Thursday, December 6, 2018

Scrap-Wood Feast

The orchard lay east and south of the house. Winnowed by years, hot summers and bitter winters, when I was young all that remained were two apricots, two peaches, and the singletons: a single apple, gnarled with age but far from infirm, and a barren cherry, infertile and alone. Those few steps from the back walk to lush flavor, juices running from mouths edge and lip, were a delight still unmatched by anything less carnal among adulthood's discoveries. A delight now gone, as first apple, then a peach, then cherry, then the last peach succumbed to age, and finally the two apricots failed after a twenty-eight below winter.
Bones of limb and trunk stood, the untended dead, until they fell and were left there still. The world spun and the lives of those who should have, who once, cared tumulted and failed too in the heats and colds of life, illness, and poverty.
Eventually, some of these bones were dragged away and piled with others, mill worked lengths of oak so old and left exposed so long that they had regained the twists and arthritic bends of their rooted life. This oak, saved from boxcars by my great-grandfather and by his son for projects unknown, and the fruit woods lay together, bleaching and cracking in the sun and storms, more kin to Temujin's distant cairns than to sweet ripe fruit or warm hand worked carpentry. And so... and so... the years passed.
My life here is a complex one, as maybe anyone's is raised on land, in a place that is of such strong character and all at once fire, hammer, anvil for, and fiber soft, strong, and raw woven into, the character of those generations lived, worked, fought, nourished, fucked, slept and died there. I've run from this place, run to it, fought and feared it, and at last undertaken to live with it. To make peace, if not friends, with the ghosts and make for myself, my family, a home. Bones into meal, my days are ones of working the remains of one-hundred years of life here into the next years, the next generations. Building from what they left things my ancestors would recognize and be proud of, but that also serve me and will serve my son and daughter in their lives beyond my ken. It is nourishing work, the soul well fed with calloused hands, and the place looking and feeling alive once more. To nourish soul, place, mind, and life, you must also nourish the body.
The landscape is littered with small  arroyos, washouts between the hard unnourishing knots of bunch grass, from the sides of which spill rusting cans and shattered jars. Long ago sheepherders, homesteaders, and cowboys lived here, much on what came out of cans. Venison and beef may hang but a few months out of the year here, and jerk dries the already dust parched mouth. The harvest of even small gardens goes further if put up in mason jars, and what a revelation a can of corned beef to go with it instead of hard salt-beef as dry as the stones. The ones who came before fed this way, leaving their trash piles rusty evidence of their passing, staying, eating, living.
We eat our share of canned goods. Much of it is even not real bad, and nothing keeps here like canned food, safe from spoilage and depredations of the larders enemies, mice and bugs. There is no substitute for fresh meat, though, and every trip to town brings excitement for whatever large cut we'll be bringing home. A smoke-house will be built, but until that day the town run brings omnivorous joy at the first meat not out of a can in two or more weeks.
Meat and bones, this is a natural pairing. The long dry, long removed from nourishment or use, bones of the orchard, the bones of the carpenter, can now be put to rest in use The small kitchen in the old adobe has only a cast-iron wood burning stove. Almost three square feet of smooth black iron cooktop, above an oven big enough for any Yuletide goose. Put to heat, entirely, by a firebox for only wood. Outside, in the long established New Mexico fashion, is a summertime kitchen, centered around a large wood brazier over which can be placed a grill or sheet-iron cooktop. If we eat it, it was likely made over a wood fire.
Nearly eighty years ago my great-grandmother planted an elm tree beside the overflow pond from the well. Still alive today, this elm has become gargantuan, though no official recorder has ever measured it the tree stands unique by size. On water nearly constantly every day of its life, the old elm reaches ten feet above the thirty-five foot windmill tower and stretches branches thirty-feet in every direction from its sixteen foot diameter trunk. The old elm has given rise to, and outlived, many children, sprouting all over the yard as elms do. Also as elms do, the old tree sheds branches from time to time, dropping whole limbs to become bones alongside its outlived children. These bones make a hot fire with a mild smoke, and though poor fair for heat compared to native cedar or piñon, elm makes a fine cookfire.
Today these bones are cut into short lengths and put into a kiln to turn into charcoal. The charcoal, cherry, elm and a bit of apricot, goes into my smoker below pounds of pork belly brought from town. The pork belly has been bathed in a sauce of honey, balsamic vinegar, coconut aminos, and spices and herbs including safe, garlic, pepper, and clove. As the sauce reduced, a few shattered black walnuts were added, over the brazier fire.
Brazier smoke mingles with the rising smoke from the smoker as the sauce bathed meat is placed onto the rack and closed in for the next six hours, to slowly cook swirled in the smoke of history, of life. When it emerges, tender and falling apart beneath the fork, it will nourish the body and soul of my hard working, fully living, family. The bones of trees that were, will have turned to powdered ash, and others will wait for the next days cook fires, and the nourishment it will provide.

No comments: