We annually host students from the college for a day in Eastern Kentucky. This year that visit took place on 22 October The emphasis was on sustainability as still practiced in this area. The class consisted of about a dozen students plus faculty from two places, Berea and Wayne State University. The students are interested in the environment and sustainable living, and the day was all about sustainability Appalachian style. We recruited our friends to help us, and together we strung green beans onto thread and hung them up for drying into shuckey beans (which my father called leather britches), pulled the husks off ears of corn, shelled the ears of corn, ground the corn kernels into cornmeal, used the husks to make a shuck mattress like the kind my grandparents used on their beds (and that I slept on as a child), and boiled some of the dried corn kernels with lye to make hominy. While the hominy-making was going on, one of the faculty kept asking, "That's lye? Real lye? And you're going to eat what comes out of that pot?" But when supper came, she did eat the hominy, and loved it.
Besides preserving food, we caned a chair seat with hickory bark, made homemade soap, also with lye, and used a draw knife and shaving horse to make furniture legs. We also built a huge bonfire and made music around it.
The process was educational to me as well as to the students. For one thing, since it was too late in the year to use green beans from the garden, I had to buy them. I parceled out about five pounds and told the students that we first had to remove the strings from the bean pods before runing twine through the beans to render them "hangable" for drying. To my surprise, the bought beans had no strings. One of the participants (the cornmeal grinder) said that these days what you buy in stores are hybrid beans that have had the strings bred out of them, along with the taste. Can't speak for the taste, but they certainly had no strings. So we went straight to needle and twine and produced a dozen nice strings to hang on the porch of the cabin we were using.
I also learned something about cornmeal. Home-grown and -ground is much healthier than store-bought. Apparently, the little seed at the base of each kernel is taken out of commercial cornmeal, either to make cornflakes or to extend shelf-life, or both. So you are missing important nutrients when you buy corn meal from the store. Home-grown and -ground tastes better too.
I don't "put away" food, as we call canning and preserving, since we're not here in summer, but a lot of people pitched in with home-produced sauerkraut, pickled corn, pickled beans, canned berries, dried apples, molasses, etc. I received a particular bonus in that one of our friends gave me two quarts of mixed pickles. You are probably this minute thinking of something made with cucumbers, like bread and butter pickles or dill pickles, but "mixed pickles" here conveys corn, green beans, and cabbage (and sometime onions and green peppers) chopped, mixed, and pickled with salt and vinegar (no sugar). In the old days, the chopping would have been done with an empty, sharpened Carnation milk or similar store-bought can.They turn out like sauerkraut, unsurprisingly. To serve them, you rinse them and fry them in what once was lard or bacon fat, but now commonly is something like olive oil for health's sake. I love the things, and have fried and eaten one quart pretty much singlehandedly, but am reserving the other for a special occasion.
Anyway, the students seemed to have a great time, and they sent us a sort of poster on which they had drawn sketches of ears of corn, green beans strung on twine, a big campfire, the chair we caned, and similar reminders of the day, with notes about what they enjoyed most.
Richard Olson and his wife Cheyenne practice what he teaches about sustainable living. They have started a non-profit called Sustainable Berea (click on the highlighted name or go to http://www.sustainableberea.org to visit their website). Kami Pothukuchi, an Associate Professor at Wayne State who also accompanied the group, has founded two efforts toward sustainable living in Detroit. One is an award-winning project called Seed Wayne, which focuses on raising food in the city, and the other is called Detroit Fresh, which concentrates on providing a supply of vegetables to inner-city corner markets. To access either web site, click on the names above.