, love, family, and a darn good ending. Frank Capra's low budget 1946 movie has become part of the American Christmas tradition. Get the DVD and watch it in front of a crackling fire, hot chocolate and tissues in hand. A stellar cast with James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell doesn't disappoint--ever. And if you've wondered how Bert and Ernie got their names on Sesame Street, you'll find the answer in this movie.
4. Scrooged - With the hilarious Bill Murray, this 1988 film is an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Joining Bill are Karen Allen, John Fosythe, Carol Kane, John Murray, Robert Goulet, and many more excellent actors. Carol Kane is absolutely hysterical as the Ghost of Christmas Present. A movie that is a hoot.
5. How The Grinch Stole Christmas - Boris Karloff narrates the original and is the only one I'll watch. Another perfectly told story that needs no remakes or improvements. Who doesn't love Dr. Seuss's Max the dog as he struggles to haul the Grinch's sleigh? And as the Whos sing the strange, but compelling carol in the village square, you might actually join in. Thurl Ravenscroft provides the outstanding bass vocals on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." He was also Tony, the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. (free trivia)
6. National Lampoon's Family Christmas Vacation - We all want the perfect family Christmas and place such high expectations on ourselves and our families for the holiday. But, as Chevy Chase learns in this modern classic, the family stuff is a little overrated. Crazy relatives, snooty neighbors, a squirrel, a large Rottweiler, and a kidnapping by your wife's redneck cousin can almost ruin your life. Almost. It's a laugh out loud movie to lighten the stress of the holidays.
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - I was and still am fascinated with the animation in this one, which went along with the Norelco TV ad (the electric shaver that zipped through the snow). You have to be of a certain age to remember that one. Burl Ives narrates and this is another production that cannot be improved upon. Amazing that three Christmas specials from the 1960s continue to have such popularity over 50 years later. The music is great in this one too. Isle of Misfit Toys, Silver and Gold, and Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas are part of the musical landscape.
8. Christmas with the Kranks - a movie based on the John Grisham novel, Skipping Christmas. Starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis, I firmly believe this would happen to my husband and me if we decided to forego Christmas. A 2004 film, this is the only one after the turn of the century that's been added to our pile. It's a good laugh, heartwarming, and worth viewing this December.
There are lots more movies that may get watched - White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, The Bishop's Wife, Home Alone, to name a few. What are your favorites?
Many of us will dig deep this Christmas season, writing checks, pushing coins into red buckets, and making online payments to charities before January 1. Americans are the most generous people in the world. Giving to charitable organizations in 2014 was recorded at more than $258 billion by Giving USA Foundation. It was 5.7% more than giving in 2013. That's a lotta dough.
We love to give, but we're also suckers for a "feel good" experience. The TV commercials that make us cry and tug at our heartstrings may not be the best places to send our money. And definitely not the ones who send us "free" gifts in the mail to make us feel guilty. I encourage you to take a serious look at what your favorite charities are doing with your hard-earned dollars after they get your check. There are great resources to find out what's happening with your donation. Here are two helpful links:
Visit your charity's website and find out if they post their financials and how much they spend to raise money. That's the real proof of the pudding. Organizations that spend a whopping 40% or more to raise more money are not a good value. That means a lot is spent on advertising, events, etc. and less is getting to those who need the help. If you can't find the information on their website, send them an email or give them a call. If the organization is unwilling to share those numbers, that's a red flag.
There are lots of great organizations that operate administrative and fundraising sides with 20% or less. Those are the ones I recommend you check into. Charity Navigator has information on the statistics if the organization is required to file a 990 with the IRS.
Giving is a serious responsibility and a matter of the heart. We must be sure that our gifts are thoughtful, generous, and done with the right attitude.
"You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 NLT
If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. Romans 12:8 NLT
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Malachi 3:10 NLT
Give generously, but give wisely. Don't be fooled by glitzy materials or guilt trips. Follow your heart to where you want to give, but find organizations that do it well. My personal top five are these:
1. My church
2. Africa Inland Mission
3. Samaritan's Purse
4. The Salvation Army (Local)
5. Care Net Pregnancy Center (Local)
Money isn't the only way to give, so do consider giving your time to your charity as well. I can tell you from experience, that's the most valuable gift many charities desperately need.
Be blessed and bless others this Christmas season.
The West has introduced me to new foods such as jicama, prickly pears, mesquite flour ... and the wonderful world of fresh roasted chilis. They are delicious. However, I would be remiss if I didn't share some sweet memories of New York State and a native food that your pancakes cry out for. Not having some of this in the cupboard sometimes makes me a little homesick. No ... not enough to endure the cold and snow, but maple syrup is one of my favorite treats. Although real syrup is available in the grocery store, it's made in Northwest and not the Northeast. I'm not talking about the row of corn syrup products on the shelf, but bona fide maple syrup. Amber ... maple golden ... delicious ... sweetness.
If you were a kid back in the 60s or earlier, the sight of tin roof covered buckets on sugar maples was a common during February in Western New York. I remember a local family who borrowed our trees to collect the thin, clear sap that would eventually turn into sweet amber syrup. A big tractor and farm wagon would pull up to the houses in the neighborhood (a rural dairy farming neighborhood) loaded with buckets and taps or spiles. A mallet quickly drove the metal spile into the tree and bucket would then be hung to collect a steady drip of maple sap. Big maples usually had two or three buckets dangling from their trunks. Sap was collected every day and poured into old-fashioned metal milk cans. It was back-breaking work for 4-6 weeks. That was just the beginning. The boiling off process takes hours and constant care before it's ready for pancakes.
Real maple syrup requires an average of 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. You can immediately see why the stuff is so expensive. American Indians were the first to discover syrup making and it's one of the few agricultural practices indigenous to America rather than Europe. That in itself makes it special. A true American-made product. Even though technology has significantly improved over hundreds of years, the process remains labor intensive. The weather also has to cooperate - above freezing during the day and below 32 degrees at night. Chancy business in the Northeast. Weather there is a harsh taskmaster, and sap quantities are excruciatingly linked to the weather.
There are so many wonderful maple products: syrup, sugar, candy (traditional maple leaf shape, please), and my all-time favorite, maple cream. Without a doubt, the best topping for ice cream, yes better than even chocolate. I know that's a dangerous statement, but that's how I'm calling it.
A favorite jaunt in the bleak mid-winter of WNY was a trip or two to Cartwright's Maple Tree Inn in Short Tract. Not only do they serve the best buckwheat pancakes, but the syrup is made downstairs. The sugar bush (the stand of trees used for sap collection) covers the rolling hills around the sprawling restaurant and syrup factory. Rather than buckets, plastic tubing is run from tree to tree and emptied into a collection vat. They use a reverse osmosis technology which shortens the time from sap to syrup. They've been in this sweet business for over 50 years. We have many fond memories of friends around a long table with stacks of steaming pancakes, plates of eggs, bacon, and sausage. Of course, no visit was complete for me without the purchase of a jar of maple cream. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed when our annual trip to New York rolls around, but I manage to make a trip to Lantz's Bulk Food store in Warsaw. They always stock plenty of maple products, and I leave room in the suitcase to stash my purchase of a couple of maple items along with some New Hope Mills pancake mix (another NY tradition).
If you've been lulled into complacency with colored corn syrup, you have no idea what you're missing. I recommend you get a hold of the real stuff and put that over your waffles. It's OK if it's from the Northwest, but New York syrup is still the best. (I know I'll hear from Canadians on this one.) Let it run willy-nilly over pancakes, oatmeal, waffles, or ice cream. At our house, it's one of those necessary luxuries that makes life sweet.
We left a yard of maples, pines, and an elm tree in New York for a yard of mesquite trees in Arizona. In fact, we have three acres of mesquite trees. The mesquite is a tough, drought-tolerant tree. Famous for its wood that smokes meat to a delicious flavor, the tree averages about 20 feet in height. Its leaves are delicate and lacy looking, but watch out! Most mesquite varieties have thorns--along the same lines as thorn apples back east. They are deciduous trees and when they leaf out in April, it's about the only green we have until the monsoon.
There are several varieties of mesquite and the ones on our property are velvet, honey, and a hybrid of the two. The mesquite flowers in May with long, fuzzy yellow blooms and then long bean pods form once the flowers are gone. We discovered that these pods are sweet and have been used in the Southwest as a food source for a long time. Once milled into flour, the humble mesquite beans are quite pricey--$7 to $9 per HALF pound.
Here's the process we followed to collect the pods:
1. We picked dry pods from the trees and NOT off the ground. Using beans that have dropped on the ground is not a good idea because of bacteria. Pods with black mold are to be avoided for obvious reasons.
2. We tasted the beans before picking from individual trees. Only those with a sweet, pleasant flavor were the ones we picked. Not all trees are equal.
3. We dried them in the sun to get every bit of moisture out of them over a period of a few days. There are bugs which bore into the pods, so you keep the buckets of pods outside. If you take them in too soon, you'll have a buggy house. The pods are really dry when they snap easily in half. If you want to kill off all of the bugs, spread the pods on baking sheets and bake at 175 degrees for an hour or two. We decided that drying and sorting over several days got rid of the majority of bugs. A little extra protein never hurt anyone.
4. We stored the pods in airtight food safe plastic buckets to await milling day which was this week. The pods had been in the buckets for a couple of months, so we spread them out in the sun one more time to make sure they were good to go.
Wonder of wonders, I managed to be first in line with my beans, which were rated as excellent by the ladies who sort them before they go into the milling machine. A lot of time is spent in the final sorting by Baja Arizona volunteers, who are looking for things that shouldn't go through the milling machine, like rocks, sticks, moldy pods, etc. Baja Arizona is an agricultural organization working to promote sustainable, native foods in southern Arizona. It was fun to talk with these friendly and knowledgeable folks about the interesting native foods in our area.
Our little harvest yielded a little over five pounds of beautiful mesquite flour from about four gallons of pods. When you open the bag of flour, the aroma of nutty sweetness wafts up to tickle your nose.
Substituting a small portion of regular flour with mesquite seems to be the way to adapt recipes. So, a recipe that calls for a cup of flour adjusts out to 3/4 of a cup of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup of mesquite. It’s excellent in pancakes, waffles, scones, and cookies.
For those who may be interested, the flour is gluten free and is full of good stuff for us. It does need to be mixed with other flours since gluten is what makes bread hold together. Otherwise you’ll end up with a pile of crumbs. Because of its high sugar content it also burns easily, which is another reason to go easy on the amount you add to a recipe. It has a strong flavor, so some experimentation is required to find the correct ratio for your taste buds.
Enjoy the photos of the mesquite flour process. As for me, I’m off to the kitchen to whip up some mesquite delicacies.
Cooking with mesquite flour link: http://www.desertharvesters.org/mesquite-in-the-kitchen/cooking-with-mesquite/
With Halloween just a couple of weeks away, it seemed appropriate to do a little hiking around the ghost towns of Charleston and Millville. The BLM trailhead is just across the San Pedro River on Charleston Road, a short drive from Casa Wallace. We haven’t explored the trails in this area, so it was time to check out a little Old West history and enjoy a beautiful fall day.
The trails are well maintained and marked with numerous historical markers about the two short-lived boom towns of the late 1800s. The area’s economy was driven by the Tombstone silver mining business which sprang to life in 1878. The Schieffelin brothers, Edward and Al went into partnership with Richard Gird forming the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company. Gird began construction of a ten-stamp mill that same year and the town of Millville was born a few miles from Tombstone. Ore taken from the Toughnut Mine and several others the company owned in Tombstone had to be crushed to recover the silver. Huge stampers pulverized the stone to extract the bullion. A canal was dug from the San Pedro River to divert water to power the mill. In those days, there was abundant water in the river. Reports are that 13-million gallons a day were available to power the mill and irrigate the many gardens near the San Pedro which were tended by Chinese farmers.
Gird built his home right next door to the mill which ran 24/7. The noise must have been incredible. So much for peaceful rural living. He married shortly after building the house and the wealthy couple’s large home became the social center of the area. In its heyday, the mill produced more than $1.3 million in silver in 1881-82. It would soon come to an end, however. The terrible earthquake of May 3, 1887 leveled some of the adobe buildings in Millville and damaged many others. Close on the heels of the earthquake came severe flooding in the Tombstone mines which brought about the closure of the mining enterprises. Within 10 years, the town evaporated into the desert dust. Only a few foundations remain to hint at any town in the scrubby creosote bush and mesquite hillsides.
However, an added bonus to hiking out to the Millville site is another trail that takes you to the petroglyphs. Early native residents in the area, the Hohokam tribe left some of their artwork on the rocks. The trail leads toward the river and the old railroad bed that helped Millville and Charleston thrive for a decade. The river was trickling along today, yellow leaves on the cottonwoods that line the banks.
The glyphs were visible from a distance, but we managed to scramble up a few rocks for a closer look. We didn’t have time to add in an extra mile to Charleston, and according to our information, there’s not much to see. Ft. Huachuca used the old adobe ruins for target practice during WW II, which pretty much took care of the remaining buildings. Charleston grew quickly after Millville was birthed. It managed to take the post office away from Millville and had a thriving retail trade with Sonora besides the milling business with a 15-stamper mill running around the clock. Records indicate that there were 62 different professions in Charleston with restaurants, stores, livery stables, saloons, bakeries, but no bank. For all the wild tales of armed robberies, the town never lost a payroll or a load of silver bullion.
We encountered nothing spooky other than a snakeskin lying under a bush. Fortunately, the occupant was nowhere in sight nor did we spot anything else venomous along the trail. All in all, a good Saturday morning hike exploring the history of the San Pedro. For a more detailed history of Millville and Charleston visit BLM website and Arizona Ghost Town Trails.