Category Archives: crafting

The Pies Have It!

Jack scrapes through – – –

People often ask me if I miss anything about Scotland. Well, of course. But when I go back every year the thing I really go straight for is the food.

Full Scottish breakfasts with bacon, eggs, black pudding, haggis and baked beans – great Indian curries – steak bridies (think calzone, but Scottish) – fish and chips – and Scotch pies.

I do my best over here to get close to all these. Recently I learned how to replicate Indian restaurant base curry sauce and make a big batch to freeze regularly. I can manage an occasional full Scottish breakfast. Fish and chips requires the secret batter and lard, but I can do that when the planets align.

A steak bridie would be the ultimate challenge though – imagine a savory turn-over with small chunks of steak in a delicious brown sauce, a bit of savory onion in the mix….mmmmm. The only folk I know who make them are Stephens of Dunfermline and they are rightly famous for their recipe. My next big challenge will be to try and replicate it.

What about the pies, I hear you ask?

Over here pies are usually sweet – in Scotland these would be called tarts. Over there a pie would have meat of some kind, and a ‘Scotch pie’ would have minced beef (ground beef) along with onion and a variety of (secret) herbs and spices.

Just recently my friend Trevor finished a year at St Andrews University and came home with the recipe. He made a batch while I was bunking at his place, and I was instantly back there. Of course I had to give it a try, and with some guidance from him I managed to do no’ bad.

It’s messy and time consuming, and there’s no guarantee of success, but I’ve made two lots now and they’re worth the effort.

The pastry is flour, frozen butter, ice water and egg. Freezing the butter is key. The filling is a secret. We will be having them along with haggis and other delicacies at the Burns Supper on January 25th at Oracle Books here in Wytheville.

pies

 

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Filed under between books, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Not Fade Away – – –

Jack’s Wednesday post reverts again to default Thursday – tsk, tsk – – –

Long lost and broken tape.

Back in 1997 just before Wendy and I married we visited my Mum and recorded her memories. She was almost ninety years old by then and although she was beginning to fail a bit her long term memory was still good.

I had tried a few times to record her stories but she always dried up as soon as the microphone appeared. However Wendy was an experienced folklorist with lots of skill in putting people at ease in these kind of situations.

So we ended up with almost an hour of wonderful stories about her early life, my early life, her father and grandfather and much more.

Dad - RAF

Bill – my Dad

Mum

Alice – my Mom

Just a few days ago my niece asked about the tape and coincidentally I had just found it again. So I went to copy it onto my computer and archive it more safely. To my horror I found that at some point in the past the tape had broken. I was mortified and full of guilt!

Out came the tiny screwdriver and apart came the cassette. After hours of painstaking work and endless attempts to re-thread the now repaired tape through the various wheels and gates it finally went together again. But would it work and had I done everything correctly?

I knew that it only had to play once but would it?

I plucked up courage, booted up the computer, opened the program, then hit play on the cassette machine. There was nothing but a hiss! I took out the cassette and it had survived OK. The only thing was to fast forward to the end and turn it over, but would it handle that without breaking again?

It did survive and I turned it and hit play – and out came Mum’s voice as if she was right there in the room!

It seems we only recorded one side and put the label on the other side. The break, instead of being near the beginning was actually at the end, so nothing was lost. But the odd thing is that the start clearly leads from a previous tape, so there’s another one I need to find now.

I’m pleased to say that the recording is not only on the computer but also up in my DropBox in the sky, and as soon as I find that other cassette it will go there as well. I just hope I don’t have to use that wee screwdriver again!

The moral? Get these fragile cassettes digitized and saved safely or you will regret it!

 

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Filed under between books, blue funks, crafting, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Per Ardua ad Astra et Pictorum

Jack just makes it again – – –

A few weeks ago, I blogged about house painters and decorators and briefly mentioned my dad.

Dad - RAF

Early in the RAF.

So, here’s a fuller story about him as an artist-craftsman –

William Beck (usually known as Bill or Willy) was born in Govan, in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a ship’s painter. Govan was the center of Shipbuilding on the Clyde and the Clyde was the center of shipbuilding in the world then. Painting ships was fairly rough industrial painting, but Bill was destined for much higher-class stuff.

He moved to Fife at a fairly young age and entered apprenticeship as a decorative painter. In these days (the early 1900s) an apprenticeship lasted at least seven years. Once he’d finished his time he was employed by Henry Hoggan and Son, the most prestigious and high class painting and decorating company in Dunfermline. He quickly progressed to be their expert in interior design – color coordination, mural drawing, Church decoration, marbling, wood-graining, sign-lettering etc, etc – – –

His training had included time at Edinburgh art college where he’d studied color theory, Greek and Roman design, calligraphy, water color painting and much more. A true renaissance man and a student of the marriage between art and craft!

When WW2 came along he volunteered for the RAF and spent most of the war in Egypt where his skills were employed painting the identification numbers and letters on planes and lettering maps.

After demobilization he set up a decorating business in partnership with another ex-employee of Hoggan’s – Tom Anderson. Tom was the expert in painting and wallpapering, while Bill was the artistic one.

During all this time and even while he was in Egypt he was doing excellent water color paintings – mostly portraits but later on a good many landscapes too.

Around the time that I left school and started my apprenticeship, Tom Anderson retired and Bill continued as the sole partner. In these days before DIY took hold around half the work was in private houses and half was contracts to paint government offices, hospitals and schools. The firm usually employed around five or six time-served craftsmen and two or three apprentices (of which I was one). Because the work ranged from ‘high end’ domestic to fairly basic industrial my apprenticeship gave me a good grounding. Bill built up a successful sideline in lettering shop signs and vehicle lettering and often took me along, so that added another string to my bow.

He continued to work very actively right up until he retired and I remember many occasions when he clambered up a ladder and over roofs while the rest of us looked on in amazement.

One of his proudest moments, though, was after I started teaching painting and decorating in the local college. He had always wanted to do that but had never had the opportunity, so I brought him in as a guest to demonstrate his marbling and wood graining skills. By that time he was quite sick, but he put on a great display to an appreciative audience (and boosted my reputation no end!).

In the last few years of his life he kept himself occupied by continuing to paint water colors and did all his own mounting and framing. We’re delighted to have a number hanging on our walls!

Now my mother – – –  There’s a story for a future post!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, crafting, home improvements, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Why I didn’t Dye my Shorts

Several of you have been following the Black Walnut saga. We have five trees dropping what might by now be a literal metric ton of walnuts onto our lawn and over our fence onto the garden of the polite but annoyed lady next door. (Jack spoke with her; we have a plan.)

Black walnuts are almost completely usable for good things (hulls: hog feed and herbicide on plants you don’t like; part between hulls and shells, a rich brown-to-purple dye; shells for abrasive cleaning of brass and other high-end products, also make great mulch; nuts for eating or making oil). How could we pass up this opportunity? So Jack and I gathered four great buckets of them, and I sat down last week to start the hulling.

Jack took one look at the maggots and cut a deal; I hull, he shells. He likes working with a hammer and a vise. Creepy white worms don’t bother me; I’ve picked my share out of cat wounds.

My friends Elissa and Kathy sent advice: wait for the hulls to dry and crack open on their own, and life got simpler. Yes, it did. So this weekend I did almost twice as many hulls just by leaving them out to dry. After the simple hulling, I had this huge pot of rich brown liquid….

IMG_8263… so I ran and grabbed some cotton and synthetic yarn, and did a little experimenting. It was fun. My friend Fiona gave me some pointers on how different yarns should be prepped, and that worked well.

IMG_8248The thing you have to know about black walnuts is, they’re mis-named. Everything they touch is going to turn brown: your fingers, your yarns, the storage baskets, the clothes you work in.

In fact, I was highly tempted to throw my white shorts in the pot along with the yarn, but….

…you know how sometimes people see religious figures in burn spots or fridge mold and such?

Well, how do you explain this? IMG_5722

That’s right, PUSHEEN himself!!!!

So I couldn’t throw my shorts in.  But I did grab a Sharpie, so all my doubting friends could share this special moment.

BEHOLD!

IMG_8267 You’re welcome.

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Filed under crafting, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Great Walnut Massacre of 2019

When we moved to Wytheville, we inherited an inordinately large yard, raised garden beds and herbal paths and mature fruit tress and all. Everything looked really cool but we had no idea how to take care of them.

Jack and I like plants that have to be contained rather than cultivated, like mint; it beats up other sprouts and takes their lunch money. You don’t have to do anything except go out every six months after a hard rain and pull it up until you can find the wheelbarrow you left there last time.

My former student Erin agreed to give us her expertise (she is a gardening consultant) which resulted in a good news/bad news scenario.

“You have five black walnut trees in excellent condition. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes or peppers back there, but you will never lack for Christmas flavoring.” Erin also pointed out that black walnuts fetch a hefty price at farmer’s markets and sustainable living swaps – mostly because they’re such hard work.

IMG_8252“I’m not gonna lie to you; they stink while curing and they stain your hands, and the best way to crack them is to line your driveway and back an SUV over them. I’m not sure your Prius is heavy enough.”

Thank you, Erin. You had me at “hefty price.” Free money falling from trees sounded like “cat spays from heaven.” I duly read up (ok, watched several youtube videos) on how to harvest black walnuts.

The green-to-brown outer shell of the walnut is the easy part; you just rip it off, as much as you can, and then you wash the inner hard shell (very similar to what people see when they buy whole English walnuts) and hang them up to cure for a couple of weeks. Then you back the car over them and harvest the nutmeat.

Yesterday, armed with rubber gloves, a steel pot, three buckets of nuts, and six layers of bug spray, I initiated part one of Project Pioneer Woman Goes Nuts. IMG_8251

The websites suggested not getting too ambitious first time out. “This is a lot of work.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Twelve minutes in (equaling about four walnuts with their outer hulls removed) the fingertips of my gloves were gone, my nailbeds were a deep rich brown, and I had discovered the maggots.

Here’s the conundrum: if the outer nut is too green, it’s so hard to get into, you give up. After all, there are about 100 nuts per square foot in the yard; toss the troublesome ones “someplace where you don’t want plants to grow” advise the harvesting videos. Turns out, the stuff between the outer and inner shell is an excellent herbicide.

Pondering how a plant could produce a herbicide kept my mind occupied those first twelve minutes, but never mind. Making a midden pile of shells atop a troublesome Pokeweed patch made me feel bio-savvy. Kill two plants with one shell.

The brown hulls, the ones you can actually rip open with your fingers, are soft because of the maggots. They get between the two shells and go to town. Whole towns of them, all living together making roads and ditches and other maggot infrastructure. On the one hand, hulling their nut towns is easier, but on the other, you are literally brushing maggots off your fingers.

The videos of those nice green sustainable living people never showed maggots…

About an hour in, having made peace with the white crawly things and killed at least one pokeweed plant from the sheer weight of 40 walnut hulls, my left forefinger began to hurt. Badly. As though I had jammed a nail or something.

By then the gloves were a distant memory, so I soldiered on for a wee while before realizing something was seriously wrong. My finger was wafting waves of hot, sharp pain up my arm.

Imagination filled in: one of the smaller creepy white things had gotten up under the nailbed and was even now burrowing toward my heart. Death was imminent–and likely to be not only gross and painful, but the kind that gets written up at conferences in ways that make doctors laugh. “Here’s another Darwin award winner, this one with the old black walnut routine.”

Headed in to see if I could either flush out the creature, rip off my nail, or write a will before it got into the left ventricle, I informed Jack he was about to be a widower.

He looked at my finger. “Are you sure this isn’t a sting? Because, see that little thing there?”

Turns out, there are many critters that love walnuts. I am still alive, and can type. Jack has promised to process the rest of the nuts. He isn’t allergic to bee stings. I am sitting quietly, typing my will. The walnuts will be for sale in mid-October. IMG_8250

 

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If Music be the Food of – – –

Jack easily gets in under the wire this time – –

I have a fascination with certain musical instruments – some of which I can play and others I wish I could. Guitars, obviously, but also various reed instruments such as the concertina, melodeon and even the jaw harp.

A few years ago I built Wendy a rather nice harp from a kit and noticed that the company also had a hurdy-gurdy in their catalogue. Now, that I would love to make, and it’s long been on my bucket-list!

But before I get to that there’s another project awaiting.

heritage organ

Heritage with the pump organ

Back in the early 1980s when my old folk band Heritage was young we somehow got hold of a portable pump organ. Imagine an accordion turned on its side with pedals to operate the bellows! We had just recruited Mike Ward who was an excellent keyboard player so it provided a lovely wheezy bass to our music. Of course we knew little about how it worked and were probably very lucky that it continued to.

Wendy and I love visiting antique and thrift stores and I’m always interested to see what instruments they have. Very occasionally there will be a pump organ, but they’re usually not portable. However a few years ago we came across one in NC for a reasonable price and bought it. That’s when I began to learn what went on inside them. Because the bellows was – knackered – – –

I was able to make enough temporary repairs to push air through the reeds and we discovered they all worked and were in tune! Since then I have looked at it and promised myself (and Wendy) that I’d get it working again, but still it sits.

pump

Are you going to fix me this time?

A few days ago I said I’d love to get that hurdy gurdy kit – – –

“As soon as you finish the pump organ” she said.

hurdy

Me next!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, crafting, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Which Side are You On

Jack scrapes over the wire with the Wednesday post – – –

I’m a week or so late in acknowledging Labor Day I know, but –

On our kitchen wall we have a tea towel with a print of a certificate by the house decorators and painters union dating from the mid 1800s.

towel

It fascinates me for two reasons. It reminds me of a famous book – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – that describes the working conditions of a group of house painters in England in the early 1900s. The other reason is because I served a six year apprenticeship learning all the skills depicted in that certificate.

The scenes illustrated clearly display great pride in the variety of specialisms involved –

The simple yet carefully prescribed way of painting a paneled door.

The use of color to enhance a classical Greek style cornice.

A cherub studying design and another one lettering a signboard.

A collection of regular paintbrushes and tools and another collection of tools for applying goldleaf.

In the center is a scene showing why the union was so important – a sick painter (maybe suffering from lead poisoning) is being attended by a doctor while his wife and son look on.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the main character is a young man, newly finished his apprenticeship who has a particular talent for design. He spends a lot of his own time, unpaid, making wonderful designs to be used later as part of his work. This reminds me very much of my father who served his time back in the 1920s when the system still included attendance at art college. Truly a marrying of art and craft and the legacy of people like William Morris.

My apprenticeship was served under my Dad in his painting business and I was ‘indentured’. That means that, like all his apprentices, we both signed a legal document that was then torn irregularly in half. At the end of my six years I received his half, which when matched to my half showed I was legally a time-served craftsman (indentured actually means ‘patterned like teeth’).

Everything has changed now. In Scotland there are still apprenticeships but they last just three years and don’t cover the same breadth of skills. Indenturing no longer takes place and DIY has blossomed with the introduction of easier to use materials and tools.

But I learned a lot – not just about craft skills, but also social skills. Not only that but it was the gateway to my college career, so a very good start to my working life.

Finally – I’m a big believer in unions!

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