Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What about the West, then?

Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey and Jack London either lived the West or listened to people who did. I'm a generation behind L'Amour, if you figure a generation to be thirty years. Still, I feel I knew many of the people who "won" the West. That's why I write about the West, and I'd like to let you all know about the sons and daughters of the pioneers that I knew. Let me tell you about Aunt Hat.

Aunt Hat's Chili

Aunt Hat and Uncle Jess lived on the bluff above Show Low Creek. Their house was small, stucco on frame, with one of those wavy galvanized tin roofs. But you'd be surprised how many people it could hold whenever Aunt Hat made chili.

There was always a string of chili peppers hanging in the kitchen. And whenever she'd run low, she'd send Earl over to Orlando Baca's place in Concho to buy another string.

Aunt Hat kept a stock pot on the back of her old wood-burning stove. She and Grandma Em were the only women I knew who still cooked with wood. Bones and meat trimmings went into that stock pot every day. And every morning, after a couple of chunks of juniper went into the stove to liven up the coals left over from the night before, Aunt Hat would fish the bones out of the stock pot, scrape the marrow out, pull off any strings of meat, and toss those bones in the dog pan. She'd skim the grease off the top of the stock pot and put it in a Mason jar. Never did figure out what she did with that grease, but every once in a while, that Mason jar would be empty.

Come time to make chili, Aunt Hat ladled a couple of quarts of stock into a big cast-iron dutch oven. She'd have a pile of meat trimmings, a couple of pounds at least, which would go into the dutch oven to boil with the stock.

"Go get the onions," she'd say to me. "Even a knee-high brat like you can cut onions." So I got to peel and chop a half dozen big ol' onions to put in that pot with the meat trimmings. Talk about tears.

Three or four of those hot chili peppers came off the string, and Aunt Hat ground them up on an old Anasazi metate Uncle Jess had found not far from the house. Grand Uncle Ned found the remains of a rudimentary cliff dwelling in that bluff above the creek. Carbon dating put a wooden beam from the dwelling at ca. 1200. The metate may have been from the same time. It sure made powder out of those chili peppers, seeds and all.

Some folks put the chili powder right in the kettle. Not Aunt Hat. She always roasted the chili powder in a frying pan and then mixed it with lard to make a kind of chili roux. "Rounds it off just a little," she'd say. Into the dutch oven it went, along with two or three grated carrots, a couple of tomatoes, and some roasted, skinned, and chopped California chiles -- mild, but flavorful.

The dutch oven sat and simmered on Aunt Hat's wood stove until the concoction was reduced to dark, reddish-brown liquor, thick with gelatin from the meat scraps. She'd soaked a quart of pinto beans overnight, and they were now plump and swollen. Aunt Hat dumped the beans into the dutch oven, water and all, and set it on the back of the stove where it would stew until the next evening.

Aunt Hat never tasted her chili until the morning of the second day. When she lifted the cast-iron lid of that deep dutch oven, steam rose and the unmistakable fragrance of chile con carne y frijoles filled the kitchen. She'd taste the chili and start adjusting things. Some cilantro. Black pepper. A little vinegar. A bay leaf or two. A touch of honey.

Satisfied, she hefted the big lid back on the oven and let it sit. There on the back of the stove, it wasn't hot enough to boil, but it was too hot to spoil. And all those ingredients just sat there and melded.

The men and boys would start coming just after noon. They'd put two loads of hay in the big barn just over the bluff, and they're ready for dinner. No one in Show Low, Arizona, eats lunch. It's breakfast, dinner, and supper, and the biggest meal of all is dinner.

Aunt Hat's ready. The chili is steaming in a huge bowl in the center of a table that seats twelve. She's cut inch and a half thick slices of the whole-wheat bread she baked on Thursday, and piled them on two platters, one at each end of the table. Pats of golden butter the size of an upside-down coffee cup stand ready for the bread. The deep color of the butter tells you one of Uncle Jess's cows is a Jersey. The apple pie is still in the pantry. After the bread and chili, it will be served with fresh cream and coffee.

In my end of Arizona, bread and chili go together naturally. You butter a slice of that homemade bread. Put in on your plate. And smother it with chili. My mouth waters just writing about it.

Aunt Hat's gone. So's Uncle Jess. Even Earl rides Old Blue in the great beyond. He never did get a driver's licence. Us kids that crowded Aunt Hat's on chili days grew up and moved away. Now we've got kids and grandkids of our own. And while our chili don't hold a candle to Aunt Hat's, we still try.

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(c) Charles T. Whipple

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review of Hell Fire in Paradise

Nik Morton, fellow Black Horse Westerns author and editor in chief of Solstice Publishing has reviewed my novel Hell Fire in Paradise.

And look here for an interview with my humble self by Jean Mead.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Earthquake, etc.

March 11, about 3:30 pm, I was at the hospital for a regular checkup. I'd just paid my bill and received my chit for meds, which I took to the hospital pharmacy. The meds weren't ready. I started to sit down when the building started to shake. That's nothing unusual in Japan. Happens quite often. But the shaking didn't quit. I walked quickly down the hall and outside on the ground floor smoker's deck. The shaking increased. I had to grab an iron post to stay upright. The steel walkway between the emergency ward and the hospital wards twisted and crackled. The van parked in front of the open space where I stood literally danced. The shaking and dancing went on for a good minute. The hospital didn't fall on my head.

Back at the pharmacy, meds were all over the floor. Took the pharmacists another 15 minutes to put mine together. I was last for the afternoon.

Outside, my car was still in one piece. A broken sewer line was spewing water onto the parking lot at the south end. A line from the big diesel fuel tank was broken, too. Maintenance people rushed to attend to the leaking fuel.

I tried to call my wife, but Japan, for some reason, turns all cell phone carriers off when there's a major earthquake. I've never heard a convincing argument on what that happens. Hoping all was well at home, I started the 10-minute drive.

The hospital is located on reclaimed land, which stretches out into Tokyo Bay about five kilometers from the former shoreline. Lots of liquefaction. Some buildings canted. Water seeping out here and there. But the roads were open and the traffic lights worked. I drove over the overpass and up the hill to high ground. On the way, I pulled over once to wait out a strong aftershock. People were already crowding into 7-Eleven to start buying up supplies.

At home, some books were off shelves, one mirror was broken, but nothing major. It felt good to live on high ground.

I didn't sleep that night. Aftershocks were scary. Coverage of the problems at the nuclear plant was on all TV channels. Videos of tsunami washing away entire towns. People crying out, screaming as their houses were swept away with them inside, having thought going to the second story would keep them out of the water. Tsunami carrying ships of thousands of tons inland for two or three kilometers. Cars floating as if they were boats. Water covering the runways at the Sendai Airport, carrying away baggage tractors, trailers, everything.

Nonstop coverage continued the next day. I caught some Zs in the big chair.

Quake epicenters have switched around. The original one that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale was off northeastern Japan seacoast. The next day a 6.8 quake struck in Niigata. Slightly after that, a 6.0 in Nagano, where Japan's last winter Olympics were held. Yesterday, 6.4 on the southern flank of Mt. Fuji. Tonight, 6.4 off the Pacific coast of Chiba, the prefecture in which I live.

I type while watching NTV. They're chronicling the cleanup, the hunt for relatives, the lack of fuel and supplies in the 190 km strip of the Pacific coast that moved 2.4 meters closer to California because of the big quake.

We don't know what will happen with the nukes. We don't know if another monster quake or even a big quake will hit us again before things settle down. We just don't know.