Monday, August 28, 2017

Country Store Traditions


Nearly two months ago, Jim returned from an errand with the news that Alfred and Melissa Ellis were planning to reopen the Mustard Seed Country Store and Cafe. Slowing for the turn onto Sanders Ridge Road, Jim noted vehicles in the parking lot and  a welter of tools, paint buckets and step ladders visible beyond the open doors. Closed for two years, the building was now under-going a through scrubbing, fresh interior paint, attractive landscaping.

A bench on the porch is an attractive place for a traveler to rest with a mug of coffee or a cold soft drink.

An assortment of tables and booths furnish an eating area conducive to friendly chat.



The menu board suggests plenty of options for breakfast, lunch or a quick snack.

Jim places his breakfast order on opening day.

Coolers and shelves are newly stocked with pantry staples.



Local scrimshaw artist, Jay Rose, has aranged a display of his work.

Handmade items for sale are the work of Kentucky crafters.

During the few minutes wait for your food to be prepared,  you may discover the perfect gift for a friend--or you may decide to treat yourself to something special.

The Mustard Seed was a frequent destination several years ago when we were busy with the lengthy progress of converting our Amish-built house to modern standards. Jim labored to install wiring and plumbing while I painted, substituting warm color for endless walls of shiny blue.  At some point in our work day, grubby and tired, one of us would suggest lunch at the Mustard Seed.  The store/cafe a few minutes away from the mess of work, provided an interval of neighborhood camaraderie served up with our sandwiches and drinks.
In sharing our pleasure at the recent reopening of the store, Jim and I recalled the country stores of our respective rural childhoods.

In my rural Vermont hometown it wasn't possible during the 1950's to buy a cup of coffee, let alone a sandwich or a slice of pie. Men like my Dad, heading out for a day's work, funneled the last of the breakfast coffee into a quart thermos, pushed in the cork and screwed on the handled drinking cup. With luck, the cork stayed in place, the glass liner didn't break and the coffee was still hot hours later.  
Although not equipped to serve lunch or a hot drink, the little village stores of the era could provide most of the items necessary for daily living. 
Smith's IGA was located at the west end of the village main street, conveniently next door to the First National Bank. The front door opened onto an expanse of dark well-oiled flooring, uneven and scuffed with wear. To the left stood a wooden stand divided into bins for potatoes, cabbages and onions. It wasn't an expansive produce display.
Four aisles of shelving were stocked with canned fruit, canned vegetables, several varieties of Campbell's soup, Franco-American spaghetti [a nearly tasteless wodge of pasta in an orange-red sauce, much beloved by my Dad] Van Camps' Pork and Beans. There were tins of tuna, salmon, corned beef, 'deviled ham' and Spam to keep on hand for hearty lunchbox sandwiches to sustain the working man; jars of peanut butter, jelly and marshmallow fluff were the delight of school children. 

The selection in any category wasn't large enough to create a dilemma of choice.  Baking supplies were basic: flour, sugar, cocoa, a few familiar spices in sturdy tins. Packaged snacks were limited to Fig Newtons, Oreos, Cracker Jacks, candy bars. Glass bottles of soda pop could be fished from the watery depths of a 'cooler'--Coca Cola, Nehi Orange, Grape. 
The grocery aisles converged at the back of the store near the meat counter with a 'meat-cutter' in attendance. The display case held pork chops, bulk and link sausage, hamburger, rolls of bologna.  Steak was a luxury that few could afford.  The Sunday pot roast would be cut to order while one waited.

Most families made the run once or twice per month to the bigger town nearly 20 miles away where a Grand Union and an A & P offered the novelty of greater choice. Grocery shopping finished, there was the treat of an ice cream cone or a milk shake from the soda fountain that occupied one wall of the drug store located around the street corner.
The limited selection at our small country store may not have been exciting,  but the most urgent daily needs of a rural farming community were supplied. The dry goods section of the store stocked nails, nuts and bolts, ax handles, stove pipe, the bits and pieces needed for emergency repairs in house or barn.
A glass fronted case held bottles of cough syrup, aspirin, Band Aids, iodine, Vicks Vapo-Rub. 
If a farm wife needed a new 'house dress' there were a few to consider, though most women made their own or sent off an order to 'Monkey Ward.'  The farmer could rummage around the stock of tall black rubber boots and likely find a pair in his size. 
The dry goods counter offered a utilitarian selection of socks and underwear. Nothing in the store was exotic, special or distinctive. 
When all necessary items had been collected, one trundled the grocery cart to a plain wooden counter near the front door where Mrs. Smith rang up the total on a heavy hand-operated cash register.  It was known that she extended credit to those families who were unable to pay on the spot, quietly entering the 'tab' in a small receipt book, discreetly handing over a  carbon copy of the charges as she bagged boxes of cereal, a tin of coffee, cans of tomato soup.
Most families paid up when the 'milk check' made its bi-monthly appearance in their mailbox, or when a culled cow was sent to auction, but there were inevitably those short-term residents of the town who moved on, the store bill owing.

Although larger towns offered the choice of a few modest restaurants or diners, eating establishments were few and located far apart in rural areas.  By the early 1960's ice cream stands had appeared [open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend]  and a few entrepreneurs were sufficiently encouraged by a brisk summer trade to build on a tiny cafe, open year round to offer hotdogs, hamburgers and French fries. 
Hand painted signs announced 'Home Cooking' at the small cafes that sprang up along well traveled routes.  Formica-topped tables were flanked by benches or chairs cushioned in bright orange vinyl. If the establishment was really uptown there might be a jukebox, a few shelves of inexpensive trinkets and souvenirs for sale.

Like the best of its 20th century forerunners the  Mustard Seed Store and Cafe offers the convenience of a small country store and eating place.  It is a personal family establishment, not part of an anonymous chain.
The coolers and shelves provide those items we are prone to 'run out of' [milk, eggs, toilet paper]  as well as the resources for preparing a decent meal on short notice.  
The gifts and crafts attractively displayed for sale are made by Kentucky artisans, many of them local. Best of all, to our minds, The Mustard Seed is a neighborhood gathering place. 

This morning, in my own kitchen, I sat in Grampa Mac's rocking chair, a mug of creamy coffee beside me, a purring cat on my lap.  I surveyed the counters and cooktop which I had wiped down late on Sunday evening after a session of canning tomatoes. I was loathe to pull out skillets and dishes, unmotivated to cook and clear up.
"This would be a good morning for breakfast at the Mustard Seed, " I ventured.  Jim, intent on craigslist, didn't reply. Ten minutes later he strode to the kitchen sink, rinsed his coffee mug. I continued to rock peacefully, stroking my cat.
"Let's go to breakfast at the Mustard Seed," announced Jim.

The double doors stood wide to the gloomy morning.  Smells of cooking drifted into the parking lot. We smiled at a couple just exiting--folks we had met there a week before.
Our neighbor was finishing breakfast, others we recognized were seated at a corner table. People dashed in through the rain, jostling to fill styrofoam cups with 'coffee to go.'  A man we'd not met before brought his plate of eggs and gravy, settled at the end of our table. After inquiring where we lived, he began to share stories of his own days growing up on Spruce Pine Creek. Others joined in--tales of grandparents, of family farms, of weather, crops, years of hard work.

Most of us who can spare the hour for a leisurely breakfast are retired or self-employed, having flexible schedules.  We have time to talk of where our travels have taken us, to compare the places we have lived and worked and raised families.
We learn that some of our neighbors were 'born and raised right here.'  Others went away, sometimes for decades, but have returned to the place that nurtured them, the place were they trace their generations. 
Then there are those like us who made the choice to move in retirement to Kentucky and discovered a welcoming community tucked among the ridges and 'hollers' of this rural county.
We will continue to enjoy the option of 'going out for breakfast' just around the corner, or to stop in for a cold drink or the occasional lunch break.  
It is good to once again have a country store in the neighborhood.




Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dog Days, August 2017


I have never noted the presence of Sirius, the Dog Star, the harbinger of sunrise during the hot days of waning summer.  Our farmhouse, situated at the end of a winding gravel lane, is tucked into a narrow valley between steep ridges.  Oak, maple and ash crowd the slopes, blocking the earliest view of morning sun.  Mist hovers above Spruce Pine Creek and drifts across a neighbor's field, shredding and dissolving as it reaches the comparatively open spaces surrounding the lower house and barn at the bottom of the lane.



The 'dog days' have been identified from antiquity as a 'period of stagnation or inactivity' arriving yearly to stifle inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere.
 Greek and Roman astronomers reviewing the notes of their predecessors, added their own observations of August weather, linking excessive heat, drought, or violent thunderstorms to all manner of ills--lethargy, fever, human passions run amok, maddened dogs. Any vague malevolence or domestic uproar occurring in August might prompt a sage waging of the head and the rhetorical question, 'What would you expect?  Look at the weather!'


This summer has spared us the usual weeks of heavy heat and turgid humidity that can begin in late May and linger into September.
Fresh July mornings drew us to our south-facing porch to welcome the day, admiring the hummingbirds who dart and swoop around the feeders, enjoying the company of the outdoor cats as they [ignoring the birds] pounce on grasshoppers or poke cautiously at the bees whirring through clumps of lavender.
Cool dusky evenings found me again in one of our new Amish-made rocking chairs, book in hand, tea beside me on the table--and often with a sweater around my shoulders.  We have chuckled over the necessity of turning down the A/C and bundling an old comforter onto the bed--in July!
Country folks are in tune with the seasons, and as day followed clear and sunny mid-summer day, we often heard the pessimistic warning, 'We'll pay yet for this weather!


Inevitably, August has reverted to form. 
The needle on the thermometer moved into the 90's F. 
The air has felt weighted with moisture released in mid-morning torrents or gentler nocturnal rainfalls.


Tomato and pepper plants, heavy with ripening fruit, sprawled onto the drenched soil of the garden.


The delicately feathered stalks of cosmos prostrated by onslaughts of heavy rain have continued to bloom, their petals a bright splash in the tangle of wet grass and weeds.


The perennial borders, so carefully tended in the milder weather of spring, are now choked with weeds.  It is too hot to crawl about digging and twitching at what seems to be an endless proliferation of unwanted greenery.
Still, in the untidy shade of the over-arching oaks, deep pink Spanish foxglove and a white variety have bloomed.  Butterflies enjoy the leaning spires of phlox and cleome. The scent of Joe Pye weed and goldenrod mingles with the smell of rain-pummeled garden soil and damp grass.



Jim picks tomatoes daily, delivering them to the kitchen by the basketful.
I sort them onto the newspaper covered shelves in the washroom, bringing the ripe ones in to be canned, trying to cull out those that are collapsing into vile smelling lumps.
The last chore of the evening is swabbing the sections of kitchen floor and counters that have been spattered with tomato juice and scalding water.


The cats who have house privileges scoot out when the rain stops, then hurl themselves, bedraggled and wet-pawed, at the door when a new deluge begins. 
Willis makes his rounds early each morning, keeping to the graveled circuit of the dooryard or clambering onto the retaining wall at the front of the house where he can keep tabs on our comings and goings.  His patrol finished, he retreats to an old folding chair on the side porch.


When approached he stretches, opens a baleful eye, and with a yawn, resettles himself to sleep through the heat of the day.
Jim and I, though exchanging mild complaints re the heat and humidity, have not succumbed to lethargy or weather induced madness.
I will admit to sleeping poorly,  to feeling beset by inconsequential irritations and the need to keep a firm rein on my temper; still, I tackle a number of interesting projects when not hovering over the tomato harvest.
Jim concedes no such moody fluctuations, but I note that he abandons his shop work mid-afternoon in favor of a cool shower, clean shirt and iced tea, followed by a rest in his leather recliner.


We are a cossetted generation: ceiling fans, portable fans, A/C units with remote controls; we do our errands and outings in vehicles with temperature selections for both driver and passenger, shop in air-conditioned stores. 
If, in spite of these domestic niceties, we are reprimanded for being 'tetchy' or unreasonable, dull-witted or [heaven forbid!] lethargic--we can point out that we are behaving as untold generations have done while wallowing through the dog days of another August.






Tuesday, August 8, 2017

An Unlikely August


In the cool dusk of Sunday evening we sat late in our rocking chairs on the side porch. 
The afterglow of a subdued pastel sunset cast a hint of apricot over the white walls of the lower farmhouse; fireflies flickered through the rough grass at the edges of the lane.

As darkness fell, cicadas began their rasping tunes from the trees beyond the retaining wall.  Lightning flashed in the southern sky, but there was no sound of thunder. 
"That storm is halfway to the Tennessee line," announced Jim, 'but the rain is headed this way."

A breeze stirred, the hummingbirds made a last visit to the feeders hanging at the edge of the porch.
Charlie-cat plodded up the steps, his shaggy coat a pale blur; he jumped into my lap, trod about, plumped down for a moment, bounced to the floor, complaining.  Willis crouched on the walk, a grey shape in the pool of yellow light spilling through a living room window.

The high pitched bleating of goat kidlets reached us and we noted B's headlamp moving about near the stable as she settled the goats for the night.
A small wind stirred restlessly, sending an empty plastic flower pot skittering across the porch floor.  The air cooled sharply and there was the scent of distant rain.



A few spatters of rain fell as Jim headed upstairs at 10. By the time I followed him nearly an hour later, rain was pounding on the roof.
I lay in bed, watching the occasional flash of lightning through the parted window curtains.  A particularly heavy burst of rain brought me out of bed to investigate whether Jim had closed the west windows on either side of the hallway.  He hadn't--and as I padded toward them I felt the fine mist of rain driven past billowing curtains.
Several cats followed anxiously at my heels as I made my round of inspection, trudged back with me to the big bed where the warmth of a shabby duvet offered comfort.

We woke Monday morning to a heavy grey dawn and the realization that we had overslept.
 Sidewalk and steps were slick with water; so much rain had accumulated in the pot of zinnias that I had to tip it out to rescue them from drowning.


The sun broke through mid-morning, although banks of grey clouds loomed in the north.


This is a strange beginning to August in Kentucky.  The stifling heat of other summers has visited us in short spells through July, rarely unbearable, though we've been grateful for the A/C units which keep the downstairs cool by day and the bedroom pleasant at night.
The garden has been unusually productive as there has been no prolonged time of intense heat or drought.
Along the lane and in the pastures late summer wildflowers are already in bloom.

Brown seedheads of Queen Anne's Lace tower above the yellow glow of goldenrod.


Short stems of Queen Anne's Lace have revived along the fence in the wake of Jim's lawn mower.


Goldenrod sprawls above a leaning pasture gate.


Joe Pye weed looms in the shade along the wooded hillside.


In a moist corner of the upper pasture--beyond the goats' browsing range--a mad tangle of Joe Pye weed, Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod.


Boneset stands tall against the dark treeline of the ridge.


Jewelweed glows from deep in the afternoon shadows.


Beneath the tulip poplar at the edge of the lane fallen leaves are an early harbinger of autumn.


 Tomato plants have responded to the kindly balance of sun and rain, thus far resistant to the blight that usually spoils the crop.
It is the season for sharing and for 'putting up' the bounty of the garden, a time of kitchen counters laden with baskets and buckets of tomatoes, jars, kettles, all the satisfying untidiness of canning.
Life is busy--and I am content that it should be so.