APRIL THROUGH MY YEARS
My thoughts and memories on April roam and ramble all over the place. They include opening day of trout season trips when it was so cold there was a skim of ice in the camp water bucket, one bitter opener when it was blowing snow, and recollections of being so cold from wading wet I couldn’t feel my feet. Those are, all the chilliness in terms of temperatures notwithstanding, wonderfully warm memories. Then there are the pleasures I treasure connected with putting in a garden. For the past 50 years I’ve raised a garden every year but one (I was in England all summer that year), and even before that I was digging up small plots by hand or, as a youngster, helping both Daddy and Grandpa.
Of course turkey hunting looms large on the April horizon, although this year, thanks to a nasty bout with an upper respiratory infection (I think it’s finally pretty much behind me); the sad fact is that I have to recognize, to use the wording of an old mountain friend, that I “ain’t as catty as I used to be.” There are far fewer turkeys locally than has historically been the case; I’ve only been in the woods a few times.
Add to these general memories things such as gathering morel mushrooms, digging and eating ramps, picking poke salad to sell when I was a kid, and there’s plenty to look back on with longing. That’s good, because recent weeks have been tough in terms of reminding me of my advancing years and life’s undeniable realities. In the last few weeks a next door neighbor who was also my barber for 40+ years has died as has another former neighbor who still lived close by. Both had daughters a year older than my own dear Natasha, and the three girls were frequent playmates as kids. That’s a powerful reminder to me of the importance of sampling the sweet not only of this April but of every moment. Tomorrow (I’m writing these words on April 20) I’ll go to a special event connected with a late friend whom I taught to fly fish and with whom I enjoyed man happy hours astream and afield, Dr. Robert Scoville, and I already know that will bring a flood of thoughts from grand yesteryears to the present. Add to that the recent passing of a high school friend and basketball teammate, someone I grew up with in the same church and had literally known well all but my first few years, and of late I’ve had more than enough reminders of mortality.
Yet offsetting those saddening scenarios is the joy of another time of greening up, the cheeriness of bird song in the spring air, the freshness of new-plowed ground after a spring shower, and the uplifting feeling of just piddling about in the yard or garden. For those who have never planted stuff and watched it grow, never known the renewing sense of burning garden trash or cleaning the yard, never experienced the joy of spring wildflowers as you walk among them, I can only say you’ve missed some of life’s simple yet supremely satisfying pleasures. When it comes to what’s good in this world, give me a hawk screaming to the skies or a turkey gobbling down in some hardwood draw, not avenues of asphalt and the false promise of technological gadgets such as I-pads or cell phones.
I’m convinced, beyond so much as a niggling doubt, that our enslavement by all sorts of technological devices is making ours a worse world. Everyone seems to be mad and in a hurry; no one understands give-and-take; the very word politician has, for me, become a term verging on nastiness; and I have virtually no faith in elected leaders in any level of government. That’s sad because that hasn’t always been my outlook. There’s not much I can do about it except shake my head, rage to the skies, or seek refuge in closeness to the good earth. I might add that I have just enough sense of introspection to realize that my wife’s plight almost certainly affects my too often bleak outlook. Yet there’s always a good book to read, a new recipe to try, some words to write, a chore awaiting my attention, or, in the most elemental of terms, a life to live.
That being duly recognized, please forgive me if nostalgia seems to be an ever increasing nostrum for me. I take great comfort in commonplace yet deeply meaningful things from the past such as a treasure trove of family photos recently brought to light by the passing of the widow of a first cousin. Many of the images date back to my boyhood or even earlier, and to see Grandma Minnie and Grandpa Joe in them, along with aunts, uncles, cousins, and my parents—most of whom are long gone–takes me back to simpler days and simpler ways. Memory’s rich storehouse also gives me a full and fulfilling sense of recognition of how fortunate I was in the time and place of my birth.
The Smokies, where I grew up, are an earthly paradise for anyone who loves nature, and I now know that I was surrounded by good and gracious folks, people who knew the real meaning of sharing and caring, all the days of my youth. Hopefully each of you has some similar blessings, and I would close these meanderings (even as I hope they aren’t viewed as maunderings) with a reminder from the English poet Robert Herrick: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying.” Now let’s turn once more to the ongoing adventures in autobiography as I carry you along through my evolution as a writer.
FINDING A FOOTHOLD AS A WRITER—THE 1970s
The 1970s were in many ways shaping years for me. In 1971 alone I completed my classroom doctoral studies at Vanderbilt, passed my preliminary oral and written examinations for the Ph. D., landed a tenure-track teaching position at Winthrop College (now Winthrop University, a renaming which, like the change of my undergraduate alma mater from King College to King University, is in my view a prime example of illusions of ridiculous grandeur), moved to Rock Hill and immediately bought a home, and then Ann and I set out for England and three months of intensive research on my dissertation.
The years which followed were equally busy. I learned the ropes as a classroom professor, rose through the ranks with promotions first to associate and then full professor, was granted tenure, and won highly gratifying recognition from students with multiple excellence in teaching awards. Most summers found me back in England conducting research and working on articles and books. I was fortunate enough to receive a number of research grants during this period. The first came from an organization which focused its attention specifically on first-generation graduate students from Appalachian backgrounds who didn’t have much money. I qualified in spades as a son of the Smokies, and rest assured Ann and I were so poor that once I began getting regular income I let her know in unequivocal fashion that it would be just fine with me if I never, ever again dined on tuna casserole or anything involving the use of Hamburger Helper. That grant was a small one, but combined with a bit of money garnered from selling a portion of my stamp collection, taking the modest cash value of an insurance policy I had, and what small amount of money we had managed to squirrel away, I made my first trip overseas.
Work on the doctoral dissertation absorbed about all my spare hours in 1971-72, and late in the latter year I successfully defended my dissertation and became “Dr. Casada.” I was proud of the degree and remain so, but I never used the “Dr.” on name plates on my door or made an overly big deal of it—something a lot of folks seem determined to do. With the degree in hand I procured multiple research grants from the American Philosophical Society, from the Winthrop Research Foundation, and most notably, in 1977 I was honored to be selected as a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. It was an immensely interesting and intensely inspiring time, with daily interaction with bright folks from all over the globe, walks downtown in a truly beautiful city, a lovely little cottage where we lived (and by this time I was a father), and cultural experiences such as eating turnips and haggis or picnicking and listening to bagpipers in Edinburgh’s lovely Princes Street Gardens.
Most of the time though, other than the fellowship months in Edinburgh, I was in London (sometimes I went to Britain alone; other times the family went). The major research facilities I needed to use—British Library, Public Record Office, Royal Geographical Society, and others—were located there. All the London stays involved living in a bedsitter (basically a bedroom with shared bathroom and kitchen privileges). Anything more would have been too expensive. I’m not a great fan of cities but London, thanks to the underground system, was easy to get around, and I never gave a second thought to walking considerable distances. I enjoyed street markets, book stores, the sprawling market at Petticoat Lane on weekends, inexpensive matinees at theatres, and local pubs.
Along with the research I was beginning to feel my way as a writer. My early efforts involved scholarly books and articles. Eventually there would be four scholarly books, all of them in my area of specialization, the British exploration of Africa; contributions to or editing of other books; and perhaps a hundred articles. Almost all the articles dealt with British local history in the 17th century or exploration. Strangely enough, it would be my area of expertise that eventually led to a major breakthrough into the world of writing on the outdoors. Most of the noted African explorers hunted some (they needed meat for the pot if nothing else) and many of them—John Hanning Speke, Fred Selous, Sir Samuel Baker, Joseph Thomson, and James A. Grant, for example—were avid hunters and students of natural history. My first outdoor-related article for a major magazine would be a profile of Selous that appear in Sporting Classics. However, that did not come until the early 1980s.
Along with the teaching and research, I was active in a sport I had loved since college undergraduate days, soccer. I helped found a club team not long after we arrived in Rock Hill along with being intimately involved in getting youth soccer started in the area. When Winthrop became co-educational after my first few years as a professor (it was the South Carolina College for Women when I was hired), male sports soon became an offshoot of that change. Administrators knew of my background in the sport and in 1975 I launched a program in which I served as the head coach for a dozen years. It was always a labor of love and never paid me much. However, I enjoyed some success, was three times selected as district coach of the year and once as southeastern coach of the year, and eventually, years after I had stopped coaching (dealing with an athletic director whom I didn’t care for and whose interest in academics didn’t meet my expectations led me to quit), induction into the Winthrop Athletic Hall of Fame. I was also refereeing high school and college soccer matches throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and well into the 1990s.
Other consistent activities in this period included gardening (I’ve been an avid gardener since boyhood), lots of fishing and hunting, learning the ropes on two types of hunting (deer and turkey) which were new to me, and beginning to get my feet wet not only in trout streams but as a freelance writer as well. Somewhere around the end of the decade of the 1970s I began writing some outdoor material. That included articles for state and regional magazines along with a column for the local daily newspaper, The Herald.
That column began in a strange sort of way. I knew the newspaper’s sports editor, a fine fellow named Buddy McCarter, thanks to interaction with him in my role as Winthrop’s soccer coach. He knew I was an avid outdoorsman and approached me about the possibility of contributing some outdoor material for the sports pages. I was a bit hesitant but after some discussion suggested that we agree to a trial basis. I would write a weekly column for a month and if he wasn’t happy with the material he could simply say so and I’d take no offense. Similarly, if it didn’t prove to be my cup of tea I would walk away with no hard feelings.
That started a run of almost 40 years which saw me work for perhaps a dozen sports editors, have the column vary in frequency from as often as three times a week until, in recent years, it appeared only every other week. Early this year, the newspaper’s editor, a man I have never met and whom I think it fair to say is pretty much clueless about the outdoors, called me and gave me a date for my final column (mid-February). Having watched the newspaper deteriorate to the point where it was in essence a liberal morass with a dearth of advertising, no pretense of balance, largely devoid of advertisers, and generally out of touch with its rapidly declining readership, I wasn’t surprised. I was, however, deeply hurt, given my loyalty, the fact that I never once missed a deadline, recognition of the merit of my contributions in the form of dozens of craft awards over the years, and the impersonal, cold-hearted nature of my termination.
The editor did agree to let my final column be a farewell one, and in it I tried to take the high road, looking back in longing to what the column had meant to me and hopefully to readers as well. I certainly never got rich from it in a financial sense—my pay rate for the last column was precisely the same amount I received for the first one—but it enriched me in terms of growth as a professional and in the ability to serve local sportsmen. If you are interested in reading that column bidding readers a fond goodbye, send me an e-mail and I’ll share it.
I was treated in exceedingly shabby fashion, especially given there was no warning whatsoever other than the editor calling me a few months before and asking me exactly what I did and in what form my material appeared. Those inquiries spoke volumes because they clearly indicated he had no grasp of the realities of the local outdoor scene or my background as an outdoor communicator. Of course it has to be tough to be presiding over a dying enterprise, and unquestionably his situation is being repeated in scores of newspapers across the country. In my view, one key factor in their demise is a major loss of meaningful connection with their readership.
Maybe I should be thankful though. After all, the column gave me solid footing as an outdoor writer, sound training in dealing with deadlines, the opportunity to get to know a lot of folks whom I otherwise never would have met, and the realization that maybe, just maybe, I could become something I had dream of since boyhood—an outdoor writer. Next month we’ll look at how that dream began to take shape in reality.
I’ve been shamefully inactive in recent weeks. Blame it on a lack of energy connected with a nasty upper respiratory infection that took me three weeks to shake, a new regimen of medication which seems to leave me drained, sheer laziness, or something else. All I can say is that I haven’t accomplished a lot of late. Right now I’m turkeyless, with a trip to Tennessee to hunt with two fine friends having proved unproductive as well as things on the local front being quiet indeed. Maybe I’ll have better fortune in the final week of the season which is at hand.
I’ve gotten a bit of writing done, as always, and the current issues of several magazines including South Carolina Wildlife, Smoky Mountain Living, and Carolina Mountain Life have stories of mine in their pages. I’m working on an anthology of deer-hunting stories Sporting Classics will publish and of course I still write a weekly column for the little paper, The Smoky Mountain Times, which serves the place where I was born and grew up. Later today I’ll be participating in a book signing at the Irmo Public Library in the Columbia, SC area, and if it ever gets dry enough, I’ll get a decidedly late garden planted.
Otherwise the biggest personal news of late, without much question, was being recognized by my undergraduate alma mater as its Alumni Volunteer of the Year. I was honored and humbled by the recognition, although I’m not at all sure it was deserved. Yes, I serve on King University’s Alumni Advisory Board, have done volunteer work varying from guest lectures to some classes to being an usher at a Josh Turner concert the institution sponsored, and try to help out with monetary donations and support of the college’s library as I can. But that’s nothing special. I firmly believe in supporting entities which have had a shaping influence in one’s life, and certainly in my case that was true of King.
THIS MONTH’S BOOK OFFERS
For anyone who buys five books from either the deer or the turkey lists on my website, I am offering a sixth book from the same list free. Buy 10 and you get two free. There is one caveat. The free book cannot be priced at more than $35. Still, that gives you a pretty good potential cost break and the opportunity to acquire some reading material for the coming “down” months for hunters. You can access both lists HERE. Payment only by check or money order. Remember that any overseas order must contact me first because of the high shipping prices. Postage is $5 for the first book and $2.50 for each subsequent book up to a maximum of $12.50. If you have questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For orders, my mailing address is Jim Casada, 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730.
Breakfast throughout my boyhood was a serious meal. There was none of this bowl of corn flakes or a Pop-tart and glass of milk foolishness. We ate hearty meals, in part because my siblings and I burned up a passel of energy, in part because Mom and Dad (especially Dad) had grown up in households where a big breakfast was considered an essential aspect of life, and in part because it just seemed the sensible way to get the day started right. I have any number of fond breakfast-related culinary memories, and rather than offering mere recipes, as I normally do, I thought I’d vary a bit and delve into some especially fond “start the day” recollections.
Breakfast throughout my boyhood was actually a two-tiered affair five days of the week. That’s because Daddy arose at 5:15 a.m. Monday through Friday and fixed his own breakfast. The rest of us would get up an hour or so later and Mom would prepare the meal while we got ready for school or, in the summer, the adventures of the day.
The first meal of the day was fairly predictable in terms of the menu and certainly leaned towards the substantial side. Eggs and some type of pork (usually bacon but on occasions streaked meat fried to crisp crunchiness, fried tenderloin, or sausage) would be the fare of the day most of the time. Occasionally Mom made oatmeal liberally laced with raisins, and in the fall and periodically through the winter we’d have “sauce” as a side dish. The “sauce” was in reality canned apples from our little orchard, quartered and cooked in the fall with a jar being opened almost daily through the winter and on into spring. Momma’s goal was to put up 200 quarts of apples every year. On weekends we might have waffles or pancakes, and not infrequently they would be part of a “breakfast for supper” on Saturday nights.
Other regular menu features included gravy, some type of bread (biscuits weren’t Mom’s strong point although breakfast at Grandma’s meant biscuits every day), maybe chipped beef and gravy once a month or so, fried pies on occasion, and once in a while cream of wheat. I loved all of it but the cream of wheat. Strangely, we didn’t have grits, and I’m not at all sure why. I don’t remember Grandma preparing grits either, although she would serve hominy on occasion and I can remember her talking about making hominy the old-fashioned way (using lye made from ashes that came from the fireplace and corn that came from their fields) in the days long before I was born.
As is the case with first-rate cornbread, one of the key ingredients is buttermilk. I don’t measure anything when I’m making pancakes. I just pour store-bought pancake flour (I like Aunt Jemima but for “can’t be beat” pancakes get some fine-ground buckwheat flour if you can find it) in a big mixing bowl, add a hefty dollop of cooking oil (probably a tablespoon and a half or so), break in a couple of eggs, and pour in the buttermilk. I stir, adding buttermilk until the right consistency is obtained (the batter should be slightly runny) and start making pancakes. I use a griddle but a well-seasoned cast iron pan will work just as well. You need to be absolutely sure that whatever you are cooking on is well-seasoned. Any hint of sticking with pancakes means a disastrous mess. Another tip is to make sure your griddle is plenty hot before you pour the batter on—proper heat level is something learned with experience. When bubbles start appearing on the surface of your pancake check things. They are probably ready to turn. I cook four at a time on the griddle, adding them to a plate as they are completed and adorning each one with a bit of butter. Although most folks don’t seem to realize it, pancakes warm over quite nicely.
I often make specialty pancakes; sometimes several varieties. This involves nothing more than adding fresh raspberries or blueberries to the top before turning, slicing thin pieces of banana onto the top, liberally lacing the batter with chocolate or butterscotch drops, or even mixing applesauce with your batter. It is possible to make all sorts of flavors of pancakes, and the only real limit is your imagination. One warning—you will have to do some re-greasing of your skillet when you add ingredients (especially berries).
I somehow associate this time of year with eggs. Part of that probably goes back to boyhood days of gathering them with Grandpa Joe. The hens always laid well this time of year, although he had to stay alert to keep up with hens bent on raising a brood which eschewed the convenient nests he provided in the chicken house for hidden places elsewhere (his chickens were free range). I loved to accompany him on his daily mission to gather eggs, and Grandma put them to mighty tasty use in a wide variety of ways. However, I don’t recall either Grandma or Momma ever making omelets.
For my part, I love them, and a favorite supper of mine is a two- or three-egg omelet incorporating whatever I have available in the way of stuff from my garden or nature’s garden. That might involve asparagus, spring onions, ramps, spinach, Swiss chard, morel mushrooms, or other items. Add salt and pepper to taste, some sharp cheese, a bit of butter, or maybe crumble in a couple of slices of bacon fried to a crisp, cook the omelet so the outside edges show a hint of brown, and you have some mighty fine eating. I have an omelet pan, but you can make an omelet in a large frying pan. Just empty the beaten eggs and other ingredients into a large, well-greased skillet, and once the bottom is firmly cooked, flip half over to make a half-moon shape and complete cooking. HINT: Adding a tablespoon or so of water to the mix when you beat the eggs up produces a fluffier end product.
CHIPPED BEEF AND GRAVY
Chipped beef and gravy makes a hearty, filling breakfast, especially if accompanied by a fried egg or two. To prepare, first make a roux with flour and, ideally, bacon grease (although you can use cooking oil), then heat separate slices of shipped beef in the roux as you add milk. Stir all the while and, as your gravy thickens, add milk to keep it at the desired consistency. You can also make milk gravy separately and incorporate the chipped beef at the end, but I find that the beef flavor blends better if it is a part of the gravy making process.
One of my fondest food memories from yesteryear involves fried fruit pies. The filling was always either dried apples or dried peaches which Grandma Minnie or Momma had lovingly peeled, sliced, dried, and stored during the previous summer and fall. The fruit would be reconstituted to make a thick sauce, seasoned to taste with some cinnamon sugar, brown sugar, or a hint of pumpkin spice. Then homemade pastry (you can use store-bought pie shells if you wish) would be worked up and rolled out into thin circles of about seven inches diameter (there was no measuring but long experience produced the ideal size time after time). These would then get a generous layer of thick fruit sauce, folded over to make a half-moon shape, carefully crimped at the edges with a fork to keep the sauce from escaping, dusted with a bit of flour, and fried in a large cast-iron skillet which had been lightly greased. Grandma and Momma would make big batches—a dozen to two dozen pies at a time—and any which survived the greedy-gut attention of folks like me made a wonderful snack or cold dessert. But the fried pies were at their best hot from the pan, topped with a dab of butter, and eaten when steam escaped when you made the first cut with a fork. I could consume three at breakfast, washed down with milk, without so much as a thought along the lines of being a glutton.