Afton: A Town! A Parade! A Chicken Float!

Welcome to Afton, Minnesota, USA—my hometown!  Afton is a diminutive and bucolic town located on the pristine and federally protected St. Croix River and is one of Minnesota’s oldest towns.  Back in territorial days, when there were no ferries or bridges crossing the river, there was (and still is) a large sandbar, the Catfish Bar, which allowed for an easy and shallow crossing.  Afton formed at this crossing point. 

In 1839, Joseph Haskell made a claim on a piece of ground, built a house, cleared a few acres and planted corn and potatoes, and thus became the first farmer in what would later become Minnesota.  The old Haskell house still stands right here in Afton. 

In 1855, a group of local settlers and farmers formed an association, bought a few acres on the shore of the river near the sandbar, and platted the town.  It grew quickly – soon it had a sawmill and there was a flour mill just upstream – the first one in the territory!  When it came time to name this up-and-coming little town, Mrs. C. S. Getchell, the wife of the local schoolteacher, suggested “Afton.”  She was inspired to suggest that name by the poem “Sweet Afton” by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, which was set to music in 1837 and was still quite popular in the 1850’s.  We hear the music today at Christmastime – it was appropriated as an alternative melody for “Away in the Manger”.  Mrs. Getchell thought the lyrics describing a “murmuring stream” flowing past “neighboring hills, far marked with the courses of clear winding rills” perfectly illustrated how the St. Croix River flowed through the hills and bluffs of the river valley. 
The St. Croix River flowing through the surrounding hills and bluffs
 brought to mind, to at least one person, the Burns poem "Sweet Afton"
  (public domain photo)
Afton started as a small community of farmers, and that’s how it stayed for many years.  Meanwhile, twenty miles away, the squalid Pig's Eye Landing had become the respectable and thriving St. Paul, and thirty miles away, St. Anthony with its busy flour mills on the Mississippi River had morphed into the thriving commercial center of Minneapolis.  Minneapolis in 1860—two years after Minnesota achieved statehood—already had a population of nearly 6000.  By 1880 it had grown to 47,000.  In 1880, Afton had managed to reach a population of 130.  It has had its ups and downs since then but it will probably hit 3000 by the next census in 2020.  Afton is still a place of forests and fields.  The old village on the riverbank is a small collection of houses and stores, and has been, for probably the last 100 years, a place that the citizens of the Twin Cities have come in search of peace and solitude.  They come through the summer for the beautiful St. Croix River and the recreational activities that the river provides, and since 1963 they come in the winter for the Afton Alps ski resort.  Thus, the little farming town of Afton has become a tourist town.  There’s nothing so mundane or practical as a grocery or hardware store in the old village—instead the main street is dotted with restaurants, antique shops, a clothing boutique, The Afton House Inn, and notably, Selma’s—Minnesota’s oldest ice cream parlor.  Selma’s began operation in 1913 when Torval Halberg allowed his daughter-in-law, Selma, to sell ice cream from an addition to his circa 1880 house.  Selma passed away in 1966, but her store has continued to sell ice cream to citizens and tourists practically uninterrupted. 

Afton's Main Drag (public domain photo)
Back in 1976 the folks in Afton decided to celebrate the bicentennial by hosting a 4th of July parade.  That parade has continued in all of its splendor every Independence Day since then.  In 1983, I moved to my Afton acreage along with my wife, my dog, my cat, and my infant son.  We didn’t get around to attending the parade until 1985.  We were blown away.  Main Street is only a few blocks long, but people come hours before the parade to stake out their spot with blankets and lawn chairs, and by parade time they are four or five deep along the parade route.  The population of Afton probably triples on parade day. The parade starts at noon sharp, heads down the main drag from the marina, and when it hits the coulee at the far end of town, it circles back along the same route.  So, there’s a parade going in two directions.  The obvious advantage of this is that spectators get to see everything twice.  The less obvious advantage is that if you’re in the parade, and an awful lot of Afton folks are, you get to see the parade, too—in its entirety!  You can expect a lot of antique cars, people on horses, kids with wagons, guys on tractors, local politicians, and royalty from nearby festivals, and of course the local brass band, “The Schooner Band” playing their Sousa marches from atop a hay wagon.  And every parade unit hands out candy to the kids (and adults) along the route until the sugar buzz aura encircling the crowd is almost palpable.  The day after that 1985 parade, I was driving with my two-year-old through the old village, still festooned with its flags and decorations and my son kept repeating with increasing emotion, “Where da lie?  Where da lie??  Where da lie???”  I finally realized he was asking, “Where July?”  It was his two-year-old way of asking, “OK, yesterday was the most crazy and awesome day of my life and I know we’re in the exact same spot where that awesomeness happened, so why isn’t it happening now?” 
Over the years, we’ve been to a lot of Afton 4th of July parades, I’ve played trombone in the Schooner Band, my kids have been on various floats sponsored by the Scouts and other organizations, but this is the very first time that there will be an official “Randy’s Chicken Blog” float. 

I’m not sure when the seed of an idea for a float first sprouted in my mind.  But it really is pretty obvious.  I’ve got this sweet little John Deere utility tractor.  And few years ago, I converted an old boat trailer into a little wagon—painted green to match the tractor.  Turning that wagon into a float wouldn’t be very hard!  There would have to be chickens, of course!  I made the announcement to the flock one night as I was tossing them their daily scratch grain.  They seemed enthusiastic!  My wife, Kathy was even supportive, and she has been known to shoot down my schemes …ahem…she has been known to shoot down my wonderful ideas with unfair reference to practical reality.  So, I moved forward, built a really cool float, found appropriate chicken-themed music to play from a boom box bungeed to the tractor, found a crew of enthusiastic volunteers to hand out candy to the crowd, and have even completed a trial run with my two volunteer Silkie hens.  We are ready to go!

Now it’s up to you!  If you live in the area and you’re looking for something to do on the 4th of July, look no further!  Come to beautiful, historic Afton!  And when the hens and I drive by, give us a shout! If you can’t make it to the parade, rest assured that there will be pictures and stories about the parade right here!

Here's a story of reincarnation: The little trailer you see here started life as a boat trailer. After a long life of hauling boats it was getting a little rusty, sad, and down at the heels, and that's when a guy bought it, removed the boat-hauling hardware, and fastened down a sheet of three-quarter inch plywood. The boat trailer had been reincarnated into a a flatbed trailer for him to haul his garbage to the dump once a week. When he got a truck, he didn't need the trailer anymore, so the little trailer was permanently parked in a neglected and weed filled corner of his back yard. That's when I bought it, did some fix-up, built the box, and painted it to match my tractor. In it's new incarnation it carried bales of straw and pine shavings, a water tank for watering my apple trees, and loads of kids on "tractor & trailer" rides through my woods. Now it's gone through a new incarnation. It has become the foundation of the "Randy's Chicken Blog" 4th of July Float! 

Tractor Signage!
Here's a selfie of yours truly modeling one of the t-shirts that the float crew & I will be wearing during the parade. 

The buckets are filled with candy and ready for distribution to the candy-needy children attending the parade

Emily and Courtney the Silkie Hens are on the Float and Ready to Rock & Roll!

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But Do Elephants Tell Chicken Jokes?

Elephant jokes first showed up on the scene sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.  Over the years their popularity has waxed and waned, but they have been and no doubt will continue to be discovered by subsequent generations of delighted kids.  The main elements of an elephant joke are (1) an elephant and (2) an absurd situation.  That’s all it takes—they are not, after all, anywhere near the pinnacle of sophisticated humor.

Isaac Asimov, in his book, Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, suggested that elephant jokes would remain forever "favorites of youngsters and of unsophisticated adults."  He did not mention young or unsophisticated chickens, yet Snowball the Silkie Rooster has the hens in my coop, especially Angitou the Golden Polish Hen, falling off the roost with laughter.  Is there any possibility Snowball will stop telling elephant jokes?  Probably not.  I think he’s got a million of them, and he keeps getting so much positive feedback with all those “Braaaak ak ak aks!”  

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Chickens of the Woods Are Not Really Chickens

This happens a lot:  You're about to try some unusual food for the first time and the self-anointed expert slides up and knowingly announces "Oh - it tastes just like chicken."  Well this post is about one of those foods that tastes just like chicken. Hopefully, the Hipster Hens won’t find out. The food up for discussion in this case is the incredibly delicious sulphur shelf mushroom.  We’ve had a little rain and they’re popping up out in the woods like, well…like mushrooms—much to my gustatory delight. 

If you’ve never foraged for mushrooms before, this would be a good one for you to start with.  Unlike other mushrooms that hide under the leaf litter on the floor of the woods, these guys grow on stumps and trees.  And unlike other mushrooms that are camouflaged by their color, these little fungus dudes, with their orange and yellow coloring, can’t be missed.  It’s almost like they’re jumping up and down, waving their little mushroom arms, and yelling, “Here I am!  Here I am!  I want to be sautéed right now!”  Also, because it is so hard confuse this mushroom with another mushroom that might be less edible or even poisonous, mycologists include it in the list of the “foolproof four” that beginners can safely forage.  Exactly which four mushrooms are included in that list of four seems to differ depending on which mycologist you’re talking to, but everybody includes sulphur shelf mushrooms among the four on their list.  (The term “foolproof four” which so many mycologists bandy about was coined, as far as I can tell, by Clyde Christensen in his 1943 book Common Edible Mushrooms.  His list: morels, puffballs, sulphur shelf mushrooms, and shaggy manes.)  

If you’re out in the woods from any time from late spring through late summer and these mushrooms are growing, you won’t miss them.  As a matter of fact, you’ll see them from a distance!  Their bright orange tops and yellow undersides stand out like neon signs.  They grow in clusters on stumps, logs, and dead or living trees, generally oaks.  Each mushroom or “shelf” can range from a couple inches to a couple feet in size.  When the weather conditions are right, they’ll reliably show up on the same tree or stump year after year.  Their growth on living trees is problematic since they digest the wood thus weakening the structural integrity of the tree.  By the time an infected tree has visible mushroom growth on the outside, it is doomed and will probably come crashing down during the next big windstorm.  That’s bad news for the tree, but good news for all the little trees in the understory looking for an open spot in the tree canopy so they can flourish.  Also, it’s really good news for all of us who love to eat wild mushrooms!

The scientific name for sulphur shelf mushrooms is Laetiporus sulphureus, and it is a bracket fungus – the term given to mushrooms that grow on trees.  With the advent of DNA sequencing, mycologists have been able to take a closer look at this mushroom and have realized it actually is made up of five different species that look exactly the same.  While these species can’t be differentiated based on appearance, they can be fairly reliably separated based on the tree they grow on and the part of the country where they occur.  Knowing that there are different species that look identical can be important for mushroom foragers, since each species has its own taste and texture.  The mushrooms still contained in the species L. sulphureus grow only east of the Great Plains and almost always on oaks.  They are also, in my estimation, delicious.

The other name for the sulphur shelf mushroom is “chicken of the woods” because its texture and its savory umami taste are so amazingly similar to chicken (once again, we won’t bring this up with the Hipster Hens!).  The best part of the mushroom is the outer growing edge of young mushrooms.  If you break off a chunk and juice runs freely out of the broken part, you’ve got some really good mushrooms.  If, on the other hand, the mushrooms are tough, woody, and old, don’t even bother – they won’t taste good and won’t be worth your bother in collecting them.  These ‘shrooms are good sautéed in a little butter or olive oil, deep fried, boiled in a soup, or pretty much any other way you can imagine.  Since I live in mature oak woods, I enjoy this treat in the summer months on a regular basis.

Here comes the cautionary statement:  Some people, after eating these mushrooms have had “mild reactions” such as swollen lips or in rare cases, “nausea, vomiting, dizziness and disorientation”.  Does this mean this mushroom is toxic?  No, not really.  Bear in mind that allergic individuals can react terribly to peanuts, but that doesn’t cause peanuts to be defined as toxic.  Nobody is sure why there has been these rare occasional reports of reactions.  Perhaps it is allergies, or maybe inexperienced foragers collected mushrooms that were past their prime.  It’s also worth reporting that many of the toxic reactions came after eating mushrooms picked from eucalyptus or conifer trees, or from mushrooms collected in the western US.  While these mushrooms look just like L. sulphureus, they’re almost certainly one of those newly defined different species.  Rest assured that no fatalities have ever been reported from eating this mushroom.  And, as always, you should be cautious when you’re foraging.  Try a little bit at first, and then, when you feel fine a few hours later, feel free to chow down!

You can do anything with these mushrooms that you do with any mushrooms.  Pictured below is some ‘shrooms that I sautéed in olive oil with some green onions and used as a pork chop topping.

This is the sulphur shelf mushroom version of a steak and eggs breakfast.  It’s worth noting that everything in this recipe came from my acreage – except the beef, which came from a neighbor, the cheese, which came from a nearby dairy, and the olive oil which….well, whenever they come up with an olive tree that grows in Minnesota, I’ll be good for that, too! The recipe follows:

Chicken, Steak, and Eggs of the Woods

1 cup chicken of the woods mushrooms, chopped
1 cup green onions (separate green from white and chop)
½ red pepper, chopped
1 cup sirloin, cooked, cooled and cubed
½ cup mild cheese, grated (I used a brick cheese from Star Dairy in Weyauwega, WI)
2 eggs (I used 3 small Silkie eggs)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon hot sauce
½ tsp salt

Whisk the salt and hot sauce into the eggs, set aside. Sauté the white part of the onion and the red pepper in a medium sized frying pan for a minute. Add the mushrooms and sauté another minute. Add the beef and green onion and sauté for another minute. Remove the contents of the frying pan to a plate, add the eggs to pan and scramble. Mix the scrambled eggs with the other ingredients and plate. Top with cheese.

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