In days gone by, or so I’m told, lard was the only shortening cooks had other than butter. Well, those of us in the Pappas household are pretty much back to them long ago days. The only other stuff we can make ourselves is grape seed oil. That is something that is done in fairly good abundance using a seed press and grape seeds that were strained out of the must. We end up with enough that we can even trade some though the oil is better used for “cold” purposes like making mayonnaise, homemade cosmetics, and salad dressings than for frying. It takes a doggone lot of them little grape seeds to get enough oil worth anything.
I was trying to figure how much wine per acre the Pappas winery produced but when I asked Dino he started throwing out a bunch of technical stuff depending on the variety of grape, the number of clusters produced and finally I told him he was giving me a headache and could he just make it simple still learning.
“Sorry Love, I tend to get carried away. At least you’re interested.”
I told him, “Of course I’m interested, I’m just not ready for the ‘War and Peace’ version yet.”
That made him roll his eyes in fake disgust but he did make it where I could understand it after that. On average each acre of vines produces about four tons of fruit. You get between one hundred and one hundred and twenty gallons of wine per ton. That’s a lot of bottles of wine; around five hundred to seven hundred depending on the bottle size. That’s also a lot of grape seeds left over after the must is strained away. It takes about a pound of grape seeds to make one ounce of oil. There are one hundred and twenty-eight ounces in a gallon so it takes that many pounds – one hundred and twenty-eight – of grape seeds to make one gallon of grape seed oil. I’m here to tell you that that is a lot of grape seeds and before that a heck of a lot of grapes.
We also use a lot of olive oil but that is because one of the big wine distributors we sell to pays us partly with all the olive oil we can handle. Problem is it comes in these huge barrels. So what Ajax does is take it to town and sell it by the quart or gallon to folks that also have to bring their own containers. We also trade another wine customer for peanuts and peanut oil. Corn oil we have trouble getting for a good price but we make do.
I mentioned to Dino that I’d like to plant a field of sunflowers next season. After he got over giving me a look like he was wondering what I was getting him into I said, “But only if you think that seed press could handle them.”
He thought for a few moments and then said, “You want to try and make your own sunflower oil.”
I shrugged, “I’d like to try yes, but not if it’s gonna interfere with things. I was reading in one of your books that you can get just about a hundred gallons of sunflower oil from an acre of good seed heads.”
I was standing at the stove flipping corn pone and he kissed me on the neck between my ear and my shoulder making me want to squeal. “If I can find the seed at a reasonable price we’ll try it. When the blooms come on we’ll have to figure some way to keep the birds off of them but it can’t hurt to see if we can add another cash crop.”
That’s what I like about Dino. He includes me in things and doesn’t automatically say yes or no; he gives it due thought and always at least tries to see my side. Take the ducks and geese. They’d always just been pets to his grandmother and Aunt Adona treated them the same way. To me though they looked like eggs and meat. When I found the eggs were just being let go to waste or thrown to the dogs which is as good as wasteful in my book I was scandalized. There wasn’t a gander left which meant no little goslings so growing the flock was out until I could talk Aunt Adona into actually trading me a gander rather than just talking about it. Well Dino was just plain grossed out by the idea of eating anything but a chicken egg, silly man. For three days running though I started using duck and goose eggs. I only informed him after the fact and after fighting down the green around his gills he said, “For the last three days?”
“For the last three days,” I told him. “And what do you think helped me to make that big ol’ soufflé you had last night for supper that you couldn’t stop talking about?” That was the end of that and now we I just waiting on a gander out there for that harem.
But honestly, for the fluffiest biscuits, pastry, and pretty soap we needed to render out the lard with care to get a soft white product. Lard is made from the intestinal fat, the leaf fat, and the scraps of fat from the butchered hog that are trimmed off from different cuts of the meat. The intestines are covered with a layer of fat stretching the entire length of them. After removing the intestines from the carcass it got passed off to Chester’s boys to strip them of all their fat with knives, being careful not to pierce them. You punch a hole in those intestines and you’ve gone and ruined everything.
The best fat for lard is the leaf lard that comes from the inside of the ribs. This lard, in comparison to the whole hog, is a fairly small strip of fat that is removed by simply pulling it out by hand. After enough fat was gathered and cut into small cubes at the cutting table, take it was taken over to the BBQ pit where I had a large kettle prepared.
The kettle has to be about 4 inches off of the ground to allow room for the fire wood. I used a tripod and chain to set it just right. Too close to the heat and it could catch fire, too far and you’d be forever and a day just on the rendering. I put a small amount of water in the kettle to keep the first batch of fat from sticking. The kettle needs to be hot before you put your fat into it. You want to render the fat, not cook it.
As the fat is diced, I dumped it into the kettle. What little bit of water was in there eventually boils out so you don’t have to worry about it messing up your lard. The most tiring part of the whole process is having to constantly stir the fat with a paddle. My grandmother’s lard paddle is a thing of beauty her father made her as a wedding gift. It is made out of sassafras and has seen use every year since its creation and there isn’t a crack or burnt place it in. If I treat that thing right it might last the rest of my life too. Just in case it doesn’t though Chester said he’d carve me another when things slow down. Isn’t he just sweet. Not too many I know that would take the time to do such a thing.
As the diced fat gets hot, it melts down into liquid grease. You have to stir it constantly to keep the fat from burning and the fire has to be kept low while in this process because the lard, if a flame is touched to it, it will catch fire and too hot a fire will cause the lard to be brown when it hardens. My uncle once told me the worst whoopin’ he got as a kid was when he was fooling around and let a big batch of lard burn. This particular uncle was a rascal so I’m sure burning the lard wasn’t the only thing he got a whoopin’ for growing up. Brown lard will get rancid more quickly and my grandmother never wanted it in her kitchen. She seemed to consider it some kind of sign of slovenly housekeeping.
As the first batch of grease melts you keep dumping more fat in the kettle and dipping out grease as it cooks out of the fat until you have put in all the fat that you have. You keep heating and stirring the lard until all the fat is extracted. The way my grandfather explained it to me is that low heat directed to the fatty tissues will melt the fat, leaving the cell structure and the rind. This residue will cook in the hot fat and float on the top of the grease. These are called cracklings. Not everyone is partial to cracklins but I like ‘em … maybe a little too much so I don’t cook them often. I especially like to take the rinds and deep fry them and make pork rinds … they fluff up something funny and are better than potato chips and just as addictive.
You can tell when the lard is done by the cracklings floating at the top. The fat that you pour into the kettle floats also but the fat is white until it is melted down to just the cracklings so you can tell when you're done when everything floating at the top is brown. It isn’t a pretty sight until you realize that means that you are done hanging out over that hot fire. Man, you are hot on one side and freezing on the other and you are just so glad to be done. Whoops, gotta remember “turkeys get done, people get finished.” If I heard that once as a little kid I heard it just about a million times. One of my aunts was a highschool English teacher and she could be a bear about talking proper. I used to drive her mad because she knew I could talk different when I wanted to.
Getting the lard out of the kettle can be dangerous. Drips into an open flame can catch fires and runs down the side of the kettle can as well. You need to take care and pay attention at this point. Hot grease ain’t nothing to be fooling with. You dip the lard out of the kettle with a large dipper or sauce pan and pour it through a cloth into a lard stand or container that can hold very hot liquids. I’ve got ceramic pots I used for this but I warm them up a bit before I pour the hot grease in them to avoid cracking them. I cover the lard with cheesecloth and let it cool and harden. After the pots have cooled a bit I carried them down into the basement. The lard will keep all year and thank goodness too. Making lard is not something I’d want to do during warm weather.
The cracklings I caught in the straining cloth. They have a nutty, crisp brown taste. I also like to put them in cornbread but some people only feed their cracklins to the dogs. I shook a spoon at Dino for even suggesting it.
“You already spoil them dogs something fierce. You want to keep a few of these cracklins for the boss dog then fine but you are not going to take all of them. What would we do for pork rinds?”
He laughed and held his hands up. “Alright, alright. You can have the cracklings. I was just joking.”
“Humph,” was all I said. Some of his jokes are funny and some are not. I worked long and hard for those cracklins and the idea of them getting wasted on a bunch of dogs made my braids feel too tight.
I came into the house to check on Pita and the stew I had going for dinner. I looked over in her cradle and couldn’t find her. I nearly screamed.
“I was coming to get you.” It was AJ. And he was carrying Pita like he’d had a lot of practice.
“Oh no. I’m sorry AJ. I thought for sure she’d last longer. I can’t believe she isn’t up and screaming her head off.”
He snorted but there was a funny look on his face. “She only cries because she knows you’ll give her what she wants. I’m someone new so Princess Pita decided that I was interesting enough to distract her majesty.”
“Uh … huh.” I took Pita from him but it was like he didn’t want to turn loose for a second then he just turned and hobbled to his room and shut the door with a click that told me not to bother him.
As soon as Pita smelled me she knew it was dinner time and my feeders knew it was time as well. I tried to get her settled and stir the stew as well. What a juggling act. It wasn’t satisfying for either one of us. There was a quiet, “I’ll stir the stew if you need to … uh ….”
I could have just about sunk into the basement. I kept the blanket over me but just barely and made a beeline for the front room. A few minutes later Dino knocked and then stuck his head in. “AJ and I are going to take everything outside. I’ll leave a bowl for you on the stove.”
I was in the zone and just rocked and told him, “There’s two plates of cornbread in the warming tray and a big fruit cake in the pie keep for those that want some. Make sure AJ puts a jacket on.”
I heard a bull’s snort from what I knew would be AJ’s general direction and Dino chuckled. Not too much later I was able to pull myself together and take a still feisty and wide awake baby into the kitchen just in time to meet Dino coming in to refill the water pitcher from the table.
“Hmm,” he said while I got a kiss.
“I know this is going to sound … weird. But does AJ … you know … like babies?”
He didn’t exactly stop what he was doing but I could see him thinking. “Why?”
“I came in and found him rocking Pita. And he was doing it right. I thought for a second maybe he’d just helped with Alec’s brood or maybe his little half brother but … I don’t know, he had a kind of strange look on his face.”
“We don’t talk about it much. AJ has been hurt enough.”
“Talk about what?” I asked almost afraid to.
“My little girl,” came a weary voice from the dark corner of the room.
I jumped. “Oh …” I stopped and sighed. “I’m sorry AJ. If you don’t think it is any of my business …”
He shook his head. “No. You’re family now.”
Dino looked at AJ and had a sad expression on his face but he went on back outside and left AJ to decide whether or when he would tell me. “My wife was … was a great deal like your Hannah. She was a red-head too, but only out of a bottle.” He shook his head. “I had just finished law school and gotten a partnership with my father’s help. The pay wasn’t great but it was with an old, prestigious company. Maylynne was the granddaughter of one of the senior partners and we’d known each other for several years, ran with the same crowd, you name it. We married but neither of us wanted kids but what you want and what you get aren’t always the same thing. Maylynne’s great grandmother was a child in Japan during the bombing of Nagasaki. Apparently it messed up enough genetics in the family so that every generation had one or two children born with some defect. Miley – we called her Smiley – she was born with an aggressive blood disorder. We buried her before she turned three.”
I hugged Pita so tightly that she started squawking. “I … I don’t know what to say AJ. I didn’t even know you were married … or had a child. Sorry seems a pretty lame choice of works.”
“It’s all right. I know you mean it so it’s OK. And before you ask, Maylynne, she and I … it didn’t work out. The day after we buried Miley we separated, a year later we divorced. We didn’t fight. There wasn’t trouble between us. It’s just … Miley seemed to take our whole focus and when she was gone there just … wasn’t anything left. Maylynne moved someplace out on the west coast. I haven’t heard from her since.”
Something of my feelings must have shown on my face because he said, “Don’t get mad at Alec. The way we are isn’t really his fault, there’s a lot of water under the bridge and I put most of it there. Plus just like always, he was there when I needed him to be. I was a mess and more than a couple of times he had to scrape me out of a bottle. He just didn’t like what I turned into afterwards. However I couldn’t lean on him forever. I had to find a road I could walk on my own, find my own identity again. But until then Alec, and Cheryl as well, were the only ones able to keep me from completely self destructing. They put a lot of work into me; I disappointed them with what I did with all their effort.”
He walked silently into his room and once again shut the door, this time so quietly it was like an avalanche had fallen sealing him in. I was learning that he was the kind of person that could only handle so much at a time and had to get away until he’d rationalized and categorized it and stuck it all in neat little boxes he could label. I looked over and saw the shadow that had been at the door was gone. I wondered what Alec would do with what he’d overheard. AJ had been in so much pain he hadn’t even felt the cool wind sneaking in through the cracked door.
I didn’t have time to wonder long though because a very chilled Kerry was sent in and I put him down for a nap right along with Pita who was finally done looking around. It was also just about time to cure the meat.