Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fresh-cut Hay—The Intoxicating Smell of Nostalgia

As this video demonstrates, some of the new hay baling machines appear to be a cross between a carnival ride and a futuristic time machine. I imagine some manufacturers have robot balers that completely keep the human touch out of the process. There were times as a teenager when I would have been happy to throw down my work gloves and download a “hay field app” on my smartphone. But itchy chaff and broken twine bales aside, I do miss those hot summer days “on the rack.”

Fifty-pound Bales, Wild Drivers, and Drunken Sailors

Every summer, a rural intoxication returns to our part of the Midwest. When farmers cut the first crop of hay, I drive to my folks’ farm, roll down the windows, and let the aroma from a neighbor’s field seep in with the dust from the gravel road. If the hay is lush and fresh—and if a warm humid breeze carries the scent of alfalfa, orchard grass, and a few remnants of clover—you can feel the memories activate, and you can catch visions of an era gone by.

Nowadays, the few farmers who bale hay in our area use high tech equipment and generally produce huge round bales. Some decades ago, the ritual was more complicated. Everyone used machines that produced square, fifty-pound bales that we could stack and transport to the barn. We boys would grab the bales as they came out of the chute and then stack them on the rack in hopes that the load would hold together. If the bales tumbled off on the trip to the barn, you deserved all the ridicule you were sure to get at lunch time.

As we got older, we could hire on with baling crews, and if you joined up with old Clarence, you were in for a wild ride. He wore bib overalls and a tan safari hat while driving the tractor that pulled his customized baler equipped with a powerful “Wisconsin engine.” As my cousin Tim says, “He could bale trees with that machine.” Clarence would put it in gear, seldom look back, and rarely slow down. If the field was bumpy, we were like drunken sailors on the rack, and the only thing that held us down was grabbing the bales. They were extra heavy because Clarence used wire instead of twine, and we occasionally had to team up to hoist a bale to the top row of the stack.

Speed was fine with us since Clarence paid by the bale—a whopping penny a bale—so if the machinery didn’t break down and rain didn’t set in, you could make twelve dollars or so in an afternoon. That bought a lot of gas for a ’56 Chevy back in 1967. 

Those images are gone, as most hay fields now have seven-foot-tall round bales casting shadows in the evening sun. But new-cut hay still has the aroma, and anyone who rode a rack will remember the heat, the lifting, the hypnotic sound of the baler—and the satisfaction of a job well done on the last ride in at sunset.   

by dan gogerty (top pic from livingthecountrylife.jpg and bottom pic from locusthill.jpg)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Bread Smells Good in Any Language

(note: as a follow-on from last week's entry, another look at the visit to Turkey)

Fresh-baked bread smells good in any language, so when Yeliz invited us to observe her techniques on a farm in west Turkey, my wife and I jumped at the chance. I’m a baking illiterate, but it is a tradition in our Iowa farm family, so I was anxious to see how this Turkish farm wife’s methods compared to the process my folks still use during their weekly ritual back home.

The first difference was quite striking—Yeliz handles a hatchet like a Canadian lumberjack. She pulled large olive branches from a pile in front of her house and quickly turned them into pieces that fed the fire in the dome-shaped clay oven. While the inside walls grew hot, she showed us the rising loaves of bread on her living room floor. An industrial-strength kneading machine has made life easier for her, but the process is still long and demanding—she makes ten or twelve loaves a week.

I didn’t need to ask her why. “Of course I bake. For family, for friends, for tradition.” The answer seems similar to what my parents say. “We like the rewards of doing something useful with our hands. Something we can produce that gives pleasure to others.”

Yeliz calls us back when the oven is glowing on the inside; she removes charred sticks and cinders, then swabs it out with a wet towel to settle the ashes and even out the temperature. Like a pizza paddle expert, she positions the loaves in the oven and seals it for two hours.

On another continent, my 89-year-old parents follow a similar “zen baking routine” during their weekly bread-making days. Mom is the master baker—from decades of developing her techniques gathered intuitively from her mother’s skills and directly from advice neighbors passed on in the old-style farming community.

Dad may not be “Top Chef,” but he has become a full partner since he has pulled back on some of his farm duties. “We make a team effort. Your mom still kneads the dough, but I gather the equipment and do the heavy lifting. The pay isn’t great, but it’s satisfying work.”

Yeliz usually bakes the large, wheel-shaped loaves that add to Turkish meals when diners dip portions into olive oil or hummus. During our visit, she also made several deep-fried sweet dough pieces. Mom and Dad occasionally still make cinnamon rolls, but as with Yeliz, the main product is the historical “staff of life.” 

Bread has been a staple since before Biblical times, and bread making is an art—a way to create and give. A famous quote states, "The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight." Philosophy aside--it just tastes so much better than store-bought loaves.

by dan gogerty (quote from M.F.K. Fisher)