Monday, November 14, 2011

Chapter 20

Chapter Twenty

The last few days have been busy … at least for me. Tony finally just stopped fighting - me and his own body - and agreed to sleep whatever he has off. He wakes up for food and the bathroom and maybe to listen to a little radio to TV. Sometimes I’ll take a break and listen with him; the reception is better upstairs anyway; the rabbit ears actually bring in a local station on the boob tube and we don’t need anything extra to pick up radio signals. Unfortunately, to some extent, all it does is aggravate both of us.

The news ain’t so happy-happy-happy as it was. The television broadcasts we manage to pick up if the weather is just right are the same way. And they’ve changed the broadcast anchors too. There’s this woman on there that drives me freakin’ nuts. I mean if it was any more obvious that she’s just a gorgeous bimbo being used to front someone’s agenda they’d have to hold a sign up behind her. But what really torques me is that when she tries to tell something sad or really concerning it looks like she’s going to crack her botox. The guy that sits beside her most of the time is just as bad though I have to admit it is kinda funny to see that his “Just For Men” dye job is growing out.

Yeah, I know I’m being totally snarky about it but I hate wasting the batteries listening to them say a lot of words that don’t mean really anything constructive no matter how they dress it up. For instance, they’re always talking about all of the good things going on in the cities now that the rioting is over with, how things are getting so much better. Problem is that if you pick the lid up off of that and look under it you begin to see that a lot of rights are getting trampled all over. Military and quasi-military roaming to “put down” anyone that causes unrest. People being rounded up in civilian drafts just because they know how to do certain jobs; the medical establishment has been particularly hard hit by this. And in some places it is nothing but a race baiting/race riot world.

Worse yet, they are on this serious “hoarding” kick where they try and say anyone that has more food than they need for immediate purposes is behaving irresponsibly, is a racist, is some kind of traitor or seditionist. If I hear it too many more times I’m gonna hurl. They blow a lot of smoke but the bottom line is they’re telling people it is their patriotic duty to turn their family and friends in if they have more in their house than the neighbors do. That’s like busting three of the Ten Commandments right there starting with thou shalt not covet.


“Mm?” Poor guy was half asleep but I really needed to talk to him.

“I need to ask you somethin’ and I need you to be honest without blowin’ your stack.”

Cracking one eye open he said reluctantly, “I won’t promise not to be angry about something when I don’t know what it is.”

I sighed, “I suppose, but just hear me out first, OK?” At his slow nod I continued on. “You know this hoarding thing bothers me.” He nodded. “Well, look around Tony. You know … wait, maybe you don’t.”

“You’re not makin’ any sense Ragazza,” he said as if determined to stay calm so I wouldn’t be the one to blow my stack.

Getting a little frustrated I said, “I know and I’m sorry. Look, I’ve told you in general what we’ve got to work with here.”

“Sure. You brought me a basic inventory and kept me up to date on what you’re addin’ every day. And don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I wish …”

Shaking my head I said, “Don’t go there Tony. You’ll be up and around soon enough and you can help me with the grapes and stuff that’re more trouble than the apples and the like. I just mean you know that what we’ve got is way more than what the average person would have in their kitchen cabinets.”

He was beginning to understand my agitation. “Yeah Joey. I get it. Someone could think we’re hoarding things, come in and try and take it or take over.”

Relieved he’d seen it I told him, “That’s part of it. I figure no matter what we’ve got some risk to deal with but not anywhere what we’d have if we lived down in town or back in the city. But … but what if someone rats on us? What then?”

Looking at me close he asks, “You got some reason to think someone will? Is that what you’re worried about? ‘Cause if it is I’ve already thought about it. Why do you think it drives me crazy when you’re out in that orchard all alone?”

“Tony, I’m not worried about the locals. Nobody but the propane guy really knows where this place is and he was an old guy that had his own place. I think those guys that tried to take us out were just a one off … accident or somethin’. I’m more worried about …” I really hated to say it but it’s been eating at me. “Tony, do you think Leo … or … or your uncle … could or would turn us in?”

I kept waiting for Tony to blow but he didn’t he just looked sad. “I’ve thought about it. And don’t look so surprised. After what Uncle Nicky did to you … after what he tried to do to me … I can’t just pretend he isn’t a threat. But could he find his way back up here? I don’t know about that. I’m pretty sure Leo couldn’t as he had to follow me in and didn’t hang around long enough to get familiar with the landmarks to find his way back … you know how easy it is to get lost on that mining road. I remember going in circles a couple of times myself before we got here.”

Quietly I admitted, “I hated to bring it up but it’s been eatin’ at me. I don’t like the idea of going against your family, not even your uncle despite what he did. I sure don’t want to be on the other side of something from Lucia … or even Bennie who ain’t such a loser as you think he is … or your aunt … or … well, none of ‘em. It just bothers me that I can’t find it in me to trust ‘em and not worry about it. I just don’t know what I can do about it.”

Just as quietly Tony said, “I know Ragazza. It bothers me that it is my family that we have to be concerned about. I brought them here …”

Putting my hand on his shoulder I stopped him. “Don’t Tony. My parents agreed to it and probably even suggested it. You know how they could be. If it had been their side of the family you couldn’t have gotten the location of this place out of them with a rubber mallet and burning tongs but for the Moretti family … their best friends … to them that was better than family.”

He nodded. “Even if that is true it doesn’t change the fact we could have a problem on our hands does it? First off I been thinkin’ that we need to hide the entrance road. I kinda remember it being overgrown and missing it twice before I found it.”

“Yeah, it’s overgrown but it still stands out if you know what you’re lookin’ for. I know you didn’t like me walkin’ down day before yesterday but I wanted to check the fence line for more blackberries and to see what the nut trees looked like. I think stringing something across the road would only draw notice to it. I even thought about taking the chainsaw and knocking a tree or two down but then that would get in the way of the tractor if we needed it for some reason. A downed tree might also draw attention but …”

When I stopped and peeped at him from my eyelashes he cautiously asked, “But what? I know that look Joey.”

Cautiously I explained, “There’s that old bridge across the gully not too far from where the mining road breaks off from the old rural route highway.”

I’d caught his attention. “You want to destroy a public bridge.”

Knowing how it sounded I said, “Just hear me out. I know for a fact you can’t see the bridge from the highway. I know for a fact not many people use the old mining roads anymore because there ain’t nothing at the end of the road except some forestry land that was hunted over to the point the locals don’t even bother with it. It could be the best place for a road block; no one would tie it directly to this place.”

Tony was thinking about it. I could tell by the set of his face; he’s simply a cautious man. But then he raised something I hadn’t taken into account. “So’s if we actually figure out some way to knock the bridge down; can you live with someone getting hurt because they weren’t payin’ attention and drive off it into the gully?”

I winced. “OK, so I didn’t think of everything.”

“Let me think on it some. To be honest I’m less worried about someone coming in by road than I am being spotted from the air. Mr. Comb Over from that news show mentioned they were doing that in a lot of rural agricultural areas in order to pinpoint public resources.”

I snorted and added a very unladylike word making Tony give me the hairy eyeball. I said, “What? You want I should just squeal and faint and refuse to believe anything can be done about it?”

Shaking his head he said, “No, but you don’t need to sound a teamster. What would your mother say?”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine, whatever. Geez Tony.” I didn’t say anything more because he was obviously tired again. I also let it go because while I could have a mouth on me it was usually a clean one. I shouldn’t let those people get to me and change who I am. It’s just hard not to sink to the level of the people threatening you.

Leaving Tony in a half doze I went back downstairs and looked at my handiwork before putting it away. The day of rain let me pick up most of the mess in the main part of the house and move it to one of the downstairs bedroom. I make myself put away at least one box of stuff in the morning and one box of stuff at night. As a result I’m nearly half way through it all and feeling pretty good.

I’ve also changed the way I’m harvesting. I go early in the morning and harvest from the trees, brambles, and vines – mostly because it is cooler then and not so many gnats – and then bring it back to the house. I do this until about lunch time when I stop. For the rest of the day I work at processing the fruit. It isn’t a perfect system. Sometimes the mist is so heavy I have a hard time seeing down the trail to get to the orchard and it is as bad as working in the rain. And sometimes if I was up late the night before it is very hard to get up; but, I try and treat it like a school project … it is something that must be done, must be done well, if I am to survive the course and pass. Since I’m an overachiever by nature it all works out to the good. The afternoons are as much work as the mornings but with the right tools it usually goes smoothly unless I flub something up.

One such tool is Mom’s steam juicer; I love that thing. I steam about half the fruit I pick and process the juice in jars for drinking or for making jellies some other time. In about five hours I can get six quarts of juice from a half bushel of apples while at the same I’m canning fruit in other ways. I also keep the dehydrators full. I bring in a lot of buckets of fruit and set them in the basement. The goal is always before I stop for the night I have to have at least as many buckets processed as I brought in. I still can’t get ahead but I am keeping up.

I’m not just preserving food for future use. Since we gotta eat someone’s gotta cook and that someone is me. I get creative with our current meals when I’ve got the time. As I cook things I’ve noticed gaps in my ingredient list. Some are easy to substitute for, some are not. For example I had a recipe that called for apple pie spice. Well I didn’t have any apple pie spice but I did have cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom … it was an easy fix. On the other hand I have some recipes that call for fresh citrus fruit or citrus juice and sorry, that’s just not happening so it is either substitute with dry or canned ingredients or forget about it.

The biggie for me – in addition to coffee – has been cheese. Mom brought a few blocks of cheese with her but Dad couldn’t have much of the stuff so it was not a priority item. Tony said he didn’t even think of cheese or he would have grabbed some wheels form the deli on his way out of town. Lucky for us I’ve had some very interesting roommates. What does one have to do with the other? Kind of a lot all things considered.

One of my roommates was a girl from the Philippines; her father was an American serviceman and her mother Philippine. Over there they don’t really have access to fresh milk, everything is powdered but her father loved cheese. Imported cheese was too expensive so her mother learned to make cheese from powdered milk. Michaela – my roommate – learned from her mother and she taught me and that same summer I taught Mom and Mrs. Moretti, both of whom were at first extremely doubtful that such a thing could really be done.

Well, as you can guess it once I proved my point they took off with it and made it better. My mother’s Jewish friends had a blast with it too because so long as they had kosher rennet, or a vegetable based rennet, they could make kosher cheese and avoid the expense in the stores. For a while one of the Halal store owners was very upset until my father asked him why he didn’t just take advantage of a new market and stock kosher cheese making supplies. He actually expanded his customer base into the non-Jewish community and my mother had the ingredients she needed just a few blocks away; win-win for all concerned.

I will admit there can be a couple of extra steps for making cheese from powdered milk if you are making one of the traditional hard cheeses like cheddar but if you are making a soft cheese there is hardly anything to it. What I wanted yesterday – what Tony was craving too – was cannoli, and for that I needed ricotta cheese.

Now you can make ricotta a couple of different ways. Traditionally it is made with whey leftover from making other cheese which would be a great way to use it (no pun intended) except I hadn’t made any other cheese yet. You can also make ricotta using whole milk and this is the method I used only I started with powdered milk. We have plenty of powdered milk for the same reason we have lots of canned milk, whole grains, and other things stored here. Mom didn’t want to have to drive down the mountain just to get a quart of milk from the market when she wanted it.

I made up two quarts worth of powdered milk and used a whisk to beat the powder into the water and then let it set to make double sure that all the solids had dissolved. Once I had the two quarts of liquid milk I added one teaspoon of citric acid (you can also use lemon juice) to the milk and whisked it in for about half a minute. Then I added three tablespoons of red wine vinegar and did the same thing. As soon as that was completed I heated the milk solution to eighty-eight degrees F, and stirred it a few times while it was heating to keep it from scorching on the bottom and being cold on top. Next I added half of a rennet tablet that had been pre-dissolved in a quarter cup of cool water.

As soon as I had poured in the rennet and stirred it in I removed the milk solution from the heat source and let it sit for one hour. The whole point of adding all of that stuff to the milk was to make it curdle. I know that sounds gross but it is the curds that you need for cheese. Basically cheese is curdled milk if you think about it.

After an hour I lined a colander with cheesecloth and poured the curds and whey into it. They whey dripped through to a bowl I put beneath the colander and then I picked up the corners of the cheesecloth with the curds inside and hung it so it could “drip dry” for a while longer. Some people prefer their ricotta “wet” and some prefer a very “dry” ricotta; I prefer something in the middle, neither runny nor dry.

For the cannoli filling you take two pounds of ricotta and add one and a half cups of powdered sugar, four teaspoons of good vanilla, and if you really want to go on overload you can add a package of chocolate chips. I didn’t want to use the chocolate chips I had but I did have several bars of milk chocolate and baker’s chocolate. I took the Hershey Symphony bar I found in one of my mother’s boxes and grated about half of it into the cannoli filling. It looked like my cannoli had fleas but I didn’t care.

The cannoli shells are harder to make because they are pastry but it really isn’t any worse than making doughnuts which is nothing but another type of fried dough. Mix one and half cups of flour, one tablespoon of cocoa (if you have it), one tablespoon of sugar, one half teaspoon of baking powder, and one quarter teaspoon of salt. Then you work two tablespoons of good shortening or lard into your dry ingredients all the while adding a half cup of wine a little bit at a time as you mix. It doesn’t look like you wind up with much dough but trust me, it’s more than enough.

You take a piece of your dough about the size of a nickel and roll it out real thin and then wrap it around a cannoli tube; finally figured out that’s what the metal tubes were than were inside the box marked “Italian cookware.” Then you are going to drop the dough and tube into some grease to deep fry them … same as doughnuts. There’s a way to bake cannoli tubes as well but I was jonesing for something fried. When the cannoli pastry is as brown as you want them take them out and put them on brown paper or sheets of parchment to drain and then push the metal tubes out of them carefully. After that it is easy; just fill the tubes with the cannoli filling and chow down.

I think last night was the first complete meal – main dish, bread, side dish, and dessert – that Tony had eaten since he got here. Heck even I was as full as a Barbary tick afterwards. That sort of thing is too much work for every day but I think I can manage it a couple of times a month.

The fact that I’m thinking in months rather than days or weeks has finally escaped my subconscious and become a whole thought process. The reason why I’m worried about being considered a hoarder is if they take everything we are working towards how will we survive long term? Not just tomorrow, or next week … but next month and next year. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone … well, besides the obvious with Tony.

Tony’s said that isn’t realistic. We can’t produce our own sugar cane for sugar, wheat for flour, corn for meal, etc. I’m thinking that maybe we can or at the very least we can substitute for other things. When I told him so he said it is more than food. “Joey, even if you can sew where are you going to get the material for clothes? Even if I know how to reload bullet casings where is the black powder and primers going to come from? Even if we have this solar system to provide us with some energy what happens if one or more of the batteries go bad? No man is an island.”

I don’t know. It seems like all I can do is make it through the here and now going day by day; thinking of all of the possible future problems we are facing is just more than I can do. I’ll be glad when Tony is well enough to help with that part of it.

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