Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 47
Nov. 22-29, 2000
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Take a Little; Give a Little

God gave a loaf to every bird - But just a Crumb - to Me -

-Emily Dickinson, 1863

I have much more than a crumb in my journey on this Earth - and methinks the birds that make life so interesting deserve a loaf. Or a cake.

Thanksgiving, that's why I'm doing it. Traditionally, Thanksgiving is for the birds: turkeys. What would Thanksgiving be without a turkey?

It would be akin to Christmas without St. Nick, Easter without the Easter bunny, Fourth of July sans firecrackers, Valentine's Day without a sweetheart.

But it's different with turkeys and Thanksgiving. On this holiday, we eat the very symbol of the occasion. Millions of gobblers become centerpieces at tables surrounded by family and friends. For the spirit of the holiday, the birds are sacrificed.

But seeing that food is the theme of the fourth Thursday of November - it had officially been the last Thursday in November until Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed it in '41 - I figured I'd do something for the birds this holiday in a year whose November has five Thursdays.

I can't do anything for all those turkeys; their destinies were sealed when they were hatched in incubators. As I write, most have already gone from market freezers to homes where they are awaiting stuffing with spicy breads, cranberries, oysters or whatever.

But before I head to daughter Heather's for a deep-fried turkey prepared by her in-laws Judy and Gil Tribbey - my first exposure to the latest version of turkey cookery - I'll whip up a concoction for other birds who play no role in Thanksgiving.

A Cake for the Birds

I'm going to create a batch of homemade suet cakes, a special treat for the songbirds who winter over at the Burton Riviera Beach homestead on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County.

It isn't wholly that I'm fed up with paying those fancy prices for not-so-fancy commercial suet cakes at the market - though I must confess it irks me. It's that I think the birds - primarily the titmice, chickadees, woodpeckers, maybe even the cardinals and flickers - hereabouts deserve a real energy-packed feast for the holiday.

Birds are like kids; they like peanut butter. It's got the nuts and the flavor, and peanut butter is the base of the concoction. The recipe, which would make any cardiologist shudder, comes from my sister Ruth Wilbur, who whips it up for her feathered friends in northern Rhode Island and who tells me they like it better than anything else she offers at any time of the year.

Like me, she's into year-round feeding big time. The recipe, she says, is called Year-Round No-Melt Suet, so one can hang it out in midsummer as well as midwinter without concern that it will soften into a mush and dribble from the feeder.

After looking over the ingredients, I'm convinced a succession of hearty pecks by any bird will provide enough energy-packed calories to stoke the fire within to withstand the coldest of winter nights. The presence of plain, fat-saturated, old-fashioned lard will see to that.

Ruth cautions "no substitutes" in this concoction, no Crisco or other shortenings in place of lard. Stay with the original game plan - though the chef is encouraged to add birdseed of any type, currants, chopped raisins, nuts, fruits and such to create a smorgasbord within each cake. So, if you're into bird feeding, give this a try.

Year-'round No-Melt Suet

  • 1 pound lard
  • 1 18-ounce jar peanut butter, chunky
  • 4 cups quick oats
  • 2 cups flour
  • 23 cup sugar

Melt lard and peanut butter over low heat, then add other dry ingredients. Stir until well combined. Remove from heat, add fruit and nut bits and pour into molds.

Being a frugal New England Yankee, Ruth saves and reuses the square plastic containers commercial suet mixes come in. They're the right size to fit into the metal mesh suet feeders, though any mold will do.

Happy as Squirrels in Suet

I'm confident the birds hereabouts will enjoy this mix in the two suet feeders that hang in the side lawn, though their interest in the commercial cakes I have bought over the years has either been marginal. Or they don't get much of a chance to feed because of the abundance of squirrels we have here.

I've never been able to figure out whether the bushytails like the suet in the commercial packs or just claw it out to get at the millet, sunflower seeds and other bird food pressed into the cakes. Whatever, a cake at not much less than two bucks lasts no more than a couple of days.

This year, I'm resorting to a baffle system to guard the suet from the squirrels, who heaven knows get a full daily ration of sunflower seeds, whole-kernel corn, peanuts and other goodies at feeding stations designed exclusively for them.

Maybe with this added protection, these homemade cakes will last long enough in their hanging feeders to lure the woodpeckers I occasionally hear tapping for insects in a few old dead trees from the nearby woods to feed where we can watch them.

The squirrels we see all the time, a dozen or more at any given time as they entertain us with their curious behavior. They are creatures of habit, yet sometimes they change their routine. Like the one that came to the porch door this afternoon for a handout, not bothered in the least that our white cat Frieda was on the other side of the screen not two feet away, eyes riveted and tail thumping.

Peanuts in the shell are special treats. The squirrel that gets one usually picks it up, rolls it around in its paws, starts working on the shell, gets to the meat - then has a snack within view. If more peanuts come, they are carted off, presumably to be stashed away for later.

It's as if my visitors want to ascertain by taste of the first nut that the offering of the day is suitable for the effort involved in winter storage. This day was bleak as the cold front moved in with overnight forecasts for the low teens, so I dropped two large peanuts to my guest on his haunches.

He promptly looked both over, looked around to see if any other squirrels were around, then picked one up, darted to a nearby rose bush, hurriedly scratched out a shallow hole, deposited the nut, covered it with leaves, and returned for the second, which he shelled and ate within several feet of me. I guess he figured he was entitled to a snack after caching one peanut for winter.

One More Recipe for the Birds

In parting, as this season of food is upon us and recipes are in order, I must share one that I find most curious - and so will those old enough to remember what isinglass is. For those who are younger, isinglass was something like plastic. It was transparent, brittle and often used for side and rear windows on convertible touring cars.

In Miss Cordon's Cooking Manual of Practical Directions for Economical Every Day Cookery, 1877, in a section for Cookery for Invalids, appeared the following:

"Isinglass Milk: Soak quarter of an ounce of clear shards of isinglass in a pint of cold milk for two hours; then reduce it by boiling to half a pint, and sweeten to taste. Cool it before serving."

No explanation, no mention whether the shards should be removed, that's the whole recipe. So, if you dread the Thanksgiving leftovers, remember it could be worse: Isinglass Milk. I'd rather share the No-Melt Suet with the birds. Happy holiday.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly