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Rebirth of a great tree.

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader has been following stories concerning the efforts to restore the American Chestnut tree. He thought that he’d blogged about this subject more frequently than it turns out he actually has. (He first blogged about American Chestnuts in 2005 - in the context of an oak blight.)

Your Maximum Leader has contacted researchers at Virginia Tech and offered to plant a hybrid Chestnut tree in his yard. Sadly he was denied by researchers at Tech because he has too many other trees on his property that it isn’t a good location at this point. Regardless of that setback, your Maximum Leader has been following the work of so many to bring back the Chestnut.

He was heartened to read this peice in the Washington Post this morning: The mighty American chestnut tree, poised for a comeback. Here is the opening:

Its sweeping canopy inspired poets, and its strong, straight timber shaped the stories of life in rural Appalachia, until the tree itself became the stuff of fiction. It is now more than a century since the American chestnut tree - once 4 billion strong and an icon of East Coast forests - fell victim to a foreign blight. By 1950, it had virtually disappeared.

Yet people haven’t given up on the towering hardwood or slowed efforts to restore it to great swaths of woodland from Maine to Georgia and in the Ohio Valley, where it once reigned through the canopy. Despite the failure of earlier scientific efforts to bring it back, thousands of chestnut aficionados - many based in the Washington area - have new reason for optimism.

By interbreeding the American with its Chinese cousin, tree lovers have created an American chestnut with some resistance to Asian blight and have developed a virus that can be injected into affected trees to combat the fungus. It’s a project that shows every sign of promise - with about 25,000 of the new chestnuts planted under the guidance of trained scientists and chestnut devotees.

If the hybrid plantings thrive, some envision huge tracts of strip-mined Appalachia one day being restored with lovely chestnut forests.

“We know we’re interbreeding resistance. Now we have to figure out, does it have enough resistance?” said Bryan Burhans, president of the American Chestnut Foundation, which has led the revival efforts.

He said it will take 75 to 100 years to know whether the tree can be reestablished as a mainstay of Eastern forests. But he said he’s “very optimistic” about the American chestnut’s future.

Some might be intimidated by the prospect of a century-long recovery effort - more than a person’s life span, if not a tree’s. But as Robert Mangold, who directs forest protection for the Forest Service, put it, “it’s a long-term commitment.”

Your Maximum Leader is hopeful that his kids and grandchildren will be able to wander through Chestnut groves in the mountains of the eastern US.

If you would like to help in the efforts to restore the American Chestnut, you should try and contact the American Chestnut Foundation.

Carry on.

Rabbit and Bacon

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader will, in the tradition of his Scottish ancestors, wish you all the word “rabbit” as it is the first of the month. Tomorrow he will likely have to wish you all “groundhog!” As he thinks he mentioned before, he doesn’t know why all his relatives rush around calling everyone on the first of every month and saying “rabbit” but they do.

Your Maximum Leader should also wish his wonderful sister-in-law a happy birthday. Since she is not a regular reader of this space, he’ll have to do better than this forum for birthday wishes.

So, your Maximum Leader has mentioned a few times how much he is enjoying his own home-cured bacon. He is going to have to start changing up his receipe as he does this more. Before he can start experimenting however he is going to need more pork bellies. He’s having a dickens of a time trying to find someone who can supply them. The local grocery stores can’t special order them apparently. (Even Wegmans - who hithertofore had seemed to be able to order just about anything.) The local butcher shop seems to be able to get some, but your Maximum Leader would have to order at least 100 pounds of pork bellies to meet the minimum requirement. That sucks. So he continues to work on getting pork bellies…

Speaking of bacon… Did you see this rating of widely available bacon? The only one he’s eaten off the list is the Oscar Meyer Turkey Bacon. Sometimes Mrs Villain feels she’s doing us a favor by purchasing turkey bacon. Your Maximum Leader isn’t sure about that line of thinking; but it is better to have turkey bacon than none at all. If your Maximum Leader is using the bacon in a dish (like omlettes or something) then turkey bacon is passable. But in dishes where bacon is a key player (and not part of the supporting cast) then only pork will do.

That is about it right now. He’ll possibly post more later tonight…

Carry on.

In bliss…

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader couldn’t wait until tomorrow to post this. Although he’d turned off the computer he had to fire it back up to report this.

He just finished smoking 6 pounds of his own home-cured bacon.

Oh dear God in Heaven. It is sooooooooooooooo friggin good.

About 14 days ago he put the pork bellies he’d gotten from his hog (Thanks Smallholder!) into the cure. Villainette #2 dutifully turned the bacon in the cure every day. Time got away from us and we were overtaken by events so we didn’t smoke the bacon last week as intended, but had to do it today. Rather than taking 2-2.5 hours, it took nearly 4 and a half hours to smoke the bacon. Your Maximum Leader belives that this was mostly due to the fact that his smoker was sitting in 34 degree temperatures and it was hard to keep it hot without over-doing the coals.

After letting the bacon cool for a few minutes (perhaps 5) after coming out of the smoker, he cut off a little slice. Oh it was good. Then Villainette #2 got a slice. Then Villainette #1 got a slice. Then Mrs Villain. Then before you knew it, we’d all had two or three slices. Then we had to stop. We couldn’t just eat it all right there. Well, we could have, but we resisted.

Your Maximum Leader can already tell that he will have to buy more pork bellies and make more bacon when this runs out. He only had about 6 pounds to start with. (Now he has about 5 and a half…)

Thank you Michael Ruhlman for your wonderful book, Charcuterie, without which your Maximum Leader may not have ever had the guts to try this. Also thank you Smallholder for raising such an awesome and tasty hog. Oh this is good stuff… Your Maximum Leader (almost) wishes all of his long-time readers could be here with him to try it… (Almost.)

Carry on.

Drugs in agriculture

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader saw a particularly long, and particularly interesting, article on the AP news wire a moment ago. The piece is: Pressure rises to stop antibiotics in agriculture.

Your Maximum Leader happens to agree with the thrust of the piece, which is that drugs fed to pigs, chickens and cows are leading to super-bacteria that do not respond to antibiotic drugs. These super-bacteria can, and do, move to humans and pose a tremendous threat to human health. What surprised your Maximum Leader about the AP piece is that they attempted to show the other side of the argument, namely that antibiotics keep healthier herds promote quick growth and reduced feed costs.

Now the peice doesn’t attempt a full-blow economic analysis of the costs of giving antibiotics to herd animals on farms vs not giving them antibiotics; but your Maximum Leader wouldn’t expect that type of analysis from the AP. He hopes that some Ag school somewhere in the US is working with the economics department to do such an analysis…

Yet another reason that your Maximum Leader relies on the Smallholder for the great majority of his beef and pork… Smallholder doesn’t dope his animals.

Carry on.

Hog heaven…

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader is going to go and get his freshly slaughtered and butchered hog tomorrow AM. He will likely leave the Villainschloss around 5am to make the best of his day.

One ham and all the bacon will remain unfrozen. Your Maximum Leader will have to get to curing on Saturday afternoon or Sunday.

Yummmmm… Ham… Bacon…

He’ll try and photo the process for you… No guarantees however. If he does it all wrong he will not want to have to bask in his defeat photographically.

Carry on.

UPDATE: As excited as your Maximum Leader is to get the hog, Mrs Villain is probably just as (if not more) excited to get fresh hamburger from the steer that will also be picked up…

Carry on.

Nothing much to report

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader has been out there. By “out there” he means “on the interwebs.” Lurking. He’s been reading and ruminating. Occasionally he’ll comment.

All in all he’s not had much that he feels warrants a comment. That is one of the problems of blogging isn’t it. One might read a post (or a tweet or a newspaper/journal article) and say to oneself, “My self, that perfectly encapusates my thoughts on this subject.” But if you don’t actually write a post of your own linking the article/piece in question who the hell knows? Frankly, even if you did write a post and provide a link, who the hell cares?

Meh.

So hows about a post about nothing? Indeed… Lets…

Your Maximum Leader has been spending his free time watching hockey and football. He’s tried reading a few different books to see if something grabs him. He’s been sorely disappointed in his choices. What makes his disappointment more… disappointing is that all the books he’s chosen are recent additions to his library that he’s not gotten around to reading yet. Sadly, your Maximum Leader figures that he’s suffering from some sort of short-attention-span disorder.

Speaking of hockey… This Washington Post piece about the NHL “war room” in Toronto was interesting. The room is much smaller than he imagined. Although he does like the little detail of how the room smells of pepperoni pizza. That makes it all so real. So real. In a way knowing that the room is as small as it is makes your Maximum Leader sort of sad. He was hoping for a “mission control at NASA” feel. Or even better… Dr Strangelove… Alas, it looks like a production room at a secondary studio at a big city TV station…

Anyhooo…

Your Maximum Leader got word from his good friend, Smallholder, to let him know that the hog and steer raised for his consumption have been slaughtered and are going to be butchered this week. Today in fact. Your Maximum Leader has made three calls to the butcher to adjust his cutting instructions. Your Maximum Leader has decided that he needs to get the bacon and one ham fresh from the butcher. (Normally, the cut pieces are frozen for him.) Your Maximum Leader is going to try and make his own bacon and cure a ham this year. He’s got his pink salt in hand and will have to get to curing this weekend if he is going try his hand at ham and bacon. The bacon should be pretty easy to cure. It can be done in a large bag in the fridge. The ham is going to be more of a challenge. He needs more space and time. Your Maximum Leader isn’t sure how he’s going to manage the ham, but he’s working on it.

Actually, your Maximum Leader trying to figure out the curing of the ham at the Villainschloss has been a mentally taxing exercise.

Moving along…

Your Maximum Leader is disturbed by his use of the DVR. He feels that he is watching more tv as a result of having more control over his viewing choices and times. He records a fair number of programs. By his count he has three shows recorded daily (Pardon the Interruption, The Late Late Show and his guilty pleasure Chelsea Lately). In addition to the dailies, he records only new episodes of 8 other shows. Then there are movies as he finds them on HBO. In his defence, if he doesn’t watch one of the dailies within a day or two of broadcast he deletes them. As they are topical there is nothing like watching old news… But he has a few movies that have been on the DVR for months… Almost half of the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm remains on the DVR. (NB - Your Maximum Leader loves Curb Your Enthusiasm; but finds he can’t watch more than one episode at a time. The humor is uncomfortable at times and has to be doled out in measured doses.)

It would likely do him well to cut down (or out) a significant portion of tv time. Your Maximum Leader supposes that compared to “regular” Americans he might watch less tv than most. But it is starting to feel like too much.

Sooo…

What the hell is up with Tiger Woods? Your Maximum Leader doesn’t get it. If you are going to be a world famous personality and you know that you like to mix it up when it comes to female company; then why do you even consider marriage? Your Maximum Leader has a certain amount of regard for George Clooney in this regard. Clooney gives off the vibe that he knows he is going to have trouble in a long-term relationship; so he doesn’t enter into one. That is a good thing in your Maximum Leader’s opinion. Know yourself and save yourself (and others) lots of heartache. Your Maximum Leader is at one level shocked and at another amazed by the scope of Tiger’s affairs. Shocked by the numbers and amazed by the efforts that went into meeting/maintaining/hiding the affairs in his schedule. One wonders if he has an assistant helping him in this… Then again, if he had an assistant to help him with these things he might not be in the mess he’s in now.

Concerning Mrs Woods. She is a very attractive woman. That said… Your Maximum Leader finds something disturbing and off-putting about her eyes in most photos he’s seen of her. He’s not saying she has “crazy eyes” or “googly eyes” or anything. There is just something wrong about her eyes to him.

In real news…

Your Maximum Leader reads that the Senate seems to be stripping the “public option” out of the Heath Care Bill. He hopes that soon the “Health Care” part will also be stripped from the bill…

This bill is a mess and just continues to linger on getting worse. One would hope that at some point the Senate would just throw up their hands and say collectively “Fuck this… Let’s pass some stimulus bills, an anti-flag-burning amendment, and declare it National Cocktail Party Month.” After putting the health care measures out of our national misery they could go home for “Winter” holidays and raise money for their re-election. That’s a good plan right? Of course it is.

Carry on.

Ave Bacon!

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader sees (thanks to Fishersville Mike) a great piece on bacon. (Apparently the link came first from Ye Olde Instapundit, but your Maximum Leader saw Mike’s link first).

The piece is “To some a fad, to others an artisanal craft.”

If this excerpt doesn’t make your mouth water you are not the type of person with whom your Maximum Leader will sit down and break bread.

[Allan] Benton [of Madisonville, TN and the “undisputed king of artisanal bacon”], a former high-school guidance counselor, bought a smokehouse in 1973 from Albert Hicks and spent the next 30 years perfecting the art of bacon. Industrial, store-bought bacon is fast-cured in a day or less: injected with watery brine, flash-smoked, and packaged for shipping. Benton makes his the way his grandfather did. He dry-rubs the pork bellies with a mixture of salt and brown sugar and lets them rest for almost six weeks, switching midway through from a 38-degree cooler to a 45-degree one and finally to an aging room. Then, they spend 48 hours in a smokehouse, with the smoke generated from an old wood-burning stove.

To the eye, the Benton’s product looks pretty much like any thick-sliced bacon. To the mouth, however, it’s completely unlike any bacon you’ve tasted before. Upon first bite there’s a very strong salty hit, then you notice the chewiness of the meat, and finally there’s a warm rush of hickory smokiness that lingers and lingers while you savor the whole bite.

Damn! That reads good. Your Maximum Leader is salivating. Indeed, reading this short account of Allan Benton’s attention to bacon reminds your Maximum Leader of Tommy and Dee Dee Darden of Smithfield. (Remember your Maximum Leader’s Quest for Ham?) Your Maximum Leader is going to have to find himself a way to get some bacon from Mr Benton.

Of course, reading this peice also reminds your Maximum Leader that he has to get cracking with Polymath on the construction of a smokehouse so that we can cure and smoke some hog parts we get from Smallholder and make our own bacon and ham.

NB to Ham lovers everywhere! The Darden’s have a new home page! Here ’tis. Enjoy.

Hummm… Ham… Bacon…

Your Maximum Leader has some fresh tomatoes and was planning on making BLTs for dinner tonight… He wonders if it is still a BLT if he adds a few slices of ham to the mix… Gotta feed the cravings…

Carry on.

The Quest for Ham.

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader had a little adventure this past Saturday. It is one that, regardless of how much he tried to make it happen, he can’t write this post in his traditional third-person prose. So, if you will allow him to slip out of character…

For many years Easter at my home was synonymous with one thing. Ham. Specifically, a good Smithfield ham. Because nothing quite captures the true meaning of our Lord and Saviour’s resurrection quite like salt-cured ham. From the mid-1980s on I would acquire a Smithfield ham a few weeks before Easter and would lovingly prepare it for feasting on Easter.

After I got married my lovely bride allowed this little tradition to continue, until about 4 years ago. About four years ago she declared that country hams were too costly and too unhealthy. She also declared that we’d be doing different things at different homes on Easter so it was impractical to go through all of the work for a ham. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth I finally gave in.

Four years later and there has been no Smithfield ham on Easter. We would have ham. But it wasn’t Smithfield (or Country) ham. Just regular old ham.

Longtime readers of this space will know that I am a firm believer that the pig is (after the dog) pretty much the greatest of all domesticated animals. (And frankly, if one was to just count the domesticated animals that we eat the pig is far and away number one.) If there is a better way to prepare the hind legs of a pig than to cure it and turn it into ham; I don’t know what it is. Ham is as close to the food angels eat in heaven as we will ever know.

In case you don’t recall, I’ll direct you to a post I did back in 2006 about knowing your hams for the benefit of Mrs. P. In the post I expound on Smithfield hams, Country hams, Serrano hams and Virginia ham. I also touch on ham pillows too. So, I’ll consider that material “as read” for the rest of this little story…

Well… As it turns out, my lovely bride (Mrs. Villain) announced that she had no set plans for Easter and that I could do or prepare anything I wanted (so long as we did it at her mother’s house). I enjoined her “Does this mean I could do up a Smithfield ham?” Her answer was yes. I was all hot and bothered over the prospect of a great Smithfield ham for dinner. There was now the task of procuring the ham with which I had to concern myself.

I’m not one to just go to the grocery store and pick up a Smithfield (or Country) ham. No, I want to inspect the ham and choose one from many. It is my way. I can’t help it. You see, I got spoiled. I became acquainted with some members of the Joyner family. The Joyners were for many years the largest independent producer of ham in Smithfield and Isle of Wright County, Virginia. I say independent because they were not part of the Smithfield Foods family. Smithfield Foods is a Fortune 500 company and is the largest meat-packing company in the US (and possibly the world). Smithfield Foods has high quality products that are very affordable. (In fact, I swear by certain Smithfield Foods products around the house.) But as good as a Smithfield ham from Smithfield Foods or one of their affiliates; it wasn’t quite the same as a Joyner’s brand Smithfield ham. I used to go to the Joyner’s store and take a look at my ham and closely inspect it before buying it. I would look for the size, shape, firmness, mold color and fat thickness. I wanted to make sure the ham was just right.

So, I resolved to go to the town of Smithfield and go to the Joyner’s store and get myself a ham.

I resolved to make this trip this past Saturday.

Originally it was going to be a big outing for the whole family. But as the week progressed and the day neared it became clear that the outing wasn’t going to be quite as big. Villainette #1 was going to a birthday party and wouldn’t attend. The Wee Villain had been sick and would need more resting time with his mom at home. And Villainette #2 had a soccer game in the morning. I feared I would be the only one making the trip.

Then fate intervened and it was pouring down rain on Friday night and into Saturday morning. Villainette #2 could come with me if her game was cancelled. I anxiously waited until we could call the coach and confirm the cancellation. I was itching to get on the road. Sadly, the game wasn’t postponed until 10 am. That was later than I had hoped to be able to get some sightseeing done along the drive. At 10:15 Villainette #2 and I were in the Villainmobile and on the road.

I had a whole plan mapped out in my head for this trip for a few weeks. We’d drive to Jamestown and take the Jamestown/Scotland Ferry across the James River into Surry County. That would be the first experience of the day. Then we would stop at Smith’s Fort Plantation and see it. Then we would drive on to Bacon’s Castle and make a stop. Then on to Smithfield and some lunch at Smithfield Station on the banks of the Pagan River. After lunch, off to the Joyner’s smokehouse and picking out of the ham. Then head out of town and stop by St. Luke’s Church (Episcopalian) for a little more sightseeing. Then across the James River Bridge at Newport News to catch a glimpse of the people at Newport News Shipbuilding building the nuclear super carriers for the Navy. Then back to Fredericksburg.

Unfortunately, this plan required an early start. That early start was shot. (As was the whole family participating.) So, the sightseeing was cut out of the trip and postponed to another day.

Little did I know that a little adventure was nonetheless in the offing.

Villainette #2 and I made it down to the Jamestown/Scotland Ferry with no trouble. We enjoyed the 25 minute trip across the river. It was the first time Villainette #2 had ever been on a Ferry. She was pretty excited about it. We were also lucky because the day started as an overcast and drizzly 50 degree day in Fredericksburg but as we crossed over to Scotland, VA the weather had cleared and it was 70 and sunny.

As it was approaching half-past noon as we pulled into Scotland, we had to skip Smith’s Fort and Bacon’s Castle. I pointed them out from the road as we passed and promised that we would make the trip again and stop.

We arrived in Smithfield about one o’clock and Villainette #2 indicated that she wanted to eat lunch before buying the ham. I agreed that her plan was a good one. So we went to Smithfield Station.

If you happen to be cruising (in a boat preferably – but by car is okay too) and you are near Smithfield, I highly recommend stopping in for victuals and drink at Smithfield Station. Indeed, you should choose to spend the night at Smithfield Station if you can. It is a great place. In a boat navigating the Pagan River isn’t hard at all – presuming your boat doesn’t draw more than a few feet. There are a few shallows on the way, but it is pretty much 10-20 feet deep all the way in from the mouth of the Pagan River.

The two of us had a nice lunch. We started with hush puppies (with small pieces of Smithfield ham and jalapeño peppers inside). Villainette #2 had a sandwich with smoked turkey and Smithfield ham. I had a Smithfield ham and crab quiche with fruit.

After lunch we went downtown in search of our ham at the Joyner’s store…

Well… I was in for a rude surprise. No Joyner’s store. I stood in front of the building where I knew the shop had been located and protested to my daughter that I knew it was “right here.” I didn’t know why the Town Clerk’s office was “right there” were I was supposed to get my ham.

So, we walked down the street a ways to the Smithfield Foods ham store. I went in and spoke to the ladies at the counter and asked what happened to Joyners. They let me know that the Joyner family accepted a huge buyout offer from Smithfield Foods three years ago. Smithfield Foods kept the brand around for a year after the buyout, but have since shut down the brand in favor of their Luter’s brand hams.

Well. That was a shock. I stood there in silence for a moment when my daughter piped in “It will be okay Dad. I’m sure this ham is good too.”

I resolved that the Luter’s ham would have to do and purchased one. We took it to the car and put it in the trunk. Villainette #2 mentioned that we shouldn’t go just yet. She noted slyly that there was an ice cream store down the street and we should check to see if they had ham-flavored ice cream. Since she was trying so hard to invent a reason to get ice-cream I decided to indulge her.

We went down the street to the ice-cream store. (NB: No ham-flavored ice-cream.) Once we got there however, we both decided that we were still full from lunch and didn’t want ice-cream. So we went across the street to one of the little art galleries to take a look around. The gallery drew us in by having a painting of a whole squadron of flying pigs dressed to look like WWII aviators. It amused us.

Once inside I struck up a conversation with the kind lady who was tending to the store. She told me a little about the painting that drew our eye. Then conversation turned to why we were in town. I explained my quest for the perfect Smithfield ham and how I was saddened to learn about the Joyners being bought out.

Well, the art-store lady got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Well, if you are looking for a good ham I can tell you where to get the best ham in the whole county.” I figured the best ham in a county known world-wide for their hams had to be pretty damned good. I inquired how good was this good ham? The art-store lady replied that this ham was not only award-winning at the county fair, but Martha Stewart herself had once flown in to Smithfield on her private jet to buy one of these hams and serve it at a holiday dinner at her home about 10 years ago. The art-store lady added that Martha Stewart still orders one ham from this place every year around Christmas time. Okay. I bite. I asked where exactly do I find this ham?

Darden’s Country Store was the answer. The art-store lady indicated that it was a bit of a drive out of town into the country. I told her I (we in fact) was up for the trip.

In keeping with the habits of Southern people in particular, she gave me a set of directions that might have foiled others. I was to go down Main Street a shot until I passed by the funeral home. A short way past the funeral home there was a house next to a family graveyard. I turned left there. Then I followed the road a while (about 5 minutes she thought) and then turned left again at a “steep jog” in the road. Then I was to follow that road for about 5 minutes and make a right a copse of oak trees on one side of the road and a big magnolia tree on the other. Then I followed that road for a few minutes and Darden’s was a red store building on the left.

I seemed to understand the directions clearly enough and started down the road in search of the best ham in Isle of Wright county.

The directions were actually clearer than one would think when you were “on the ground.” I felt we were on the right path but Villainette #2 after about 10 minutes of driving thought that we were lost. I told her my infallible ham-sense told me we were getting closer. Sure enough as we approached a crossroads I saw a complex of buildings on my left and just knew one of them was Darden’s Country Store. We approached these buildings from behind and I told Villainette #2 that the buildings up ahead were where we were going. She demurred and said that it looked like a couple of old barns and an old equipment shed full of tractors. There was “no way” that was the place.

But as we approached I knew we were in the right place. We slowed down at the crossroads and I looked over at the red building. A sign over the door proclaimed that this was “Darden’s Country Store – Since 1952.”

We pulled into the small gravel lot in front of the building and got out of the car. Darden’s Country Store is a one and a half story building. You could tell it was originally a bright red color that one would associate with a bright barn. But the years had faded the paint. It wasn’t faded to pink, but it was a washed-out red. We walked up the two steps to the screen door and let ourselves in.

There was a long counter running parallel to the wall on our right. There was a cash register sitting next to a computerized Virginia Lottery machine. Down the counter towards the back of the store was a glass box with a glass lid about twelve inches high and 2 feet square. In it rested a wheel of cheddar cheese. At the end of the counter was a small refrigerated case containing a few ham and sausage biscuits. On the wall opposite the counter were three large refrigerated cases. The first contained Coke products. The second contained dairy products. The third contained an assortment of beers. On the back wall was a freezer that held a few packages of what appeared to be sausage. There were also some objects wrapped in butcher paper that might have been steaks or roasts. Between the counter on the right and the refrigerators on the left were three sets of double sided shelves like one would find in any convenience store. The shelves held up salty snacks, small household goods and sundries.

From a doorway at the far end of the counter came a short heavy-set woman. She was likely in her late forties. She regarded us with a look that immediately said “I’ve never seen you before – thus you’re not from ‘round here.” She did smile and said, “Hello. Can I help you with something?” Her tone held a hint of suspecting we were lost and seeking directions.

I announced who we were and added, “I’ve been told by a few people in town that if I wanted to taste the best ham in the whole county I had to come here. Are you Mrs. Darden?”

“Yes. I’m Dee Dee Darden. And you are in the right place.” She had a wide grin. Through her smile she said, “We just cooked one up yesterday for biscuits today. I’ve got it on the slicer. Would you like to try some?” I said we gladly would. She went into the back room were I could just catch a glance of her operating a large meat slicer. She came back out with a four generous slices of ham.

“You know we cure our own hams.” Dee Dee stated proudly. I picked up one slice. It was thin and moist. A small vein of fatty connective tissue held the two lobes of the piece together. I moved it slowly to my mouth. I held it for a moment and took a good smell before putting it into my mouth.

Now. Before going on I should let you know that I’ve had in my life quite a bit of ham. I’ve had Smithfield hams. I’ve had Country hams cured in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. I’ve likely had Country hams from as many places in the United States as produce Country hams. I’ve had York ham in Britain. I’ve had Serrano and Iberico hams in Spain. (I’ve also had them imported to the US.) I’ve had three of four different high-end prosciuttos. I’ve had Westphalian ham. (NB: Sadly, I’ve never had a Jambon de Paris. The most famous of the French cured hams.) All of these different hams have something to commend them to you. Some are more savory than others. The Iberico ham is the most light and delicate. It is also the most expensive with a regular sized ham (about 15 lbs) costing you about $400. The Smithfield is my favorite, perhaps because it is the most familiar to me. I know them and love them. I like the saltiness and the smoke. I like the faint traces of greasiness left on your lips after you eat a slice. I like the light peanut finish you get from the best Smithfield hams.

Well… This slice of ham that Dee Dee Darden cut for me was possibly as close to the platonic form of Smithfield-hamness as one is likely to come across. It was salty, but not overpoweringly so. It was moist. It nearly melted away as you chewed it. You could smell the smoke as you started to eat it, and you could make out the nutty flavor of the meat. It was a perfect slice of ham.

So perfect that I savored my slice a little too slowly and discovered that in the time I spent enjoying one slice my lovely daughter had downed her first slice and the other two remaining on the butcher paper.

“I believe that I’ve died and gone to ham heaven. I don’t think I’ve had a better piece of Smithfield ham ever in my life.” I could hardly get the words out as I was still savoring the taste of the ham.

Dee Dee called out to a man unseen in the back room. “Tommy why don’t you come out here and talk to this man? He likes our ham a lot.”

A balding man wearing a ball cap reading “Darden Country Store” came out from around back. He walked with a rather stiff gait. Like a man who had just a moment before been enjoying reading the paper or watching the game in his favorite chair before being summoned to other business. He came out and shook my hand then Villainette #2’s hand and introduced himself as Tommy Darden.

I told him how good his ham tasted and that he and his wife had come highly commended by folks in town. Tommy smiled and thanked me. Dee Dee then asked, “Would you like to see the smoke house and pick out a ham? We sell ‘em too you know.”

“Would I ever?! Please lead the way.”

Tommy led us out of the store and we started across the street. There was another reddish building there. It was about forty feet long by forty feet deep. It looked to be about a story and a half. The foundation came up about four feet from the ground and was solid rock. Above the foundation was beaded board running parallel to the ground. There was a single door offset towards the right side of the building. The door looked heavy and was secured by a massive lock. Tommy reached into his pocket and produced a key and opened the door. He reached through the door and flipped a switch.

The smell of smoke and salt and pepper and ham was heavy in the air. An old fluorescent light flickered to life in the far corner of a room that was about 20 x 20. There was a worn stone floor with signs of fires. There was a deep sink along the wall to the right of the door. There were two industrial steel work tables in the room.

Hanging from a lattice-work of rafters were hundreds of hams. Above the hams hanging about a foot above my head I could see another lattice-work of rafters about a full story up. That lattice-work was also filled with hundreds of hams.

I was probably looking at 500 hams. Some, close to the door I came in through were fully cured. The ones towards the back of the room looked as though they were freshly coated with pepper and were still pretty “fleshy” colored.

Tommy began to talk. “I cure about 800 to a thousand hams a year. My family used to raise hogs and do the slaughterin’ ourselves. But it came to be a heap of trouble because all we really wanted were the ham legs. It was harder to use up all the rest of the hogs. So I met with the people at the main packing plant and arranged to buy about 1000 hams from them every January. I go down there and pick out the ones I like the looks of and bring them here. Lemme show ya.” He walked us over to a door in the wall to the left of the door we entered through. We were in another 20 x 20 room. This room, like the other, was filled with hanging hams. But this room had no sink or work tables.

Tommy described how he covered the floor of this room with salt. Then he piles the hams on the floor and covers them with more salt. He makes sure all the hams are fully salted then he lets them sit. They sit for about 35 days depending on the weather. He noted that this is in January, so the smokehouse is pretty cold. If the weather is wet he has to let the hams sit in salt for longer. This year they sat until the middle of February in the salt. When the hams have cured in the salt for long enough and have given up a lot of liquid, he wipes them down and peppers them. Then he hangs them to cure further. Tommy explained that most people smoke the hams at this point. But he likes to let them dry further. He likes to see them “sweat” a little before they get smoked. I’d never heard of this so I inquired further of what he meant by “sweat.” Tommy explained that there is still moisture in the fatty layer of skin on the ham – even after the salting. And there is some moisture left in the meat. He likes to hang them and he waits until a small drip of fatty grease appears at the end of the leg. This means that the ham has now given up the right amount of moisture and is ready for smoking.

Tommy pointed out that except for the 20-odd hams hanging right inside the door as we walked in, all the hams we were looking at had been salted this January, were pepped in February or early March and were being watched to see if they had started to sweat. My daughter pointed at a ham above her head and asked if this is what he meant by sweat. We walked over and hanging from the bone at the end of the ham was a small drop of hazy grease. Tommy congratulated my girl and said that that drop was exactly what he meant. When the majority of the hams had sweated he would bring in two large drums (one for each room in the house) and build the smoldering fire that would smoke the hams. He didn’t say for how long he smoked the hams (trade secret he said – he also didn’t mention what in addition to pepper he would cover the hams with – I imagine there is also some salt too).

After the hams were smoked they sit and cure in the smokehouse. He said the hams that were ready were about 18 months old. He also added that he almost never has one last past 24 months – as they are all sold well before then.

Tommy then asked if we wanted to pick out our ham. He asked Villainette #2 if she would fetch him the big stick in the corner. She brought him a long pole – very white perhaps birch or pine? – with a small “v” shaped notch at the end. Tommy started examining the hams hanging near the door. He dismissed two or three as being “too small” a few more were deselected as being “too wrinkly – too much fat on ‘em.” Then he pointed out two that seemed just right. He spun them in the air with his pole and described them. He pointed to one and said, “I think you want this one here. It has a little of the ham mold growing on it. You ain’t ‘fraid of no mold are you now?” I said, honestly, that surface mold on a cured ham was harmless and no trouble to me. He said that this was our ham then. Using the notch at one end of the pole he grabbed the twine tied around the leg and looped over a wooden peg that fit above the lattice-rafters. He jiggled the twine and loosed the peg and then lowered the ham to my waiting arms.

We turned off the lights and locked up the smokehouse. As we walked back to the store Tommy said that he stood behind his hams and if for some reason we weren’t satisfied with it then give him a call and he’ll give us our money back. I thanked him for the guarantee and asked if he’d ever had to give anyone their money back. He said no that he hadn’t had to give any “sensible person who knew how to cook the ham” their money back.

We took the ham into the store and weighed it. It was 15.5 pounds. They wrapped it in butcher paper. And we concluded our transaction. As we turned to leave Dee Dee asked, “Ya’ll like sausage? We buy a few hundred pounds of good scrap and make our own.” I said we loved sausage. Dee Dee asked us to hold on. She walked to the back freezer and retrieved a 1 pound package of sausage. She said, “You take this so you have something for breakfast tomorrow.”

With that I had to give her a hug. I hugged Dee Dee and thanked her for everything. I shook Tommy’s hand and told him how much I genuinely enjoyed their hospitality and lesson in ham-making.

Then Villainette #2 and I got back in the Villainmobile and drove on back to Fredericksburg. All in all we drove a little over 300 miles to get our ham. (Well… Hams if you count the one that I got from the Smithfield store…) Regardless of the miles we probably traveled to a place were people enjoy doing things the old-fashioned way and take pride in producing the highest quality item they can. Tommy and Dee Dee are proud of their hams and the work that goes into making them. I am glad to have met them and been able to support someone doing a good thing.

By the way, I did fry up the sausage this morning and it was damned good. It had a wonderful flavor of pork and sage and fennel. I can barely wait until Easter when I cook up the ham and get a little bit of Darden cured goodness.

If you are interested, Tommy and Dee Dee will ship hams anywhere in the US. You just have to give them a call or drop them a letter and ask for one. They can be reached at:

Darden’s Country Store
16249 Bowling Green Rd
Smithfield VA 23430
757-357-6791
deedeedarden - at - aol - dot - com

I know that I’ve found the people who will be supplying me with my hams for as long as they keep curing them.

Now back into character…

Carry on.

What we’re missing here is…

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader has been missing the occasional agriculture post from his dear friend The Smallholder. Yes… He would like to read about the glories of farming and husbandry in the mountains of Virginia.

While he waits he’ll just have to consume massive quantities of sausage from the hog that Smallholder raised for him. Last night your Maximum Leader made “Sausage O’Patties” with Villainette #1 for dinner. Sausage O’Patties are essentially 1 lb of sausage mixed with 2 medium shredded potatoes. The potatoes and sausage are mixed, formed into patties, and fried in “The Skillet.”

Quite tasty.

Carry on.

Ron Paul and Raw Milk

I don’t agree with some of Ron Paul’s positions (immigration and the gold standard to name a couple), but am excited that there is actually a candidate running for the highest office on a platform of reduced government intervention.

On November 5th, he guaranteed that he will get my vote:

From the Congressional Record:

Mr. PAUL: Madam Speaker, I rise to introduce legislation that allows the transportation and sale in interstate commerce of unpasteurized milk and milk products, as long as the milk both originates from and is shipped to States that allow the sale of unpasteurized milk and milk products. This legislation removes an unconstitutional restraint on farmers who wish to sell unpasteurized milk and milk products, and people who wish to consume unpasteurized milk and milk products.

My office has heard from numerous people who would like to purchase unpasteurized milk. Many of these people have done their own research and come to the conclusion that unpasteurized milk is healthier than pasteurized milk. These Americans have the right to consume these products without having the Federal Government second-guess their judgment about what products best promote health. If there are legitimate concerns about the safety of unpasteurized milk, those concerns should be addressed at the State and local level.

I urge my colleagues to join me in promoting consumers’ rights, the original intent of the Constitution, and federalism by cosponsoring my legislation to allow the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk and milk products.

Woo and hoo!

Ron Paul for President!

Why Am I A Farmer?

The last forty-eight hours have overwhelmed my natural optimism.

I’ll get that optimism back (he says with natural optimism), but I feel like venting.

If you don’t like meaningless whining, skip the rest of this post.

I was supposed to drop my steers off to the butcher yesterday before school. Everything was going very well.

I was able to hook up the trailer solo without a ground guide. So far so good.

I called the boys and then came out of the pasture and I penned them up. So far so good.

I opened the gate and drove the truck and trailer into the paddock. The paddock is rather hilly.

When I tried to back up to the pen, I slid downhill on the frosty, wet grass.

I spent half an hour trying to get the truck back up the hill and couldn’t. So I had to call my dear sweet wife to come and get me so I could go to work. So my poor wife has to wake up the children, bundle them into the van, and come get me.

Rescheduling a slaughter date in the fall is very difficult. This is the busy season. They finally found a way to work me in the next morning. I was able to get the truck back up the hill that evening after the frost was gone.

Trick of treating was great fun (so the days weren’t all bad). When we got the kids to bed and went to sleep, I didn’t sleep long. I woke up smelling gas.

I couldn’t find the gas leak and the valve on our exterior gas tank was rusted so badly I couldn’t turn it off. We called the gas company to come out.

We finally found the leak and I went back to bed. Exhausted, I must have hit my alarm the next morning. I was supposed to get up at 4 so I could pen up the boys again, load them, and take them in. Instead, my wife and I woke up at 7:30. My first class at school starts at 9:14. It takes an hour and a quarter to get to the butcher. We couldn’t reschedule the slaughter again, so I had to call and embarassingly tell the school that I would be late to work.

When I finally got to the butcher, three of the steers went off the truck well. One got agitated, shoved past me, and jumped the four foot barrier. We couldn’t get him back to the catch pen. The butcher ended up getting his rifle and shooting it. The first shot didn’t kill him right away - he had to reload and take a second shot.

I understand that animals are not humans. But…

These are animals that I work with everyday. I understand their purpose is to provide meat, but I take great pride that my boys have good lives and then die without knowing what hit them. I use this particular butcher because he is so good with the moment of death - the boys walk in, looking around, very calm, and he just touches their forehead with his special .22 killer and they fall down, dead as a stone. They never have any fear or pain.

This one lad had about twenty seconds of pain. I felt terrible. I know it was irrational, but I had a real emotional response to it.

And now I’m mad at myself for being irrational.

Arg.

Venting off. Carry on.

My Cow Is A Whore

Cleo the cow went for a stroll last weekend. I thought she was pregnant, but I guess I was wrong and she hopped the fence and went looking for love.

She also took two heifers down the path of wantoness.

The trio walked four miles over the river and through the woods and ended up in another farmer’s herd. He doesn’t castrate his bull calves. She had a lot of fun.

It took me an entire weekend to track her down (assisted by my fine friend Polymath). When I found her, she was surrounded by ten bulls who were taking turns. The farmer commented that her heifer calf had been crying because she couldn’t get through the crowd to nurse - and that the “activity” had been going on since the previous day. When I said that I had thought she was bred, he said “well, she sure as heck is now!”

I’m glad to have my girls back, but rather disappointed that I’ll have a scrub calf rather than an AI-sired genetic improvement. Ah well.

I Do Have One Complaint

My daughter named my new heifer “Princess.”

I wanted to name her M.E.L., short for Mary Elizabeth Lease, the great populist rabble-rouser. (”Farmers should raise less corn and more hell!”)

My daughter wanted to name her princess.

So wee Emilie turns to me and says, “Daddy, you always say that it is good to compromise. We can compromise and name her Princess Mel. We’ll just call her princess for short.”

And the evil wife chimed in “That’s such a good suggestion, Emilie! I’m sure Daddy would love to compromise when you suggest it so nicely.”

So I call the heifer Mel. Everyone else calls her “Princess.”

I hope wee Ben starts to talk soon so I’ll have another Y chromosone vote.

If anyone is interested, Mel is the product of my Charlais cross cow Cleo and and AI service to Bextor, a pathfinder Angus.

It’s Dangerous.

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader was invited a little while ago by his friend Ted (of Rocket Jones fame) to participate in a new group blog he was starting. Ted, you see, had recently completed reading the “Dangerous Book for Boys.” So impressed by this book was Ted that he thought it would be a great idea to get some bloggers together to share bits of knowledge and life experience (or just trivia) in a way that would be educational and fun for parents and kids.

Now, for the sake of full disclosure, your Maximum Leader has not read “The Dangerous Book for Boys.” (But he has ordered it on Amazon and will likely get it in the mail pretty darn soon. (There is nothing like Super-saver shipping is there…) But he will trust Ted’s judgement that your Maximum Leader has something worthwhile to contribute to this worthy endeavour.

Without further adieu… Your Maximum Leader presents: The Dangerous and Daring Blog for Boys and Girls.

And since your Maximum Leader is plugging the new site, allow him to plug his first contribution to the Dangerous Blog… Without asking the Smallholder’s permission at all, your Maximum Leader went ahead and slapped down some editing on two of the most linked posts ever in the history of this blog… Yes… Long-time readers will remember the posts well… They were the toad sexing posts. (Originals here and here.)

Go over to the Dangerous and Daring Blog for Boys and Girls… Learn how to sex toads, make spider houses, and tell a ghost story.

And in case you are wondering… The most linked post in the history of Naked Villainy… It was this one: 10 Things…

Carry on.

We’re gonna (have to) keep Vermont

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader must thank the many readers who commented on the Vermont Secession posts. Your Maximum Leader had no idea that there were so many hotbeds of secession around the nation. Although, to be honest, most of these movements are people wanting to create their own new state out of a portion of their old state (the Ole West Virginia/Virginia situation). Very few, including some secessionists in Texas and the aforementioned Vermont, actually seem to want out of the United States.

Well… Your Maximum Leader, as he’s stated before, will not let Vermont go peacefully. He’ll fight to keep Vermont in the Union. He’ll fight to maintain the Northeast Dairy Compact. Heck, we might need those Vermont dairy farmers to help keep the price of milk down (provided we could let market forces work outside of the Northeast Dairy Compact). Have you noticed food prices recently? Your Maximum Leader has. He spend $1.99 on a gallon of milk about three months ago. Today, he had to buy a gallon of milk (1% in case you care) and it was $2.95. Insanity!

The people at the Christian Science Monitor (and Yahoo News) have also noticed this price spike in food. In case you are too lazy to clicky on the linky:

The reason people are smarting: Inflation in grocery aisles is up by more in the first six months of 2007 than in all of 2006. That means food costs are on track for the biggest annual percentage hike since 1980, according to the Labor Department. The anticipated 7.5 percent increase would readily outflank the 2.6 percent core inflation rate to date, which excludes food and energy. It’s across every grocery aisle, too, from burgers to bagels, from duck to dumpling.

Added to sticker shock at the gas pump, high food prices, especially for meat, are forcing consumers to scrimp, coupon-clip, and ponder the possibilities of a deep freeze to take advantage of discounts, says Boyd Brady, an extension agent at Auburn University in Alabama.

“There’s a … combination of higher demand, natural disasters, higher energy prices – just a myriad of factors driving what price increases we’re seeing across the food sector,” says Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development in Ames, Iowa.

The chief culprit is corn, namely No. 2 feed corn, the staple of the breadbasket. In answer to President Bush’s call for greater oil independence, the amount of feed corn distilled into ethanol is expected to double in the next five to six years. Distillation is already sucking up 18 percent of the total crop. The ethanol gambit, in turn, is sending corn prices to historic levels – topping $4 per bushel earlier this year, and remaining high. All of this trickles down to the boards at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, affecting the price of everything from sirloin to eggs (which are up, by the way, 18.6 percent across the nation).

In a welcome response, US farmers told the government in April they plan a record-breaking 93-million-acre corn crop, though its true size won’t be known until the end of June. But corn alone does not explain the number of products that have become more expensive of late.

Facing higher costs at the farm and shareholder pressure to maintain profits, companies such as Tyson Chicken and Coca-Cola are raising prices. The fact that fuel prices remain relatively high hasn’t helped either, allowing no break in the cost of transporting perishable goods.

For fruit and vegetable growers, labor shortages are also a factor. A $2 cantaloupe sold for $3 at the South Carolina Farmer’s Market in Greenville recently, largely because of labor woes, says Thompson Smith of the South Carolina Farm Bureau. Winter cold snaps and hard freezes in California and the Southeast have made peaches, apples, and oranges pricier.

In the heartland, low yields on winter wheat mean cookies and baguettes are more expensive. Meat costs are up by 15 percent in some regions, in part because of drought that, as in Alabama, caused a cattle sell-off. Milk prices are up in part because of a global shortage, with milk exporters such as New Zealand unable to add capacity and Australia enduring a debilitating drought, even as demand rises in Europe, China, and India.

Damn those people in Europe and China and India. Drinkin’ our friggin milk! Don’t they have clean drinking water over there? Oh… Yeah…

Anyho…

Although your Maximum Leader isn’t sure how a $2 cantaloupe is actually a $3 dollar cantaloupe (did some important information get edited out of that line?), he does see the price increases with frightening regularity. One wonders if we are going to see record price increases on victuals this year does that mean that farm subsidies will be lower? After all, some of these record prices must get to a farmer’s pocketbook…

Your Maximum Leader was joking there… He knows that subsidies aren’t changing… (Thanks Congress!)

Anyho… Moving back to the first point of this post… With record dairy prices coming and demand growing, we must keep Vermont in the Union. Damn those Vermalcontents, Your Maximum Leader will go up there and secure those dairy farms and keep the milk and cheese flowing. He’ll make sure that those cows are fed and milked at gunpoint if need be.

By the way… For those of you wondering what your Maximum Leader’s Colonel-in-Chief outfits might look like… We have a few styles to choose from… Here we go:

Your Maximum Leader in the style of the Virginia Militia (Colonial Era):

Your Maximum Leader in the style of British Colonial officer:

And your Maximum Leader in the style of a 1930s dictator (a la Ian McKellan’s Richard III):

You can take your choice as to which one you like best… Your Maximum Leader will make sure to take them all with him on campaign…

Watch out Vermoonbats! Your Maximum Leader’s got your number!

Carry on.

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