Baked Beans, Church Suppers, and a Pig in the Poke

My favorite season is upon us, the season of church suppers. Last night our church in Waits River had a Baked Bean and Ham Supper. If you like church suppers, this is one of the best, and I baked the beans. Yup, I did, and this is our church in Waits River in the picture.

I’ll have to back up here a bit and explain. I love baked beans, good ones, that is. My grandmother always made baked beans, and there was a time that you could count on somebody bringing baked beans to some sort of a gathering. Well, those days are quite as dependable as they used to be.

Susan, my wife, has never been especially fond of baked beans, and I could see she would not be the one to carry on the tradition. So, I took it upon myself to learn how to make baked beans. I asked my grandmother for help, and she told me how she baked beans. I asked another family member, my great aunt Elsie Riddel how she made baked beans and the two recipes were very close, if not the same.

Well, like most new adventures, this one was just waiting for me to stick my big toe in the water. I did.

They are really an easy dish, but you can mess them up too. If you follow the recipe I have, you cannot go wrong. You need to start with State of Maine yellow eye beans, not soldier beans, yellow eyes. You will need some good molasses, some good Vermont maple syrup, about half a pound of salt pork for a two pound bean pot, some dry mustard, a pinch of salt and a pinch of black pepper, and a medium sized onion.

To start with, soak your beans overnight. The next morning, get your beans boiling. I use a roasting pan with a cover that is sometimes called a beaner. You will want to gently boil your beans for about 20-30 minutes. You will know they are ready when you can take a few on a spoon and blow on them. You should see the skins on the beans split and wrinkle. Then, they are ready for the bean pot.

My kids gave me a crockware bean pot many years ago for Christmas. This one is made in Canada and looks like crockware or stone ware. It is meant for baking beans. I will put a pealed medium sized onion in the bottom of the pot and dump my par-boiled beans on top of the onion. The onion will find its way to the top of the pot during the baking.

Next, you want to mix about a cup of molasses, one-half or so cup of maple syrup, two teaspoons of dry mustard, a pinch of salt and and pinch of black pepper in a small mixing bowl. I add a little hot water to the mix that I have heated in a tea kettle on the stove. This helps it all flow around the beans better when you dump it in the bean pot over the beans. A word to the wise, don’t over do the maple syrup as your beans will be too sweet and apt to be mushy too. And, no, you do not need to add any sugar to this mix. The molasses and maple syrup will do just fine as sweeteners.

Now, take your salt pork and use a sharp knife to score the rind. You do not want to cut all the way through the rind, just score it. This will it break up in the beans during the baking. Get a good piece of salt pork, about half a pound, and not all fat, you want some lean to it too.

Take your scored piece of salt pork and put it on top of the beans in the bean pot. Add more water to just cover your beans, put the cover back on the beanpot,  and then bake in your preheated oven at 350 for about 3 hours. You should check your beans after an hour or so, and again after two hours to make sure they are not baking dry. If they are not still just submerged in the juice, add a little bit more water to keep them from baking dry.

You will notice the most wonderful smells filling your kitchen as you bake these beans. It will say “it’s fall in Vermont” to you over and over again. Enjoy this wonderful dish and it will become a favorite for family and friend gatherings.

To get back to the story of our church supper, I took my baked beans last night and they were served first, and damn, they were all gone, so I have none left to bring home. The ladies at the church like my beans and they put them out first in the supper.  Now, I’ve got to make some more for home. Oh well, I am glad everybody likes them.  And, if you really want to get clever here, add some nice brown bread. Serve it warm with the beans and some good Vermont butter, never mind the margarines and the other fake crap, get real butter.

I’ll tell the story of the pig in the poke another time.

What’s On My Reading Table

Yea, like I’m Bill Gates, and I am going to put out a summer reading list. Well, not exactly, and as you can imagine – “not exactly” is an understatement (that is, me being like Bill Gates).

I am a great reader though, and I always have at least half a dozen books with bookmarks poking out, and reminding me of where I left off. I used to be better about the finishing part of reading a book, but my age has become my reading enemy. I get tired and fall asleep way too easy now days.

So, what am I reading right now? You may find my reading pile interesting and you may say, “Ugh.”  You’ll just have to read on and decide for yourself.

I’ll start with pure entertainment, a Daniel Silva espionage book titled, “The English Girl.” I have probably read at least a dozen of Daniel Silva’s spy books, and they are all good, but I am getting a little bored with Mr. Silva. I thought his first books in the saga of Gabriel Allon, Israeli spy, master assassin, and art restorer were great. Now, the books have become, in my opinion, too formulaic, and I am not as enthused as I once was with this series. If you are inclined, go and read the early books Mr. Silva wrote in this set. They are better stories. Or better yet, stick with John LeCarre. You cannot beat “Smiley’s People” and all of the other LeCarre espionage books.

Next in my reading pile is a book of essays by Noel Perrin titled, “Second Person Rural.” I am finding I enjoy essays more and more in my geriatric age (might have something to do with I can read them in one sitting from beginning to end),  and Noel Perrin writes about all things rural in my neck of the woods, Orange County, Vermont. This book is one of a series of essays about part-time farming and rural living in Vermont. The first one is titled naturally, “First Person Rural.” There is also a “Third Person Rural,” and one more after that. Mr. Perrin was a Dartmouth professor, he writes well, and is entertaining. I have read all of his stuff years ago and I am finding my way to revisit these books. It might have something to do with me being some sort of a “…person rural” in heart and mind.

Moving down through my stack, I see where I have a bookmark left in “The Mueller Report.” I will get back to this one, maybe next winter, or someday soon. Someone other than me will write the final chapter on Trump, sooner rather than later I hope. I know enough to understand that impeachment is really a political process, and obstruction of justice is about committing a crime. If these two converge sometime along, there is a war that is yet to be fought. The divisions in our country have become deep and hard. Too many are doing all they can to divide us both politically and culturally. There is nothing encouraging about any of this. I will leave “The Mueller Report” half read for a while longer.

A little deeper in my reading pile is a copy of “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us” by Joseph Ellis. He is a good historian. You may have read an earlier book of his titled, “Founding Brothers.” I am about half way through “American Dialogue.” I picked it up because I am interested in the time when our constitution was being written, argued over, and finding its way into a living document as a grand example of compromise. Just being able to compromise about anything, and in this case, something so close to our core fascinates me. We need some lessons in the art of compromise. Contrary to the opinions of today’s political parties, compromise is not a dirty word, it is essential to the health of a democracy. The notion of “the health of a democracy” is something too many leaders today have totally lost sight of. I curse them every day for this – yes, I do.

Oh boy, now a heavy tome if there every was one, and in many ways. I am coming to a wonderful book (for me, at least) by an economic historian, Adam Tooze. The book I am about half way through is titled, “CRASHED: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.” Some of you may be familiar with Adam Tooze. He occasionally has opinion pieces about economics in the “New York Times.” I picked this book because I realize I do not understand the economics and financial system as it works today. I am totally baffled how some jerky president can tweet some nonsense and this will impact the stock market in a big way from one day to the next. I always thought investing was a careful and deliberative process – I am far from a believer in this anymore. Too many talking heads seem to be able to influence the markets in a big way from one day to the next just by running their mouths. Can you tell my prejudice here?

Anyway, “CRASHED” by Adam Tooze goes a long way to explaining what happened in the fall of 2008, what led up to this financial meltdown, and what has been happening since – or why has the recovery been so slow, or non-existent for many. This book gets deep into the weeds of economics and finance with a lot of history to give you the backstory and also an understanding of what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and is it going to be fixed. My big take-away from this book so far is that we were so close to falling off a financial cliff in 2008-9, and we did not. We narrowly avoided a complete financial disaster that could have made the “Great Depression” look like a small problem. Most Americans have no idea how close we came to revisiting an economic Stone Age. Many much smarter than I am pulled us though this, the story is fascinating, and yes, it was a bipartisan effort. The effort stalled with the election of 2010 and the loss of Congress to the Republicans. This did not need to be the end of the recovery, but it was due to hyper partisanship – enter Mitch McConnell and some of his jerky buddies in the House Freedom Caucus, aka Tea Party.  Well, enough said here.

My last book in my reading pile is one I have read at least once before, a collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver titled, “Small Wonder.” I like Barbara Kingsolver and have been a fan her writing for some time. I think I need to ditch Daniel Silva and stick with Barbara Kingsolver more and more.

“Small Wonder” is a collection of Ms. Kingsolver’s essays that speak to issues of the environment, peace, and family. It is kind of nice to get back to some writing that makes your heart feel good and this happens with Barbara Kingsolver’s, “Small Wonder.”

I should close with mentioning that I am always game for good short stories, especially American classics.  I am reading again an anthology of great American short stories (after all, we perfected this genre). I always like to keep these stories close at hand. They remind me what good writing is all about.

I hope my sharing here is interesting and revealing too. I will revisit my reading stack from time to time and share good reads with you.  Take care, good reading.

The Farm in Washington, Vermont

Sometime during World War II, my grandfather bought an old Vermont hill farm in the town of Washington. The farm was typical of the farms in this part of Vermont, mostly hills, small fields, a couple of apple orchards, and lots of woods, about 600 acres all together. There were a couple of small barns, an ice house, a spring fed water tub for the dairy cows, a farm house with an attached woodshed, and a small pond that was used to cut ice in the winter. The ice was packed in sawdust to keep over the year, and used to chill the milk cans kept in a small milk house waiting for the creamery truck to pick them up every day.

This farm was like so many all over Vermont. It had all it needed to support a family and make a living right there. They needed to work hard and watch their pennies, but this is what Vermonters have always done. Their world was right there and met them every day through the four seasons. They kept a few cows, and sold some milk in cans to the local creamery, heated their house and cooked with wood cut and split right there, logged a little in the woods, sugared in the early spring, picked apples in the fall, and probably raised most of their food right there. It was a simple life, full of hard work, and full of satisfaction too.

After my grandfather bought the farm, we never farmed it. The farm  was a summer home for us, and the best place on earth for me. I roamed the woods, learned about all the wildlife we shared the farm with, fished the brooks and pond, and when I was older, hunted deer there with my dad.

The house was heated with a big central fireplace with heatilator vents built into the brickwork. You could go over to the farm in the middle of a Vermont winter, open up the house, and get a fire going that would bring the house up to a comfortable temp in a couple of hours.

I learned to split wood out in the wood shed attached to the house. My father taught me how to use an ax to split wood, how to read the grain of the wood, work around the knots, and how to use your wrists and give a little wrinkle with your wrists just when the ax hits the block of wood. Wood splitting is about rhythm, reading the grain,  and a good swing, not trying to bull your way through a block of wood with your back doing all the work. I loved the time spent splitting wood out in that wood shed – I always thought of it as thinking time – time to be alone with your thoughts.

 We always had some old dead elm cut up and waiting to be split. My dad would have me split up a block or two of the elm just to teach me patience. Elm is wiry and its grain is not straight and goes every which way. It is always a puzzle for the man swinging the ax, but it is a puzzle that can be solved.

The floor of the wood shed was littered with wood chips and pieces of bark. You sank in a little when you walked around. On one end of the wood shed, there was a privy – an outhouse. This one was a two seater. I always wondered about that – did folks use it together sometimes, or what? Well, I still don’t know the answer to that question.

One night, I was splitting wood out in the wood shed and I must have disturbed a mother mouse. She had a whole bunch of babies clinging to her and she was trying to get from one side of the wood shed to the other with all her babies and having to navigate the floor deep with wood chips. I sat down on the chopping block and watched her make her way. I can still see this picture in my mind.

In the kitchen, there was a combination wood and electric stove. On one side of the stove, you could build a wood fire to cook with and on the other side there were two electric burners. The wood stove part took up some of the space that would have made the oven bigger. You needed to cut small wood for the cook stove part. We did not use it much, but it did add some heat to the kitchen.

This farm was from a different time, a time that is hard to imagine today. In many ways, it was a time I am more suited for than the time we live in. It was not a time of machines, but mostly of doing for yourself, and doing it with your hands. It was a time when muscles did most of the work, people learned to be good with hand tools and do fine work, and take care of themselves and each other.

I’ll share more about the farm in my writing to come. Like I said, it was a special place for me.

A Country Man’s Journal: Values Are Not Transactional

My cynicism and skepticism with  the American political system are no secret. I do not hold back my thoughts or keep my beliefs a secret – I put them out there.

This morning I listened to another politician, the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, walk away from things he said four years ago. I have heard this so often in the Trump administration. The Trump administration seems to be populated with folks that found Trump completely unacceptable four years ago, and now,  “…it is a privilege to work for Trump…” Horsefeathers!

Real values are not temporary, they are not transactional. Principles, standards, and integrity are not for sale to the highest bidder. This is what has happened in American politics today. Both parties are guilty of transactional values.

Most of us would never raise our children to have values, principles, and integrity that can be shifted to suit the moment or  purpose. This sounds like a system that organized crime would adhere to, but a society cannot survive in this kind of a culture.

I do not buy the proposition that election to an office washes away all sins. I do not accept this in faith either. I believe in a life that is built on doing good, not what worked for me at the moment, and if it was wrong, I can cancel it out later. Again, call me un-Christian if you want, but I do not accept all wrongs can be cancelled out because I saw the light at the last moment. Again, this sounds like some sort of belief system the Mafia would subscribe to.

This morning, I listened to Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo try to cancel out positions and beliefs he espoused when he was supporting Marco Rubio for president four years ago. Gail King from CBS tried to pin him down on what he said four years ago, and all Pompeo could say was that these were words said in a “…hard fought campaign.” So, apparently, everything said by politicians is just for the moment and for the audience, and not really part of any belief system.

I cannot accept this for leadership. Our country was not always  like this. Principles, values, and integrity were earned, built, and the result of long and careful thought and effort. They were not transactional like they are today.

It is never  a privilege to serve a man like Trump. He is what he is. To his credit, he has never hidden his faults and lack of character and decency – it has always been right out there for all to see.

I would not want to be in the same room with most of our leaders and politicians today. I do not want to get myself dirty. Values, standards, principles, and integrity are all I have – they are not transactional.

“Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines…”

Thank you James Taylor. You wrote an anthem for many of us (“Fire and Rain”).

This past weekend, my high school class (1969 – Spaulding High School) celebrated our 50th reunion. Fifty years – where did they go, and why aren’t we all here? Both, hard questions, and no easy answers – life happened is about as good as I can do.

People and friends I grew up with flooded my brain with their smiling faces, and flashbacks to a time long ago. That night, it was sweet, and now, it is hard, I have to fight back the tears as I write this.

We grew up in a small central Vermont town, Barre. Everybody knew each other – it was the way life was then. Most of us shared an immigrant background in our families. Parents and grandparents came from the “old country” and found their way to Barre to work in the granite quarries and granite sheds producing beautiful granite monuments that found their way all over the world. So, the site of our 50th reunion, the Barre Granite Museum was more than fitting.

1969 was a big year, not just for us, but for most Americans. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon that year, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Woodstock Nation rocked our lives and the world too. And yet, this was the last time we were still insulated from most of the world. Imagine that, being insulated from the world that was going on outside of our world in Barre, Vermont.

This reunion, a 50th, by most standards, is a giant mile marker, one that stands out like a huge sign on the interstate highway of life. There were plenty of hugs and kisses to go around, and just so damn glad to be there and see everyone, well not everyone, but many of us, one more time. Now, I have the night, and our faces and smiles to keep in my heart and bring up when I want to see you.

So, I am going to leap forward one more year, 1970, and borrow some lyrics from James Taylor’s song, “Fire and Rain.”

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again.”

For one more time I got to see many of the best people in the world.

“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”

Thank you!

What Happened to “The Police Gazette?”

As a young boy, about once a month, or when my mother said I needed a haircut, I found my way to one of our local barber shops. The barber had a odd nickname, “Peanut.” Well, Peanut was a wealth of knowledge, sort of the male gossip central. I listened and learned a lot about life, and what was going on in our community.

Peanut had some reading material there for patrons to pick up and read while waiting for their turn in the barber chair. The reading material was mostly recent issues of “The Police Gazette” and also “The National Enquirer.” The local newspaper, “The Times Argus” was also available. I used to do an informal survey and watch to see who would pick up “The Police Gazette” or “The National Enquirer.” Even as a young boy, I recognized these trashy magazines for what they were, trash. The paper was cheap and the stories were just as cheap and outrageous. I was amazed to see men pick this stuff up and read it. I made my own mental judgements right then and there about these folks. I have always had a knack at reading people.

So, where did “The Police Gazette” and “The National Enquirer” go? Well, I have no idea about the pulp “Police Gazette,” but “The National Enquirer” found its way to our grocery store magazine racks right by the check out. It’s as if “The National Enquirer” found some form broader acceptance as legitimate journalism.

 Well, we all know the recent stories about “The National Enquirer” and its purchase of stories about Trump and his porn stars and Playboy bunnies. The owner of “The National Enquirer,” a David Pecker (interesting name isn’t it) is a friend of Trump and bought these stories to bury them so they would not see the light of day and harm Trump.

I think I know how “The Police Gazette” and “The National Enquirer” evolved. Yes, “National Enquirer” still can be found in magazine racks, but I think the style and quality of journalism represented by these magazines found its way to Fox and is put out there for the same audience. I think people like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Laura Ingraham, among others are the successors to the old “Police Gazette.” And sadly, the audience is still there. They don’t even have to be able to read anymore, just find the channel on their television.

We can fix immigration problems

Yesterday, ICE arrested about 680 undocumented aliens working at a food processing plant in Mississippi. This is a large food processing company with headquarters in Illinois. The company employs about 13,000 people mostly in the South. A big part of their work is processing poultry. A comment was made, “Where are we going to get the workers?” This is a good question. We need to fix our immigration laws. I think the need for workers is well established.

During the 2nd Bush administration, a bipartisan group in Congress tried to deal with the immigration laws. They suggested guest worker programs with paths to citizenship if wanted. The fixes suggested by the bipartisan group, the so-called “Gang of Eight”, were never voted into law, defeated by the more conservative elements in Congress. These are the same fights we are having today, and we have even slipped further from sensible solutions.

So much of this is about race. We need the workers, they want to be here. They are on payrolls and paying taxes. In many cases, large corporations like the one in this article, are employing undocumented workers – because they need them. It seems, we would prefer to fight over racial issues, than come to a good fix of our immigration laws.

We also need to rethink our foreign aid programs and look to creating some sort of a “Marshall Plan” for Central America. These countries are our neighbors. In many respects, these are also failing or failed states. I think of all the money, mostly borrowed, we have spent on Mideast wars, and really, for one purpose, to protect the oil industry. Why not invest right here for peaceful purposes with our neighbors. Maybe we would not be seeing these “caravans” headed north if we did this.

It just seems like there are some sensible solutions to the immigrations problems, and they are not about building walls, they are about building partnerships with our neighbors.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls”

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne

The tragedies of this weekend in El Paso and Dayton have been much on my mind this weekend. I came here to write more than once and stopped every time. I thought about safe harbors, we have none. I thought about being insulated from the rest of the world here in Vermont – I am not. I thought about the overall silence from our nation’s leaders – if anything, the silence resonated. Oh, there were a few words, just enough from a few to show they knew what happened, but mostly silence.

I thought about the rhetoric and the words the president uses almost every day. He seems to find the most comfort in being on the attack. He uses the power of the presidency to make his attacks hurt. Almost every day we wake up to some new twitter attacks launched against some American by this president. There has never been an effort to unite us, to bring us together. Vehemence is the tone we find in this president’s words. Vehemence directed at us, at Americans – “…send them back…”

I have said this over and over for the last few years, “Silence is complicity.” I have to ask those that continue to choose silence, what will it take for you to rediscover your morality, your human decency? How can anyone lay claim to either and support this president?

I go back to John Donne’s poem, “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Whether it is a father and his daughter floating face down in death’s embrace, or our neighbors and friends out doing what people do, we are all diminished by these losses.

And, we have the power to do the right thing, yet we continue to choose not to. A Christian might say Satan works among us. We seem to have lost our will to resist, and we will reap what we sow. I am always mindful to be careful what we build…

“…the bell tolls for thee.”


Hi, and welcome to my blog, “West Topsham Views.” My name is Ed Pirie, and if you are not familiar with West Topsham, I will help you with the geography. West Topsham is a small village in the town of Topsham, Vermont. The population of Topsham, Vermont is about 1200 people. The village of West Topsham has about a dozen houses, a church, a general store, a post office, a fire house for the volunteer fire department, a cemetery, and a Grange Hall. If you look at a map, you will find the town of Topsham in eastern central Vermont and in Orange County. The town is about 20 miles west of the Connecticut River and New Hampshire.

Ok, the geography is settled. As you might guess, I like life on a small scale. I was born in Vermont and I have lived here for most of my 68 years. This is where my roots are. I cannot bear the thought of ever leaving. I have tried this once and hurried back after a brief stay in Connecticut. My wife and I have raised our family here and my children now have families of their own and they also live in the town of Topsham. My grandchildren are close by and we are spoiled being able to see them often.

This blog is a new adventure and I am excited to have a place where I can share my thoughts and have some good conversations. I think you will find my writing to be casual and respectful. I am a great student of history, an educator, and I will often use my understanding of history to support and anchor my commentary made here. Politically, I am an independent. I cannot bear to let anyone do my thinking for me. I want to reach my own conclusions after a careful look at the evidence and issues.

I am more than concerned about the current state of affairs in this country. This will come out in later posts. I will not leave you guessing as to what I think, but you will find I do not get to my conclusions without being careful and marshaling evidence to support my point of view.

I borrowed the “Pathfinder” from James Fenimore Cooper. I have always enjoyed the woods and finding a way. The paths we choose and the paths yet to be taken are not always clear at the outset. A good look at the lay of the land, and the places we have been can help point us in the right direction going forward. I like to think our compasses share the same cardinal directions, and north for me is also north for you. Our destination should be a good one for all of us.

I also hope to use this space to share some human interest stories. I enjoy telling a story and find most of life very interesting and fun to share. I live where I can be very close to nature and the world of natural science has great fascination for me. I like to garden and raise food. I have a small flock of chickens, currently twelve, and collect the eggs from my girls every morning. These chickens are really pets and share my life with my English Cocker Spaniel, Olliver, and our little Silky, Poppie. I guess you could say, I am their human.

Well, this is a start. Please come back and I will have more to share. I am anxious to get started.