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Stew Day

This is a repost of a piece I wrote a few years ago. Since today is Labor Day, precisely the sort of cool, clear, late summer morning when we would make Brunswick stew, I wanted to put it out there again.

My morning walk took me by our local farmers market. It was a lively scene as vendors slid from trucks, stretched, and waved to others setting up for the day. I watched as a hardworking woman spread out ears of corn alongside boxes of huge tomatoes and I was reminded of summers back home when it seemed everything in the garden ripened at once. Our piles of tomatoes, squash, butter beans and other vegetables rivaled any farmers market.

Mounds of homegrown produce also meant it was time for a Brunswick stew…

I was an adult before I realized just how fortunate I was to grow up the way I did. My grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their children a bordering piece of land on which to build their homes. My grandparents’ farmhouse and the huge garden worked by our families were the focal points for us all. I grew up surrounded by best friends – who happened to be my cousins.

From my backyard I could look across garden, field, or pasture to see a cousin on the swing set, an uncle on the tractor, or my grandmother Nannie under the apple tree by the well as she emptied a bucket of just picked tomatoes onto an old metal table. With so much ripe and ready at once, it was time for the stew.

It was exciting to wake up to the faint smell of wood smoke coming from across the field. Daddy and the uncles would have gathered early to start a fire beneath the huge cast iron stew pot. It was no stove-top pot. That thing could easily hold two small kids and a cousin and I proved that once during a game of hide-and-seek… By the time we kids showed up on the morning of the stew, the fire was at perfect peak, gallons of water were boiling, and Nannie, Mama and the aunts had readied the meat and cut up vegetables from the garden.

For the next several hours we kids would play – usually as close to the fire as we could without getting fussed at – while Mama and the aunts scurried back and forth between kitchen and the boiling stew. Daddy and the uncles would talk and take turns stirring the stew with what appeared to be the oar from a sizeable dingy. As a kid I remember thinking how interesting it was that Mama and the aunts were in charge of family cooking all year long, but on stew day Daddy and the uncles took over. I think they just wanted to play with the fire.

Even today I have no idea what stew recipe was used, the proportion of ingredients, or how long and how often the boat oar needed to be swirled around the giant pot. I do remember that timing seemed to be everything and there was generally great debate over several major points: Time for the corn, no add the butter beans first, is the meat already in, should we add more water, have the tomatoes cooked down, add salt, don’t add salt, get that oak leaf out that just fell in, and on and on.

Hours later, after being properly talked over and paddled, the stew was ready. It was always good, but with Nannie’s homemade rolls alongside, it was even better. Naturally we washed it all down with sweet tea.

As I walked back home after passing the farmers market I thought about all of the family stews we had in the past and how long it had been since I’d had any “real” stew. When I got home I checked my kitchen cabinets. I did have one can of store-bought Brunswick stew. It might be ok, but I’m certain it won’t be as good as the “real” stuff. I don’t know if it was the fresh vegetables, the boat oar, or the occasionally fallen oak leaf in the pot that made those stews so memorable.

I imagine it was more likely the fact that each time I ate “real” stew I was surrounded by laughing aunts and uncles, Nannie in her apron, and a gang of cousins. All gathered there under a tree with bowls of stew in our laps, a roll in one hand, and a glass of sweet tea in the other.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Chesapeake Bay Magazine – “It’s What We Do”

A little announcement:

I’m excited to let you know I have an essay appearing in the current issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine!

It was a thrill to work with the kind folks at the magazine and having enjoyed time at the bay my whole life, it was especially fun to contribute.

Below is the link to my piece in the online version of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

It’s What We Do

Thanks again to all who’ve asked what I’ve been up to lately. Blogging continues to be great fun and has proven to be an exciting pathway to opportunities such as this. Exciting!

Stuart M. Perkins

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Dumb Little Dish

The dumb little dish meant nothing to me. I threw it in the trash.

Fall had come, temperatures dropped, and I thought it best to bring plants back inside after their summer spent on the sunny side porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch the draining water.

It was an ugly dish too. The last remaining piece of an awful looking partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me years and years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower. Or maybe the thing was a sickly butterfly. Altogether hideous.

Over the years, various pieces were broken and thrown away. I began to use the last few dishes as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time and accidents had whittled the set down to this one lone worthless dish. It was filthy. I bought shiny new plastic trays to catch draining water from the plants, so the dumb little dish really meant nothing anymore.

It had two big chips on the edge anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second mishap occurred when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped a second time. A few chips but so what, I still used the dishes. They were all I had.

In summer we’d sit on the screened porch and Evan would eat sliced hot dogs from those dishes. I’d watch his tiny hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for one helping, no now she wanted two, of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was decided never mind. She wanted pizza.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas, Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit old set was called on for use in mixing those paints. The three of us had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save acorns they found during our walks in the woods together.

The dumb little dish with two chips that meant nothing to me was the last of its set. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies and countless meals with my children and me. Many years, and a thousand happy memories later, it was still here.

The dumb little dish meant everything to me. I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty!

This is another re-post from a few years ago I was reminded of when I walked outside this morning. Nothing gives me an instant shot of happiness like the smell of spring, and more specifically, the smell of good old earth in spring. I played in dirt as a kid, I play in dirt now as a gardener, and I certainly expect to become a dirty old man. In the garden!

Get Dirty!

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off mere dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off just dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Cardboard Adventures

A mother and her young teenage son sat behind me on my bus ride home from work. From their conversation I could tell that the son had just come from a dentist appointment and was feeling a bit whiny from the experience.

His mother said, “I know it was rough, but when you get home you can go upstairs and play with your Xbox.”

A nice day like this, I thought, yet she suggested her son go inside and play with his Xbox?

When I was his age Mama would tell me to go outside and play with a cardboard box.

Not just any cardboard box. One of the huge discarded cardboard boxes from the nearby T.V. shop.

When my sisters and I were kids there was a T.V. shop across the field from our house. As new televisions were delivered for display, the huge cardboard boxes they were shipped in were then stacked behind the shop for disposal. If we promised to ask the owner first, Mama would occasionally allow us to drag one across the field to our backyard. Along the way, we attracted the attention of our cousins playing outside. They always joined the fun.

Although Mama allowed us to drag a box home from time to time, she did so reluctantly knowing that ultimately she would be left to dispose of the ragged remains. Sooner or later we would be done with the box. Sooner if it rained. Rain is cardboard’s enemy.

Those huge boxes easily held me, a sister or two, and one of the smaller cousins. An old rusty pair of scissors in Daddy’s garage helped us shape each box into our fantasy of the day. Once, we cut portholes in a seaworthy box and hacked off the top to make an open air deck. We crawled inside and waited for tidal waves.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she walked by to pick tomatoes, clearly wondering how long it would be before she had to dispose of our creation.

“A cruise ship!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said, shaking her head.

We once hooked two boxes together to make a train. We cut away the front of one box so the engineer could wave to cars and we cut away the back of the second box so that passengers could wave from the caboose. We crawled inside and waited to arrive at the station.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she swept the sidewalk.

“A train!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

One particularly grand box which had held a console television made the perfect army tank. We cut a lookout hole in the top, made several holes in the walls from which to shoot pretend guns, and we crawled inside and waited for the enemy.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked as she carried in groceries.

“A tank!” we answered back.

“No. It’s trash is what it is.” she said.

There was a period when we’d gone quite a while without cardboard adventures. It was during this bleak time that a delivery truck backed into my neighbor’s driveway. As we watched the truck maneuver closer to the back door, one of my cousins was the first to realize the magnitude of the event.

“Mrs. Brenneman’s getting a new refrigerator.” he said under his breath.

We fidgeted with anticipation.

After what seemed an eternity, one of the delivery men appeared with the empty cardboard box which had held the new refrigerator. With some effort, he dragged it into Mrs. Brenneman’s yard and went back inside.

Four of us kids, working feverishly like ants carrying bread crust, managed to slide, drag, and inch the massive cardboard box over to our backyard. We climbed in to savor the new cardboard smell and to experience the muffled silence. The silence was momentarily broken as our collie pushed her way in, licked each of us in the face and left. Even she seemed amazed by our good fortune.

We sat inside the cavernous box trying to decide what to turn this gift into. Before we reached a consensus it got dark outside. Cousins had to go home and my sisters and I had to go inside.

Morning came and horror of all horrors, it had rained in the night.  We ran outside to check on our massive cardboard box. The rain hadn’t ruined it completely, but the once stately walls now sagged, corners were rounded over by the rainwater, and the smooth outside surface was wrinkled and peeling.

Three cousins approached. We stood staring at our sagging mound of a box not wanting to believe that our prize was ruined, but it appeared to be so.

“What’s this one?” Mama asked on her way to get the mail.

“It’s trash is what it is.” we answered back, resigned to the soggy truth.

“No. It’s an igloo.” Mama said.

We looked at each other and grinned. We ran to the rounded shell of a box, molded the wet cardboard so as to give us one long tunnel as an entrance, and we crawled inside to wait for polar bears.

That young teenager just back from the dentist most likely went inside to play alone with his Xbox. I never had an Xbox, but unless it came in packaging large enough for cousins and me to fashion a cruise ship, train, tank, or igloo, I don’t know that I would have wanted one.

Stuart M. Perkins

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