A Biography Tour with My Mom in Rochester, NY: A Remembrance

A few weeks ago, I went home to Rhode Island for a quick overnight visit. My husband and I had a great meal with my brothers, their families, and my stepfather. We prepared the meal together. While I sat at the table, I thought, This is great, Mom may not be here, but the family still has it; we know how to get a meal on the table. Life goes on. Someone sets the table, someone clears it, my brothers crack jokes the way they always have, and the dog sniffs around under the table looking for handouts. Both Mom’s presence and absence were felt. Her legacy of bringing the family together around the dinner table remained.

That brings me to this photo from our childhood when we lived in Bay View, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. My mother, a single, working woman, always got a hot meal on the table for dinner, and looked good doing it.

The photo has lingered on my desktop for months for reasons unknown to me. Yesterday, it hit me. With the third anniversary of my mother’s death looming, this photo reminded me of my mother when she was Towanda-Mom. Thirty-two, divorced, beautiful, and working full-time while raising five children. She was full of spunk and life and had boundless love and compassion for others. She always tried to live her best life. She died three years ago yesterday. This photo reminded me of that inner strength and beauty and dogged insistence on sitting around the table for meals.

Mom and I and Our Excellent Adventure: a Remembrance 

In the summer of 2007, Mom and I received an invitation to a party for my Great-Aunt Mary’s 90th birthday in Rochester, New York. Rochester is where my Sicilian grandparents settled, met, married, and started their family amongst many other immigrant families from Valquarnera Caropepe, a mountaintop village in Sicily. This is a postcard my grandmother had of Valguarnera from the Fifties.

I had heard stories about Rochester throughout my childhood and into adulthood, but I had never visited the city. I have many recipes with Rochester relatives’ names on them like Margaret’s Italian Cookies, Aunt Mary’s Zucchini Casserole, and Aunt Rose’s Cookies. I can recall references to my mother’s former home addresses with comments that began with when we lived on Clifton Road, or on Lake Avenue, or on Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario. I remembered stories my immigrant grandfather told about the factories where he worked, notably Fashion Park and Bond Clothes where he rose to be general manager, and also the baseball teams he managed. He loved baseball and was a scout for the Yankees. I wanted to see it all, these oft-described places and people whose names I knew by heart.

I called my mother and told her we should go to Rochester; I’d help her get there. I made the airline arrangements and reserved a car. Mom’s cousin, Mary Lou, invited us to stay with her. Everything fell into place. When we arrived, I told Mary Lou and her husband, Jimmy, I wanted to spend the next day bringing Mom to all of the special places of her childhood. My good friend, Corabel, refers to such tours as Biography Tours. Jimmy thankfully insisted on driving us. I tucked this photo of my mother and her family at Lake Ontario in my purse in case we made it that far. Bringing Mom to her childhood beach home was something I had wanted to do for her. This photo was my inspiration for the journey.

We were off on our tour the next morning. Our first stop was Mom’s grade school, Holy Cross. The school was closed, but the janitor let us in and opened up her fourth-grade classroom for her. She was thrilled.

We visited her church.

We went to her favorite frozen custard stand. I had never heard of frozen custard.

We went to her Clifford Avenue home.
 

We went to the area of her Lake Avenue home, but that neighborhood had been redeveloped, and her house was gone. Jimmy brought us to see where Fashion Park and Bond Clothing once stood. Afterward, we drove to Lake Ontario. It took almost an hour to get there. Mom said we took the same route she always took as a child, past the homes where she and her sister would count WW2 military stars hanging in windows. She explained it was a game they played to pass the time. She quickly followed up by saying she didn’t understand the significance of the stars at the time.

When we got to Sodus Bay, Mom had no idea where to direct Jimmy to drive. Although I knew she didn’t have an address for the old house, I was hoping she would be able to guide us there once she recognized familiar landmarks, but such wasn’t the case. Personally, I hadn’t anticipated the town would be so big and the bay so vast. I became skeptical about being able to find the house. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack. We were toast.

We pulled into a marina and asked an attendant for help. Without any useful clues to offer, the conversation didn’t get very far. Suddenly shy, my mother told the attendant all she remembered was a long beach with a road between her house and the water. The attendant patiently brought up possible landmarks to help her remember the area. When he asked her if there were bluffs nearby, Mom’s face lit up. She remembered the bluffs. The attendant asked if they were called Chimney Bluffs. “Yes,” Mom said, beaming.

The attendant gave us a map and circled the area where the bluffs were located. We drove to Chimney Bluffs, but it was a State Park, so there were no homes on the grounds. We took a long road to the beach where we found a small parking lot by the water. We got out of the car and looked around. There were no houses in sight. Nonetheless, Mom was happy to be back on Sodus Bay, and I took a photo of her.

The story doesn’t end there, though. We sat on the beach for a while taking in the sea air and the moment. After a while, content with how far this wild goose chase had taken us, Mom was ready to head back to town not wishing to inconvenience her cousin any longer. She didn’t think we would be able to find the house in this area because there wasn’t a road to be seen between the shoreline and the embankment.

As I sat on the beach with my mother, I started to have a case of the heebie-geebies. I felt we were close. I told my mother I was going for a walk down the beach. My mother took this photo of the beach as I walked away.

As I walked, I poked in and out of the trees looking for a field with a white house on a slight hill. Nothing. Just a lot of empty fields. Suddenly, I felt an aura, whether it emanated from my grandmother or the house, I cannot say, but I sensed I was very close. Between the next opening in the trees, I saw this: a white house on a slight slope, just like the picture I had brought from home.

My heart started racing. I took a photo of the house and ran back to my mother. I got everyone back in the car, and we drove down the street to find the house. We saw it from the road. My mother, still convinced we were in the wrong area, warned us not to trespass. Jimmy kept driving. Here is a Google image of the area.

I got out of the car and knocked on the front door. A man came out to greet us. He seemed friendly enough, so I told him our saga from beginning to end. He grinned and said his house had to be the right one because it was over 100 years old and for many years had been the only house on the beach. He gave us a tour and then Mom, Jimmy, and the owner visited on the sunporch while I walked around the property taking pictures. It was all very exciting.

Old photos I found after the trip

Here, my grandmother is pumping water by the front door while my mother and her sister sit on a bench. I noticed there was still a water pipe there when I walked around the property.

Here is my mother in her two-piece bathing suit.

Grandma and my mother’s younger sister on the beach. Mom and I on the beach.

I love this shot of all the women at the beach. Not surprising, my grandmother is wearing an apron.

Mom was right-on about the road along the beach. I found this photo after our visit.

Adorable Mom at her beach house, sixty years later.

The next day we went to the birthday party. I loved watching my mother greet one long-lost relative after another. Here she is with the birthday girl, Aunt Mary.

Here I am standing between my two beautiful and spunky great-aunts.

Like for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before me, much of life still happens around the dinner table. The strong, faithful women in our family made sure the meals served to us were nutritious and delicious and remained a family event, one that always started with the Catholic prayer of gratitude: Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord, Amen. We at the children’s table could recite that prayer in under three seconds.

Related Posts:
A Birthday Tribute for My Mother: Knitting Neck Warmers with Mom’s Stash
Italian Sesame Seed Cookies
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Tiny Meatballs
We Will Remember Them

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Pecan Picking in Mississippi (and recipes to go with them)

Years ago, when my family and I were traveling in Sicily, we came across a grove of nude trees surrounded by layers of stacked bark. We pulled off the road to examine the naked trees and figured out we were driving through a cork oak forest. Cork trees can be stripped of their bark every nine years to make products like wine corks. In fact, the next time you have an all-natural cork, count the number of lines across the top — that will tell you how many years the grower waited between bark harvests. I wrote a story about it here. Before seeing this grove, I had never considered where cork came from.

The same is true for pecans. Until recently, I never considered how pecans grew and were later harvested.

My curiosity was sparked a few weeks ago when I saw a video on Instagram of my friend, yoga teacher Mary Thorstad, picking pecans off the lawn of her parents’ home in Georgia using a quaint collecting device.

Mary described how much she delighted in the idea of picking edible food off the ground. She said the pecans were like treasures waiting to be found, like manna from heaven. It is a task she has enjoyed doing since childhood. I remember wondering if all pecans were harvested from the ground, or if this device was a child’s way of picking up a few fallen pecans.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited friends in Como, Mississippi. Como borders the Mississippi Delta to the west, Oxford to the southeast, and Memphis to the north.

We arrived late in the evening. As we drove up the driveway, my husband commented on the stately old oak and pecan trees that lined the moonlit driveway. Later, he asked our friends, Denise and Sledge Taylor, about the trees and whether they picked the pecans. They proceeded to tell us a few delightful stories about townspeople coming by to pick pecans over the years. Sledge said it was not uncommon to come home to find a sack of pecans on their front porch. It meant someone had come by and picked pecans for themselves and, as a token of appreciation, picked a sack for the tree-owners. Denise told us that once they came home to find homemade pecan pies on their front porch instead of the customary gunny sack. They were thrilled. I thought I’d be pleased with the sack of pecans, but that was when I had the misperception that people harvested pecans by climbing trees and using specialty pole-pickers to harvest them, a job I was not prepared to do.

Then I learned pecans were harvested off the ground even when grown commercially. Pecans grow inside a husk in clusters at the ends of branches. As the husk matures, it splits open and the nut drops out. In commercial orchards, farmers use a mechanical tree-shaker to nudge the tree into dropping their nuts. After they fall, large-scale sweepers are brought in to collect them.

Sensing how taken I was with seeing pecan trees for the first time, Sledge drove us to a commercial pecan orchard with acres of mature trees. The trees were planted on a grid. The oldest were planted in the 1890s on a 60′ x 60′ grid. The younger trees were planted in the 1940s on a 45′ x 45′ grid. Sledge said they plant them even closer now. We loved that whichever direction we viewed them from the trees lined up both in rows and on the diagonal. Truly, a marvel to behold.

Meanwhile, we harvested 8.5 pounds of nuts from Sledge and Denise’s driveway using this sweeper device.

It looks and works a lot like a tennis ball sweeper.

Sledge said not to pick pecans that still had their husks on as the husk would keep the shell moist and the nut inside would likely be rotten.

After we arrived back in Nashville,  I immediately set about picking the pecan meat out of the shells. It took every bit of two hours to pick through our stash of nuts. I ended up with almost two pounds of tender, tasty pecan meats. Manna from heaven, indeed.

It was tedious work. Granted, the tools I used were not for industrial use. They were more like cocktail party fare from the Fifties.

As I write this a few days later, except for my stained and scratched up fingers, I’ve forgotten about how tedious it was cleaning out each shell. But, man oh man, as I was in the midst of shelling, I remember thinking, I get why Denise was happy to get the homemade pies.

Thanks to our hosts, Denise and Sledge Taylor who live on a beautiful farm in the “hill country” a place with never-ending vistas of pastures and planted fields. This photo was taken at their cotton gin. That’s a whole nother story!

Tried and True Recipes Calling for Pecans

Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie (served two ways)
 

Pumpkin Bread Pudding (served two ways)
 

Cranberry and Hot Pepper Jelly Brie Bites

Grandma’s Cranberry Chutney

Fruit and Nut Bread

Sorghum, Oats, and Cranberry Granola

Oat, Sorghum, Ginger, and Cranberry Cookies

I thought about The Pecan Man, a novel by Casey Dandridge Selleck while writing this post. The story takes place in a small Southern town in Florida. The main character is a spunky, well-respected, and charming woman who tries to do right by a homeless man who picks pecans from lawns in the 1970s. The audiotape has an excellent reader.

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

The Kennedy Bunker, a Cold War Monument in Palm Beach

As I write this, I am sitting in an airport in Fort Lauderdale when I hear an unexpected last call announcement for a flight about to depart for Cuba; the gate is closing. The announcement takes me by surprise, especially on this day, after a most memorable visit to a bomb shelter built for a president and his family in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion when all gates to Cuba were most definitely closed.

The Kennedy Bunker on Peanut Island in Palm Beach County, Florida

This story is about my visit to the Kennedy Bunker, an underground fallout shelter in Florida. The shelter was built in December 1961 before President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Palm Beach for a Christmas holiday with his family. It is a stark reminder of the Cold War. A sister shelter was built in Nantucket.

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I put together this brief, selective, timeline of the historical events surrounding this bunker’s construction. I had to when I read that JFK gave a speech in October 1961 urging all Americans to build bomb shelters in their homes “as rapidly as possible.” Can you imagine such a speech today? There would be pandemonium amplified by a kazillion wireless communication devices.

  • Cold War: approximately 1947-1991
  • January 1, 1959, Cuban Dictator Batista forced out by Castro-led Soviet-supported Communist revolution.
  • January 3, 1961: President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.
  • 1961: Commercial airline flights to Cuba ceased.
  • April 17-19, 1961: The Bay of Pigs
  • October 6, 1961: The President gave a speech urging all Americans to build a fallout shelter in their home because of the risk of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
  • December 1961: Navy Seabees (the Naval Construction Force) built Kennedy bunker under the direction of the Secret Service.
  • July 1962: Soviet and Cuban leaders (Khrushchev and Castro) agreed to place nuclear missiles in Cuba and construction of missile launch facilities began.
  • October 14-28, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis
  • October 28, 1962: Khrushchev orders withdrawal of missiles from Cuba
  • Aug 31, 2016:  Resumption of regular commercial flights to Cuba out of the U.S.

The Bunker Tour

The bunker entryway was built into the hillside and covered with twelve feet of bags of concrete mix and dirt. It was meant to be a radiation proof safe haven for the President from which JFK and his entourage could lead the country.

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As I walked into the dimly lit 40-foot long corrugated steel tunnel, I was immediately struck by a twilight zoney sense of the reality of a tense time in our geopolitical history.

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I had a flashback to 1962 when as a kindergartner in Baltimore, only forty miles from Washington D.C., we practiced Duck and Cover drills in the classroom.

As children, we knew, sort of, what this sign on public buildings meant.

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I’ve since learned the six black and gold triangles depicted in the sign stood for shielding from radiation, food and water, trained leadership, medical supplies, communication, radiological monitoring, all focused jobs of the Office of Civil Defense.

Some of the mechanicals in this Peanut Island shelter:  a generator and an air handler.

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A  ham radio, also known as amateur radio.

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Before taking two 90-degree turns to get to the living quarters, one would do a radiation check. If you tested positive, you rinsed off in the decontamination shower before proceeding. I had a vague memory that radiation couldn’t turn corners, so entranceways to bomb shelters always include a maze of concrete walls through which to navigate. If you had a bomb shelter in your home while growing up, please tell us about it in the comments section.

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The living quarters. Walking into this room blew my mind. The artifacts, some original, some not quite accurate for the time period, instantly put the gravity of the Cold War into perspective.

Note to viewers: as striking as it is, I’ve read the presidential seal on the floor was not original to this bunker.

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Another view of this room from a fellow traveler, photographer Kay Ohto who kindly allowed me to use his photos for this post. Assume that all the good photos were taken by him. He understood how to shoot photos in minimal lighting.

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Bunk beds and lockers for the family and entourage. Originally, there were 15 sets of bunk beds.

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An army-issued desk and chair. Most of the items on the desk are not original.

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Here is another view. BTW, the red phone, aka “the hotline,” is just a prop. There was a direct line between Washington and the Kremlin, but it was through a teletype. The red phone only happened in the movies.

Thinking about movies, if you want a refresher course on The Cuban Missile Crisis, watch Thirteen Days. My husband and I just watched it and literally sat on the edge of our seats throughout most of the second half. It was JFK’s finest hour.

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The kitchenette with lead-lined containers of water and boxes of MRE’s, Meal Ready to Eat.

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Bathroom stalls with portable plastic-lined commodes — barrels with toilet seats placed on top.

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There was an escape hatch, too.

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The escape tube pictured above was originally surrounded by bags of concrete similar to this cross-section of ground-fill that covered the bunker.

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The President would have been flown by helicopter from his winter residence on Palm Beach Island to the helipad on this island. To get onto the island today, you need to take a water taxi, private boat, or kayak.

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A map showing the location of the fallout shelter located on Nantucket Island for use when the President was vacationing in Hyannisport, MA. This bunker is not open to the public.

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The Peanut Island Bunker is located in a public park. We got to the island with a very safe kayaking outfit with excellent guides, arranged for us by our hotel concierge, through The Palm Beach Maritime Museum.

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There is also a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Station on the Island. During the Cold War, if locals asked about the bunker, they were told it was an ammunition depot for this Coast Guard station.

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I’d also like to recommend a fabulous historical and cultural bike tour of Palm Beach Island with Leslie Diver of Island Living, Palm Beach. I’ve done her tour twice and have learned something new each time.

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Growing Cranberries in Cape Cod

What is not to love about the cranberry? The color is gorgeous. The fruit is tart but becomes deliciously sweet when cooked with sugar or honey. The plant is indigenous to North America and has a rich history of use, both culinary and medicinal, that was fully appreciated by both Native Americans and the early colonists. Harvested in October and November, Thanksgiving is the cranberry’s season to shine.

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My love affair with this berry started as I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, home to the Ocean Spray cooperative. Although there were no cranberry bogs in Padanaram Village where I grew up, we had only to drive twenty miles east, and there we would find acres of fields of cranberries growing along the road we took to get to Cape Cod. My mother often stopped at the old Ocean Spray Cranberry House Restaurant, on the way back from the Cape, to purchase yummy cranberry pastries.

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Since cranberries were harvested in the fall, you can imagine how every November, in anticipation of Thanksgiving, our local Sunday newspapers were filled with cranberry recipes; the cut-out yellowed copies of which remain tucked in my collection of cookbooks that once belonged to my mother and grandmother.

The early New England settlers referred to the cranberry as a crane berry because of the resemblance of the fruit’s pink blossom to the head and bill of the Sandhill Crane. This photo shows that resemblance. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery for permission to include it.

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Flowers, Berries, and Bogs

Cranberry fields are not very exciting to look at in the summer. It is more the idea of what is to come that is exciting.

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By late summer, if you get up close, you can spy the red berries among the green vines hugging the ground. Okay, this is beautiful.

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When the bogs are flooded for harvest — now that is a vision! All the ripe fruit floats to the surface of the water, and suddenly there is a sea of red on the horizon.

If you dissect a cranberry, you will see there are four interior chambers where the seeds are located. These chambers hold pockets of air that allow cranberries to float when fields are flooded for harvesting. The air pocket also causes berries to bounce. Good cranberries bounce and float; rotten ones do neither. I learned that on the first day of Home Ec in seventh grade at Dartmouth Middle School where we learned how to make cranberry jelly and biscuits.

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Some cranberries are white. Know that they are still ripe. I read that if you put white berries in the freezer, or cook them, they will turn red as the red pigment, anthocyanin, is released.

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Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennial plants; many have been growing for over one hundred years. Cranberry bogs consist of different types of layers of dirt. The first layer is the naturally occurring clay base. It keeps the ground watertight. Next, is a layer of gravel for drainage, followed by a layer of a spongy, acidic soil known as peat, and finally, a top layer of sand.

The Harvest

Originally, cranberries were picked by hand. As you can imagine, it was laborious. In the 1890s wooden scoops with built-in screens were invented and replaced hand-picking. My friend, Kendra May, has a marvelous collection of these harvest implements.

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Later, in the 1920s, a “walk behind” mechanical harvester was invented which is still used today for the ten percent of cranberries that are “dry harvested.” These perfect cranberries are the ones that end up in cellophane packages for baking.

In 1960 a wet harvesting machine was invented. This machine crawls over flooded fields and acts like an egg-beater to dislodge berries from their vines allowing them to float to the surface where they can be easily corralled and vacuumed up by farmers. Ninety percent of cranberries are harvested in this way. These are the berries that go into making juices, sweetened dried cranberries, and canned sauces.

About a foot of water is piped into the field for this process. Water is also piped in before a winter freeze to protect vines. As warmer weather arrives, growers drain the winter flood, the vines come out of dormancy, and a new growing season begins.

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These next photos were taken by Minda Bradley whose family farms cranberries in Kingston, MA. They were sent to me by a friend of hers. Thank you, Minda!

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Interestingly, cranberry plants were traded by early colonists in exchange for goods coming in from Europe. On board ships, the berries were eaten to prevent scurvy because of their high vitamin C content. The plants were eventually transplanted to Europe, but the soil conditions were not the same, resulting in a different acid level and flavor. Lingonberry or English moss berry are examples of the European version of these sour berries.

Ocean Spray Cranberries

Grower-owned Ocean Spray is a cooperative of over 700 farming families across North America who grow over 60% of the world’s cranberries. The cooperative was started in the 1930s in Wareham, MA. It is not uncommon to see one of these signs nestled on the side of the road on Cape Cod indicating the grower is part of the Ocean Spray cooperative. Finding one of these signs is akin to finding an old covered bridge in the countryside. Both are highly nostalgic for me.

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Perhaps now you will have a better understanding of what this message means when you see it on a bag of Ocean Spray cranberries.

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I picked a cranberry vine from a field on the Cape simply so I could continue to admire the vine and the berries after I left the fields in September and headed back home.

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In 1980, there was a shortage of cranberries, and the Ocean Spray cranberry growers consortium changed the amount of cranberries in a bag from one pound to 12 ounces. This is good to know if you are using old recipes that call for “one bag of cranberries.”  Know, too, that a heaping cup of whole berries weighs 4 ounces. Thus, a 12-ounce bag has about 3½ cups of whole berries.

Recipes from Judy’s Chickens that use cranberries as an ingredient:

DSC_0588Grandma’s Cranberry Sauce

 

 

DSC_0224Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie

dsc_0481Roasted Fall Veggies: Butternut Squash, Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries

textSorghum Oatmeal Cookies with Ginger and Cranberries

DSC_0421Sorghum, Seeds, Grains, and Cranberries Granola

Special thanks to my New England friends, Donna and Charlie Gibson and Beth Hayes for their help with this story. Thanks to Minda Bradley for the gorgeous harvesting photos.

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.