Going the distance-and beyond

So I’ve met my goal in the Winter Solstice Distance Challenge offered by J & A Racing. I took advantage of last week’s nice weather to complete a 10.16-mile walk on Wednesday, Feb. 24, which put me slightly over the top of my goal of 289 miles.

No drum roll yet, though, please. I’m still slogging along, and now I’m up to 307 miles. Last week I completed 37 miles , which was my best week so far. I was getting impatient to get to 289, and I wanted to take advantage of the nice weather while it lasted.

Most of these miles were around my Virginia Beach neighborhood, but because I had to drive to Norfolk last Tuesday, I took advantage of the change in scenery to walk for awhile along the Elizabeth River Trail This scenic 10.5 trail winds along the waterfront, and on the stretch through Lambert’s Point and Larchmont, I enjoyed seeing community gardens, native plants, and waterfowl.The weather was, for me, perfect for outdoor exercising-about 50 degrees with a bright, warm sun. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to complete the entire loop that day, but that’s on my to-do list.

Now, I’ll keep slogging along, although I admit that I did take a break for a couple of days with the recent wet weather. It was nice to have the luxury of staying inside where it was dry and working out to my favorite fitness instructor-Denise Austin. She loves saying things like “tighten up your abs” and “we’re going to get rid of those love handles.” Still, I forgive her because, like J & A Racing, she knows how to motivate you to keep going during these strange times by offering virtual challenges and encouraging goal-setting.

As usual, I want to give a shout-out to everyone who is taking the Winter Solstice Distance Challenge. I’m so impressed with all of you! Many have already far exceeded their goals, and at least one person has completed over 900 miles. That’s just incredible! The weather forecast for the next few days looks good, but we can get some rough weather in March, as you know if you’ve lived in Hampton Roads for awhile. So hang in there, everyone! One thing is certain-the days will get longer, and it’s all about chasing the sunlight!

Batten down the shutters: It’s Northeaster Season in Princess Anne: A Local’s Look at the Ash Wednesday Storm

I couldn’t let this season pass without re-telling the story of the 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm, a storm that will live in infamy.

It’s said of many things that if you can’t remember it, you weren’t there, but actually that’s not entirely true of this storm. I know, because I’m old enough to remember it,and although I was a small child, all that I really remember is that for me and many other local residents it was a non-event.

That’s because if you weren’t living in an area subject to tidal flooding you didn’t see much except a typical dreary, blustery early March day. There was very little, if any, rain. It was totally a tidal event created by the eerie convergence of a full moon, an unusual astronomical allignment, and two relatively minor storms, one from the west and one from the south that converged off of our coast.

“It was just a combination of things and what it did,” said Sandbridge Waterman Marshall Belanga.

Still, those, like Belanga, who witnessed that storm, which occurred from March 6-March 8, never forgot it, and the colorful story became part of Princess Anne’s rich oral history. It came up suddently and unexpectedly, startling even seasoned watermen such as Belanga, and he never stopped telling the story.

I frequently stopped by Belanga’s Sandbridge Road fish store just to chat with him because I loved to hear his stories of his childhood in Dam Neck, his work in fishing camps in what is not False Cape State Park, and his musings on the weather, the environment, and the impact of too much development on the local ecosystem and culture.

Often, the conversation would turn to the Ash Wednesday Storm, when the ocean breached the dune lines, threatening the few houses that had been built along the ocean and endangering those who were trapped inside. The police, high and dry in their station at Princess Anne Courthouse, were at first unaware that any of this was going on, he said.

Belanga, however, knew the exact moment that the waves pushed across the dunes because he was sitting in his pick-up truck in the parking lot at Sandbridge and saw the ocean waves come up to his truck’s running board. He drove the mile or so back to his house, where he called the police, who at first dismissed it as a prank call from a drunk.

“I called the police at Princess Anne, and told them that what was happening, and that we’d better get those people out of there,” Belanga said. “But they thought that I was crazy, or else that I’d been up all night drinking. I really had to talk to them awhile to make them understand that I wasn’t drunk.”

The police finally did accept his story, and the Sandbridge residents were evacuated with the help of amphibious equipment from Dam Neck Naval Base. Those who re-built constructed houses on stilts high up off of the ground.

The ocean hasn’t breached the dunes since that storm, but there’s been significant erosion, and I can testify that the high, artifically constructed dunes at Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park have eroded considerably in the last 10 or 15 years. I know because I hike down there, and climbing the half-mile long dune ridge into the park, while still challenging, isn’t nearly as rough as it used to be.

Belanga didn’t much like those artifical dunes,which were constructed in the 1930s, but he said that he didn’t worry too much about them. “They’ll be gone someday,” he said. “Nature didn’t put them there, but Nature’s going to take them away. Still, man never learns.”

Sadly, Belanga died in 2017, but he left behind a legacy that has become part of the rich tapestry of local culture. He was the last of a generation who earned a living ocean fishing off of the coast of Sandbridge, and he was a rich source of local history and homespun wisdom.

I expect that the story of the Ash Wednesday Storm will continue to be told for some years to come, and I’d like to help keep its memory alive. If you have any pictures of that storm, I would love to share them. Please leave me a comment here or message me on my Facebook page, Princess Anne Locavore.

On Ash Wednesday, Northeast Winds, Lenten Vows, and the Returning Sun

Forty miles and forty days. Those were my thoughts as I passed the 249-mile mark on this, the first day of Lent. I have pledged to complete 289 miles as part of the Winter Solstice Distance Challenge sponsored by J & A Racing of Virginia Beach.

I suppose that this is an appropriate mile marker for the first day of Lent-those 40 days of denial. Of course, I don’t have 40 more days to complete this challenge: it must be completed by the Spring Equinox, or March 20. Based on my average of about four miles daily, that’s 10 more days, and the last 10-day weather forcast that I saw showed that a lot of these days will be wet and many will be fairly cold. The good news is that temperatures are expected to creep upward into the 50s at some point, but these relatively balmy days also show a pretty good chance of rain.

Oh well.I think of this challenge as being a kind of Lenten vow, and it is appropriate that Ash Wednesday dawned cold and clear with brisk Northeast winds and a bright sun. I bundled up and headed out to take my walk, and as I walked I mused on the need for self-discipline in the Lenten season, the promise of spring, and the certainity of more winter weather to come.

So, here are some of my random thoughts from my Ash Wednesday walk:

“Oh, this isn’t too bad, the sun is actually quite warm on my face.”

“Oh, wait, turning this corner was a game changer. That wind, when it hits you in the face, is pretty uncomfortable. Why does the northeast wind always have to feel heavy and seem to have a damp edge, even in clear weather?”

“Can’t I just turn around and walk away from the wind? No, keep going. You haven’t even gotten a good start yet.”

“God, my legs feel tired already. Why does the cold always make me tired?”

“You’re just being whiny because you don’t want to be out here.”

Then I notice that there seem to be a lot of birds out today, and their mating calls are a sure sign of spring returning. So is the sunshine, which is brighter and hits at a different angle than it did in December. If you’re versed in country things, to paraphrase Robert Frost, you can sense the seasons changing despite the chilly wind, and I am reminded that the ancient Celts celebrated February 1, or Imbolc, as the beginning of a new growing season.

So, I finish the walk in an upbeat mood. Maybe 40 more miles won’t be so bad after all. I’ll have more time to listen to the birds and muse on the changing seasons. I’ve also learned a few tricks to block the wind, including wearing an oversized hood and smearing Vaseline on my face, neck, and shoulders before I go out. A rain poncho helps keep out rain, but I can’t find anything to keep my feet from getting soaked because waterproof running shoes just aren’t in the budget right now.

Still, at least I don’t see an ice storm anywhere in the forecast, and as long as the pavement isn’t icy I suppose that I can bravely soldier on.

So what will I do when I’ve completed the remaining 40 miles? I’ll continue to walk, of course, but I’m looking forward to the thought of that glorious morning when I wake up and realize that I don’t have to if I don’t want to. Maybe I’ll just go bicycling, or ice skating, of, if the weather’s bad, do an indoor work-out while listening to a podcast. Maybe I’ll even have that brunch that some bloggers recommend as a post-workout reward.

For right now, I just want to give a shout-out to those who have already exceeded your challenge and a word of encouragement to those who may have gotten a little behind. You’re all awesome, and remember, the sunlight is returning!

Please also share your thoughts on staying warm, dry, and motivated!

Too much rain and too little drainage? Try soil mitigation

Recent heavy rains have turned some area yards into swamps, but tree plantings and soil mitigation can improve drainage.

Rain, rain, go away, we want to go outside and play. When the days start getting longer, many locals have the urge to get outside, and, if you’re a gardener, your fingers probably are itching right now to get into the soil. Yes, if you live here in Zone 8A, it’s almost time to start thinking about putting out cool weather vegetables as well as cold hardy flowers such as pansies and snapdragons.

The problem is, this year the rain seems to be interminable, and it’s turned many area lawns into a boggy, mucky mess. You can’t dig or plow in standing water and any seeds that are set out seem likely to rot. This winter’s been wet enough to saturate any soil type, but if you have heavy clay soils, as many in Hampton Roads do, your situation is worse because these poorly drained soils are too dense and compact to allow water to pass through easily.

If you’re taking the time to read this column, you probably already know your soil type, but if you’re not sure, one way to tell is by scooping up a small handful of wet soil. Knead it in your hand and try to form a ribbon with it, and, if you can, your soil is clay. If it falls apart, you’re one of the lucky ones with sandy soil-and some people who live in Eastern Virginia Beach and along the fertile Pungo Ridge are blessed with sandy loam. Their challenge is watering well enough to get their thirstier plants through a dry summer, but I personally find it far easier to add water than to take it away.

There are, however, some thinngs that can be done to improve drainage, and I’ve listed a few in this column.

  1. Avoid monoculture-plant a tree. Many suburban homeowners, sadly, adore their golf course lawns or hardscaping. These lawns not only require massive amounts of chemicals to sustain that lush green grass year-round, but they also require that you strip all of the native foilage, and this creates just the right conditions for water to puddle. Try planting trees and large shrubs and, even if you don’t have a lot of space, small native trees such as Maple or shrubs such as wax myrtle will help soak up water. This won’t solve your immediate problem, but within a few years you will be able to see a difference. You might also try planting cover crops, such as clover, over your garden area next fall. These crops have a lot of benefits, and anything that you have growing will absorb moisture better than bare ground.
  2. Mitigate your soil. Adding perlite or vermiculite will improve the soil texture, and you can also mix a little topsoil into your existing soil. Other organic materials, including sawdust, will help to dry out the soil, and if you or a friend has a horse, you might try adding the sawdust that’s mucked out of the stall. One farmer whom I know suggested this as a way of both mitigating drainage and fertilizing the soil. I’m also not above adding a little sand to the soil, but if you do this be prepared to water next summer. Remember, too, that this only works with the heavy, dark coastal soil. If you live in an area that has red clay, for heaven’s sakes, don’t add sand. I found this out the hard way when I tried to help my daughter create a garden space in Charlottesville. The plain truth is that red clay plus sand equals bricks, and that’s what you’ll end up with-soil as hard as bricks.
  3. Buid a raised bed. If you just can’t deal with the clay at all, layer topsoil, compost, and soil amendments such as perlite, sawdust, and compost. Mix it together to create a nice, soft, loamy bed for your plants, and each season add more of this mixture to raise the bed and replenish the nutrients. You’ll also have an easier time digging in the soft soil, and you won’t be at risk of breaking your digging instrument or your arm trying to dig into the hard clay
  4. If all else fails, grow your plants in large containers or, if you’re good at woodworking, enclosed areas that you can fill with growing medium. In addition, learn which plants can tolerate wet conditons. Lavender, for example, has very little moisture tolerance and is tricky to grow in this area, while basil can stand our wet summers. Blueberries and many vegetables can also tolerate rain and damp conditions, but not much except the cypress will thrive in a swamp. So, if you have a swamp in your yard, plant more trees, mitigate your soil, and Happy Gardening!

Still chasing the sunlight-and hoping for less rain

I think that, right now, Madama Butterfly deserves to swag more than I do, and the colors suit her so well.

I received my “swag packet,” complete with a snuggly orange and grey cap and a medal from J & A Racing this week for my participation in the Winter Solstice Distance Challenge. It was a nice little surprise to brighten up a February day, but the problem is that I don’t feel as if I’ve done anything yet to deserve it. So far, I’ve only completed about 227 miles since December 21, and my goal of 289 miles seems to getting further away and more elusive.

I was hoping to be finished by now, or at least have the target within reach. I had planned to do at least five miles each day and a distance walk of 10 or more miles once a week. The problem is that time restraints and soggy weather kept getting in my way, and most days I only completed three or four miles.

This week, Saturday was my best day. That day was delightful-seasonably warm and sunny-and my daughter, Megan, and I visited the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, where we walked 11.89 miles. Lake Drummond was beautiful with the late afternoon sun shining through clouds, and I truly enjoyed my trek through the swamp.

Other days haven’t been so great. Sunday was soggy, and I had to force myself to go out just to do a 5K around the neighborhood. Monday and Tuesday were actually pleasant-brisk but with a warm sun. Then the clouds rolled back in, and so did the damp northeast wind and rain. The next couple of days promise to be more of the same, or maybe worse. The weather forecast ominously calls for a “wintry mix,” and a cold rain mixed with sleet can feel colder than cold.

So, I’m off track with not much reason to swag. I’ve decided that, for right now, my beloved cat, Madama Butterfly, deseves the swag packet more than me. Madama Butterfly, who is as fetching as she is beautiful, always has something to swag about. She’s particularly deserving because she’s tolerated and even encouraged my efforts, giving me butterfly kisses and cuddles when I return from a walk. Besides, she’s also a walker, and walks on her leash most days when it’s sunny and not too cold. She’s also a lot smarter than I am and stays inside during bad weather. The orange, yellow, and grey colors also match her hair so perfectly that it looks as if the cap was made for her.

I also want to applaud everyone who is participating in this challenge, and I’m very awed at the distance some people have already run. Many have far exceeded their goals, and at least one person has run over 700 miles. Amazing!

If you’re behind, or if you’re like me and have gotten behind on your self-imposed goals, hang in there. We’ll get through it, and with a little luck we might actually leave the rain behind and catch the sunlight! Meanwhile, if you’re bored with your usual course, try the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. It has miles of paths and beautiful scenery!

Lake Drummond is beautiful in the winter sunlight.

Cold hardy citrus bring sunshine and flavor to Mid-Atlantic Winters

Tarek Zaki grows many varieties of cold hardy citrus in his Virginia Beach backyard, and he experiments with grafting different varieties onto rootstock.

Have you ever picked fruit from your backyard in February, or made marmalade from your own homegrown citrus?

If you live in most of the United States, the answer is probably “no.” Many people would be surprised to learn that gardener Tarek Zaki grows dozens of varieties of citrus in his Virginia Beach backyard, and he’s constantly discovering new plants that can weather this climate.

When we think of citrus, we usually think of tropical fruits, but many citrus, including kumquats, and some types of oranges and tangerines, can tolerate freezing temperatures. While Zaki keeps some sheltered or inside an unheated greenhouse, others grow in his backyard with no protection.

“In February, you’re picking your own fruit,” Zaki said. He and his wife, Diana Moffett-Zaki, a Virginia Beach master gardener, have created a green winter paradise in their backyard with the evergreen citrus, hardy winter vegetables, and seasonal ornamentals such as Paperbush. It’s an outdoor retreat on cold, or not-so-cold, winter days.

“I love to come out here and just meditate in the citrus,” Zaki said on one recent sunny February day. He walked among the citrus, checking the hanging fruit for ripeness, pointing out the different varieties, and explaining the grafting process that has created so many different types of citrus.

Many cold hardy plants begin with the Wild Orange. or Poncirus Trifoliata, a hardy plant that, left alone, produces very tart fruit. Usually, it’s used as rootstock for hybrids, and through grafting, you can produce plants of different sizes and with different levels of cold toleranace.

The Thomasville Citrangequat, which is a hybrid between a kumquat and a Poncirus Trifoliata, is one of these particularly cold hardy plants. The orangish-yellow fruit is about the size of a lime, and it has a slightly tart flavor. I can testify that it does produce delicious marmalade because Zaki and Diana Moffett-Zaki were generous enough to give me a jar of his homemade preserves, and I enjoyed some at breakfast.

In addition to preserves, cold hardy citrus can be used in cooking and in beverages, and I sampled a very delicious drink made from juice, water, and a little honey.

Zaki, who has been growing citrus for about 10 years, was influenced by a friend who also grew citrus here. Over the years, he’s experimented with growing from seed as well as grafting, and his knowledge of the different varieties of citrus, and the preferred growing methods and conditions, is overwhelming.

Some grafted citrus do need a little protection from Virginia Beach winters, but an expensive, heated greenhouse isn’t necessary

If you want to try it, here’s some sage advice

Zaki has four pieces of advice for those interested in growing citrus in a cold climate. First, while some people try growing tropical fruit in containers, which they wheel inside on cold nights, he recommends sticking to the cold hardy plants.

“After 10 years, you might just forget to bring them in one night, and you’ve lost 10 years of work,” he said.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to experiment with your own grafting. It’s not too hard to do, and while all of them don’t survive, “if you do 10 and three survive, that’s three that you wouldn’t have had,” Zaki said.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, learn the cold hardiness for each variety and be aware of the temperature extremes in your area. Here in Virginia Beach, for example, the winters are generally fairly mild, but frigid air occasionally causes the temperatures to dip down close to zero. While it might only happen once a decade, it only takes that one night to kill an orchard if the plants aren’t very hardy or sheltered. After one particularly brutal winter a few years ago, Zaki decided to build an unheated greenhouse for some of his less hardy trees and a sheltered area, covered in plastic, for some others.

Finally, if you don’t have a lot of space, don’t despair. There are dwarf varieties of citrus, and hybrids can be produced with some rootstocks, including the thorny Flying Dragon, a hardy orange.

Zaki, a member of the Tidewater Virginia Vegetable Growers, occasionally makes some of his plants, which were grafted or started from seed, available for free to interested gardeners. If you live in Virginia Beach, some local garden centers, including Pungo Palms, also stock cold hardy citrus.

In addition to having homegrown fruit in Feburary, you’ll enjoy the beauty of the evergreen trees.

If you do choose to grow cold hardy citrus, you will likely find it to be a productive hobby, Diana Moffett-Zaki said. “Tarek has many varities of oranges and tangerines, and they were loaded with fruit earlier this fall,” she said.

From the Solstice to the Equinox-Still Chasing the Sunlight

We’re blessed with two beautiful state parks here in Virginia Beach, but these days I am doing my walking closer to home.

Okay, true confession. When I last wrote about J & A’s winter solstice distance challenge, I said that my next walk would be at First Landing State Park. The truth is that I still haven’t made it to that park, which is a shame because it’s particularly lovely there in the winter. The problem is that it’s also about a 20-minute drive from my house, and it’s hard to get motivated to drive that distance, leave a warm car and begin a cold weather walk. It seems better somehow to just suck it up, go outside, and get it over with.

J & A is challenging area runners and walkers to pledge to walk or run a specified number of miles from December 21 to March 20. Participants have their choice of pledging 189, 289,389, or 489. I chose 289, and I was hoping to be further along by this midway point, but sore ankles restricted my distance for awhile, and now cold wind is doing the same.

Anyway, the weather this past week hasn’t been pleasant, but I’ve managed to get outside every day. While my times have been awful, and my distance not great, I’ve at least done a 5K each day. I stay motivated by the posts from other participants, some of whom have run almost 600 miles already and many of whom have already exceeded their goals. Some have run through a heavy snowfall, others across windy bridges on a frigid, moonlit night, and some have battled Covid fatigue to log several miles.

I’ve also tried to stay motivated by reading blog posts about cold weather exercise, but some of the advice isn’t very practical-at least not for me. Yes, it would help to have something to look forward to at the end of the walk/run, but having a long, leisurely brunch with a friend, as this blogger suggested, just isn’t part of my weekday routine. I have to content myself with a cup of Earl Grey tea and a long afternoon of tedious work at my computer.

Anyway, here’s a day-by-day account of my recent walks:

January 26-Fog and drizzle, but the cold and wind weren’t as bad as on some days. I did 4.0, but the dampness aggravated my sore ankle.

January 27-Another four miles in very damp weather.

January 28-I awoke to about three or four inches of wet snow outside my window this morning. The good news was that it didn’t freeze on the pavement, but it was cold with gusty northwest winds that almost took my breath away. Why does the cold wind make me feel so tired? It was almost like trying to walk through water against an incoming tide, but I made it 3.2 miles. I have to admit that the bright sunshine and sparkling snow were dazzling.

January 29-Wind and near freezing temperatures continued. I did 3.1 miles, but the first and last half-miles were particularly tough.

January 30-My best day this week. The temperatures were still near freezing, but the sun was warm and bright, and the winds had calmed down. I almost felt euphoric, as if God was in Heaven and all was right with the world. I did four miles and another mile at sunset just to get to see the setting snow sparkling on the snow.

January 31-My worst day by far. I awoke to a steady rain and a dull headache-the kind of nagging pain that starts in the back of your neck and then travels up the back of your head into your forehead, eyes, and sinuses. “Okay, if some people can run several miles through the snow and bitter cold with Covid fatigue, you can walk a 5K through a little rain with just a headache,” I told myself. I once did a half-marathon in the rain, but I don’t remember that as being any worse than the 3.1 I did this day. The wind had gone to the northeast, and that’s enough to give you a headache even if you don’t have one already. My neck was pounding when I finished, and I ended up taking a nap later that day.

February 1-The weather forecast promised temperatures in the 40s, but the forecasters lied. It was 35 degrees at mid-afternoon and very damp, but the wind was a little tamer than on some days. I did 3.5 miles and actually rather enjoyed it once I got warmed up. I was so motivated that I planned to do another sunset mile, but by then the weather had deterioated-the wind picked up and it became very damp-so I decided against it.

February 2-Cold, damp, and windy, with a wet snow just beginning to fall as I was walking. 3.2 miles was enough for me today.

Right now, I’m wishing for a lot less wind, a lot more sunshine, and some warmer temperatures. It is supposed to warm up in the short term, but there’s more precipitation in the forecast and very cold temperatures early next week. Oh well. I’ll try to persevere and dream about the magic 289th mile, after which I plan to finally get around to that brunch that the seer advised. In the meantime, I”d appreciate any advice about cold weather exercise that anyone has to offer. Hang in there and good luck!

A recipe for fruitcake: plenty of rum and a little creativity

“Spare the booze and spoil the cake” has always been my mantra when it comes to fruitcakes. I think that most people who say that they hate fruitcake have only sampled the dry, hard store-bought variety. They’ve never had the real thing, prepared at home with plenty of fresh eggs and butter, an ample amout of liquor, and-perhaps-a few creative ingredients of your own.

For my mother, baking fruitcakes was one of the year’s projects. My grandmother would ship a large box of homegrown pecans fresh from Georgia, and my parents spent their fall evenings shelling them. To get the candied fruit, Mom made a special trip into Downtown Norfolk, which in those days was pretty much an all-day excursion. She bought every type of fruit available, and she added raisins, the nuts, a jar of her homemade fig preserves, and wine. She mixed the butter and sugar in a large roasting pan, then rolled the nuts and fruit in the flour and added them to the butter-sugar mixture. The result was several large fruit cakes, enough to give one to each close family member and friend.

The thing that my mother impressed on me about fruitcakes is that they should be about the fruit, and not about the batter. If you use more flour than you need to just coat all of your fruit and nuts, you’re doing something wrong. So I applied her mixing method when I made my own fruitcakes, which I did for a few years. I also experimented with a few touches of my own, making some with chocolate chips and coconut and some with a lemony touch.

The one thing that I always did use was rum because I was, at that time, fascinated by the Jamaican fruitcake tradition. If you don’t like rum, though, you can use brandy, bourbon, wine, or any liquor of your choice or a combination of all of them. Whatever you use, you need to add plenty of it, and if the cake turns out a little hard on top when it’s baked, sprinkle more booze on it. It also helps to store the cake for at least several days in a container with about an inch of booze poured onto the bottom before you serve it.

The problem with fruitcakes is that they are very expensive to make, and in recent years I’ve substituted Bishop’s Cake, which is a type of modified fruitcake that only requires candied cherries, dates, nuts, and chocolate chips. Even that has become problematic in the last couple of years because the ingredients are getting harder to find. It seems that no one bakes traditional Christmas cakes anymore, and this year I was only able to find candied pineapple. There were no cherries to be had, and worst of all, I couldn’t find any dates.

Dates are the primary ingredient in Bishop’s Cake because those strange cakes have no shortening or butter, and they get all of their moisture and texture from dates. So, without them, I couldn’t make a Bishop’s Cake, and I found it necessary to imrovise. I could bake a cake with whatever fruits and nuts were available, but I needed a recipe to tell me how much butter and flour to use.

I searched through a couple of cookbooks, but all of the recipes required a lot of fruit and made a massive amount of batter-way more than I needed. Finally, I found this recipe for “Christmas Cake” in Virginia Hospitality, which was published in 1975 by the Junior League of Hampton Roads.

I substituted candied pineapple for the raisins, used rum instead of brandy, and added chocolate chips.

The recipe produces enough batter to fill two loaf pans or one Bundt pan, and I’d advise anyone to make sure that you mix it in a very large bowl unless you half the recipe. When I made the cakes this afternoon, I found that the mixing was a very messy process because the batter, like all fruit cake batter, is stiff and heavy. Still, I’m pleased with the results. Despite my limited skills and experience, I’ve found the cake to be moist and flavorful, and I think that when I serve it with hot buttered rum sauce it’ll be even better. I also want to give a shout-out to Cindy of Cindy’s Produce, who sold me the Amish butter and fresh, local brown eggs. Use brown eggs for baking, my mother always said, and a moist fruitcake requires a good quality of butter.

So, I’ve included the original recipe below with my substitutions in italics. If you don’t like what I did, feel free to substitute your own ingredients. That’s what I’ve always loved about making fruit cakes-it’s all about you and what you like.

2 cups butter, softened

1 lb. light brown sugar

6 eggs

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons nutmeg

1 cup brandy (I used rum)

1 pound seedless raisins (I used candied pineapples)

3 cups pecans, chopped (I substituted one-half cup of chocolate chipes for one-half cup of the nuts)

Preheat the oven to 325. Cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift together the dry ingredients and gradually add to the creamed mixture. Beat until well-blended; add the brandy or rum, and fold in the fruit, nuts, and, if you want, chocolate chips. Pour into a greased or floured tube pan or two loaf pans (hint-to eliminate the chance of any sticking, line the pans with greased parchment paper.) Bake for one hour, forty minutes if using a single large pan, or one hour if using two smaller ones. Cool, wrap, and store.

If you’re concerned that the cake will spoil before you serve it, add a little extra booze as a preservative. I always do-I think that it’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to food storage!

On pineapple sage tea, holiday donations, and other fall happenings

Yikes! There’s a wind chill out there today! I’ve just been out trying to harvest pineapple sage leaves for tea, but I gave up when the wind kept blowing them out of my basket.

Here in Princess Anne, we still haven’t had a hard freeze on this first day of December. It’s been an extremely mild fall, but yesterday’s storm ended in a significant temperature drop, and I have a feeling that tonight may bring a freeze if the wind calms down. So, I’ve harvested some pineaple leaves, which I’ll dry to use in teas. I enjoy teas made from my homegrown herbs, including lemon verbena, lemon balm, mint, and pineapple sage, and I also like a bit of pineapple sage to flavor any type of tea brewed from a tea bag.

I harvested most of the lemon verbena earlier this fall because that very cold-sensitive plant begins to decline as soon as the nights turn a little cool. Pineapple sage will hang in until a freeze, and the super-hardy lemon balm and mint usually just keep going all winter if they’re in a sheltered location.

While many people prefer to bundle leaves and hang them upside down to dry, I take the easy, lazy route and stick them in the oven on a 250-degree setting for about 20 minutes, or until they’re dry enough to crumble easily. While herbs hanging in your kitchen do conjure nostalgic, romantic images of the colonial farmhouse, the plain truth is that they also become very messy as they dry out and start to shed onto your kitchen floor and countertops.

Once the herbs are oven-dried, they will keep for awhile in a glass jar or, if you choose, a plastic bag that’s kept refrigerated. When you’re ready to use them, blend as many flavors as you’d like into the bottom of a cup, pour in a cup of boiling water, steep for several minutes, strain,and enjoy. Or, if you’re like me and enjoy iced tea by the pitcher all winter, steep a large handful of herbs in the bottom of a small saucepan to make a concentrate. Then strain, pour into the pitcher, and add fresh cold water. The thing about making herbal tea is that your own garden-grown herbs are milder and less concentrated than the tea bags that you buy, so you’ll need to start with a generous amount and steep them for awhile-at least an hour.

While I was outside, I checked on a few fall vegetable plants that I’d planted earlier this year. My dill is happy, fat, and growing every day, and the mustard plants, which I’ve already gotten several cuttings from, come back bigger and bolder each time that they’re cut. The kale, however, which was planted in mid-September, is proving to be a very slow grower. Although the seeds germinated within a few days and the plants look healthy, I’m beginning to doubt that they ever will be large enough to cut. The sorrel growing behind it was given to me by someone, and I”ve never known quite what to do with it. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know.

This kale, which was planted in September, is still far too small to cut, although the lush sorrel behind it is growing rapidly.

A note on giving locally on Giving Tuesday and all year

As we progress into the winter gardening season, we also start thinking about holiday donations to our favorite non-profits. One of my favorites is, of course, the Virginia Beach SPCA, where my cats Butterfly and Frosty spent some time before coming to their forever home. If you donate today, your funds will be used for medical care for shelter animals, and a generous donor has agreed to match today’s donations up to $12,500. If you can’t make it today, give to the shelter of your choice anytime, but medical care is very important to me because, like so many senior cats, my darling Butterfly was diagnosed with feline kidney disease before she left the SPCA. You can make a donation by visiting their Facebook page.

Butterfly still strugles with feline kidney disease, but the Virignia Beach SPCA provided her with a home and medical care in her hour of greatest need.

While I’m at it, I want to give a shout-out to Mark and Mike Malbon of Malbon Brothers Corner Mart and Dave Bunn of Bunn Insurance for donating 250 Thanksgiving turkeys to financially-stressed members of the local community. I honestly believe that the best thing that you can do to help people in this time of Covid is to support the small, local busineses because they give back to the community.

I also want to acknowlege all of those who have donated to food banks this year, and particularly those, including Virginia Beach Master Gardeners, who have donated their own homegrown vegetables or eggs. Now that I think about it, I really should donate some of that mustard that’s growing out of control.

In defense of soybeans-and a few other ideas for Thanksgiving meals

Although I don’t necessarily eat it every week, I do admit to liking tofu, and I find some of the myths surrounding it to be laughable. A quick search of the internet shows no shortage of rumors about the negative effects of soybeans, which are said to make men feminine, women masculine, and everyone who eats them fat.

Other rumors produced by the anti-soy rumor mill can be just plain irritating. In recent years, some well-intentioned but misinformed people were actually proclaiming that soybean production was bad for both environmental and human health. “All soybeans are genetically modified,” the owner of an organic foods shop once confidently told me.

I think that these rumors sprang from the self-righteous ramblings of a Virginia meat farmer who proclaimed that livestock husbandry was fundamental to sound agriculture and necessary for enviornmental health. Vegetarianism, he pontificated, was bad for the environment, and soybean production was particularly harmful.

I’ll leave it up to you to judge the credibiity of that claim, but since this farmer is the same one who was recetly called out for claiming that he wanted coronavirus, I’m a little skeptical of his proclamations. And, while it’s true that many of the soybeans grown in this country are GMO, there’s a distinction between edible soybeans and the type that are commonly grown for oils or livestock feed.

It’s also quite possible to eat tofu and still support small, local farms, and that’s why my family and I will be sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner of tufu this year. Twin Oaks Community in Louisa County produces delicious, non-GMO tofu with a firm texture and nutty flavor, and it’s available locally at Cromwell”s Produce on New Bridge Road.

Many make tofu turkeys, but, like the traditional turkeys, the tofu variety work best when you’re cooking for a large family. It also sounds like a lot of work to make, so I just slice mine, pile cooked saffron rice on the sides and on top, brush it with olive oil, and lightly roast it. The delectable saffron is, to me, a good complement for the nutty soy flavor, and if it’s garnished with just a few fresh cranberries, it makes an attractive and festive dish.

If you want tofu but don’t fancy the saffron rice, the Twin Oaks website provides other tofu recipes, and if you want to go vegetarian this Thanksgiving but just plain don’t like tofu, you still have some options. Acorn squash,available at most local farm markets, are delicious when they are halved, stuffed with wild rice or quinoa, and roasted. Of course, there’s also no shortage of recipes for pecan patties that you can make from locally sourced pecans.

So take the local challenge this Thanksgiving and don’t limit your local options to side dishes of greens and sweet potatoes. Try a plant-based local entree, and don’t worry-there’s no good reason to think that you’re harming the environment by skipping the meat course..