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October Light

“[Artists are] people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” – British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, as quoted in Mary Ruefle’s essay “On Fear” in her collection Madness, Rack, and Honey

Artist or not, that quote is me in a nutshell. (I’ve always wanted to live in a nutshell, a little self-contained walnut shell/hidey hole furnished like Mole’s home in The Wind in the Willows complete with a fireplace and rugs and a plush armchair and all my favorite books on the shelves nearby. Or a simple tree fort would be nearly as good, like the one we came across this week while hiking.)

I like to stay tucked away and hidden until the urge to communicate grows overwhelming. At that point I become like Mary herself, who writes in her title essay: “I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say, yet I know before long I will sound as if I’m on a crusade.”

Today’s crusade begins with my raptures over a new plant.

My neighbor, Brenda, brought over a few sprigs of a shrub that grows near her creek. She told me that the old folks used to call it Indian dogwood, but when I did a search I found it identified as strawberry bush, or more poetically “hearts-a-bustin’.” I consider it one of the prettiest things I’ve seen in a long time, and I want to try to get one to grow somewhere on our five acres. Generally strawberry bush grows in the forest understory, but I think there are a few places that we might be able to trick it into growing—say under the hickory trees out front, or in the redbud grove. I’d like to have those raspberry pods bustin’ in our yard every fall, and according to Southern Living the leaves turn “soft yellow suffused with pink” as autumn progresses. I need that.

Persimmons are another autumnal fruit currently bustin’ out all over. My dad collected about two quarts of them from under one tree. They become gooey after hitting the ground and are difficult to avoid stepping on, so he also tracked some into the house. He said it’s exactly like walking through a chicken coop. Because I’ve spent part of the late summer turning pears into preserves, he offered me the persimmons to see if I could turn them into something.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, persimmons are not to everyone’s taste. Upon first sampling the fruit in the New World, Captain John Smith wrote in his Generall Historie (1624): “If it not be ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”

But if it be ripe, it be lovely. I am partial to persimmon pudding, which is sticky-delicious and toffee-rich. But Ernesto does not care for it, and he requested that I try making persimmon jam.

When I made persimmon pudding I had bags of frozen pulp that Brenda (she is a treasure) shared with us. I had no experience turning persimmons into pulp, and when I started in on them I soon discovered how thoroughly attached the seeds are. I tried mashing the fruit through cheesecloth, which was useless and messy. I had a little better luck pushing it through a colander and periodically scraping the pulp off the bottom and into a bowl. It took a good deal of time to extract, finally, about 2 cups of pulp. I estimate that another half-cup was smeared on various paper towels or was still clinging tightly to the seeds. (I later asked Brenda how she managed persimmons, and she said she has a special device. After watching her give a mime demonstration of how it worked, I figure she must use a food mill.)

Once I had the pulp under control, the jam itself was really simple. I stirred in sugar and lemon juice and cooked it for about 15 minutes. The smell was glorious, and my heart was nearly a-bustin’ with hope as I ladled it into a few small jars.

When it came time for the taste test, though, it drew our mouths awry with mild torment and extracted all the moisture from our tongues.

The other thing about persimmons—safer than eating them—is the seeds are used here in North Carolina to predict the coming winter. When you cut them open, you’ll see a white shape in the center that takes on the appearance of flatware. A knife forecasts a cold winter with a wind that cuts right through you. A spoon means the winter will be snowy and you’ll be stuck doing a lot of shoveling. A fork means that the winter will be mild.

This year’s persimmons indicate that we will be shoveling snow. I think. They were clearly spoons when I looked at the seeds, but now that I’ve posted the image I think I see tines. What do you see?

Anyway, I love the look of the little ghostly utensils, whatever they are, in the seeds. They could almost be grottoes with tiny angels inside. And 2020 being what it has been so far, wouldn’t that be a comfort?

Butterfly Man

Cecil Honeychurch, 2020. Wool.

Museums are closed, and there’s time to fill here at home. Inspired by John Simmons and his 26 Fruits blog, I have devised my own gallery of treasures from around the house. I believe they were grateful to be dusted and fussed over.

I chose the name the Little Gallery of Mighty Fine Arts (LGMFA) because in rural North Carolina, there are two levels of superior quality: fine, and mighty fine. Featured first are works from the gallery’s Folk Art Collection:

Goat

Artist unknown: White Goat, circa 2014. Painted tin.
A gift commemorating the LGMFA’s acquisition of three goats in spring 2014.

Virginia Woolf wrote: “If we didn’t live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I’ve no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged.” Today, Iris is the only one of our three goats left standing; we lost Lily in 2015 and Rose in July. Given the way the year is going, I am tempted to take Virginia’s advice and pull Iris’s beard in hopes of halting the downward slide toward becoming daily more faded, fatalistic, and aged.

Mexican cherub

Artist unknown: Mexican Cherub, circa 2012. Painted wood.
Acquired in Webster Grove, Missouri in a shop next to a Thai restaurant.

We wanted a Guerrero, Mexico cherub, and we found one we loved in a shop on Isla Mujeres. A wall plaque about a yard wide, it featured a wonderful cherub whose cheeks where filled with air and whose lips were blowing a mighty wind. Sadly, we walked away, and by the time we had convinced ourselves that we had to have it we could no longer find the shop. This little guy is smaller, but we are delighted we found him. He hangs in the kitchen where he can supervise the cooking and keep an eye on the White Goat (above).

Butterfly Man

V. Winslow: Cecil Honeychurch, 2020. Wool.
Artist’s statement: “My needle-felting phase began with a number of small animals, followed by a peaceful yet wildly creative period of crafting Easter eggs and experimenting with wet-felting. In mid-2020, tired of the browns and grays of woodland creatures but running low on the brilliant colors used for my spring line of eggs and fascinators, I decided to branch out and attempt a more complex, humanoid work. It was only after his tiny black eyes were in place that I realized the truth about Cecil: He was meant to have butterfly wings. So now he does.” 

Fairy house

V. Winslow: Fairy House, a Ruin, 2020. Mixed media.
Artist’s statement: “Well, if you think you can do any better, then be my guest.”

♦♦♦

Next, highlights from the LGMFA’s collection of European artists:

Picasso1

Pablo Picasso: Citando Al Toro con la Capa (Provoking the Bull with the Cape) from the series La Tauromaquia, 1957. Print.

Acquired by the LGMFA in 2010 in Barcelona, we purchased this print and another in the same series from a sidewalk vendor across from the Museu Picasso. The title shown above may be incorrect. During our visit to Spain, we also traveled to the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres to view major and minor works by Salvador Dalí. Notes from that excursion read: “The art included very little in the way of explanation—there weren’t even the usual small signs that told the year of the work. Ernesto was able to drift in and out of a Spanish-language school group, and he picked up some info that way. He told me that according to the teacher, Dalí dismissed Picasso as being ‘too Spanish’ (as opposed to universal, I suppose), and after that I was annoyed at Dalí and wanted no more to do with him.”

Roses Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh: Roses, 1890. Poster.
Since 1995, this piece has traveled widely, with extended showings in Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri. The print is now permanently housed in the Little Gallery of Mighty Fine Arts located in central North Carolina. As a tribute to van Gogh and in celebration of one of the gallery’s earliest acquisitions, Ernesto recently enacted van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear in our early-season sunflower patch.

It was 90 degrees outside. We all suffer for our art.

If you haven’t yet seen the animated film Loving Vincent, you really should. All of the music is fabulous, but stay through the credits to hear Don McLean’s “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” sung by Lianne La Havas. Or listen at the link provided, as you enjoy your own home art collection. 

 

TP Bear

In a continuing effort to stay cheerful, I am still experimenting with new recipes and projects that in normal circumstances it would never cross my mind to try. Isn’t it funny the strange things that do cross one’s mind in the middle of a global pandemic?

Case in point: Have any of us ever spent so much time thinking about toilet paper—its availability, its necessity to daily life, possible alternatives? Tuesday morning I did the grocery run, and there was no toilet paper to be found. The very next day, while visiting my parents and delivering a nonessential treat (see Recipe 3) in exchange for homegrown radishes, my dad returned from a trip to the store. He came through the door from the garage, dropped off a couple of bags on the washing machine, then went into the pantry with a bulky item under his arm.

“What’s that you’ve got under your arm?” I asked, knowing full well what it was.

“Toilet paper—twelve rolls!” he said. “But I had to get Food Lion brand.”

Who cares what brand it is? The last time I found any it was at the Dollar General, a brand called Colortex. I haven’t opened that package yet, so I can’t comment on its quality, but I have a pretty good idea of what it will be like. The other option available that day didn’t even have a name. The package was simply labeled, in extra-large letters, “SAFE FOR SEPTIC TANKS!”

I left my parents’ house immediately and went straight to Food Lion, but I was too late.

Recipe 1:  Tricking Out My Black Bear

I am sharing that story just so you’ll understand where my head was when, scrolling through Pinterest for needle-felting projects, I stopped at a realistic bear, beautifully done. The bear stood nobly upright, complete with accessories; a folded newspaper was tucked under his left forearm, and his right paw held a miniature roll of toilet paper. Obviously he had been in the woods or was en route to the woods. The bear’s roll of toilet paper made me think: My own needle-felted black bear sits on a shelf in the hall bathroom; shouldn’t he have a tiny roll, too? So I made him one. It was a matter of minutes to cut and glue a wee cardboard core from a spent roll of Angel Soft, and then I  cut strips from a napkin and painstakingly wound them onto the core, gluing it in place as needed.

I realized, of course, that this didn’t mean that I now had the power to create toilet paper out of thin air, but it felt powerful all the same.

Recipe 2:  Incredible Peppermint Laundry Detergent

Back in early March as we began preparing for these uncertain times, I bought a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap (peppermint). I thought it might be smart to have a large supply of multi-functional soap on hand. (Like the label says, “Dilute! Dilute! OK!”) Dr. Bronner's SoapMaybe you’ve noticed Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap in stores—the ones with his All-One speech printed on them in an itty bitty font. Not only do you get a lot of soap for $14.99, you also get philosophy. Can’t beat that deal.

Now, it is a fact that the soap can be poured directly into the washing machine as-is, but where is the fun in that? Why settle for easy when there are Pinterest recipes for more complex formulations? While not strictly necessary, these recipes will stretch out your supply of Dr. Bronner’s and (most importantly) give you a project that spans two days! The version I chose used half a cup of the soap combined with baking soda, washing soda, and water. It gets all gelatinous and thick overnight, and it smells divine. The next morning you blend or whisk the thickened gel until it loosens up.  

I also purchased a bar of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap to try my hand at wet-felting. It worked beautifully, and I now have a wool-encased pepperminty soap bar that I love (pictured below).

Peppermint Soap

Even if you don’t feel like making your own laundry detergent, you should go to the Dr. Bronner’s website and check out the founder’s story. Emanuel (“Emil”) Bronner left Germany before World War II and came to America, bringing his family’s soap-making skills and his All-One philosophy with him. The site notes this interesting landmark in the 1940s:

“Emil adopts honorific ‘Dr.’—with his intensity, scientific knowledge and thick German accent, no one argues.”

Recipe 3:  Homemade Tootsie Rolls 

Tootsie 2We love Tootsie Rolls, so when I found a recipe for homemade ones, I knew I had to try it. This is candy-making as craft project; the process reminds me of those old recipes for edible clay. Am I the only person who remembers edible clay? Anyway, I think this version is a little healthier than others I saw online. It uses cocoa instead of melted chocolate, honey instead of corn syrup, and only one-quarter cup of powdered sugar. The one pantry item that you will probably have to go out and buy (unless you’re a prepper) is nonfat dry milk. I tweaked the recipe a bit, adding one-eighth of a teaspoon of orange extract to the mix. 

The reviews on homemade Tootsie Rolls run hot and cold—basically, they either succeed and you love them, or they fail and you hate them. Or, to paraphrase one commenter with a totally different point of view, “I would make these, but I’d rather just buy them.” I loved them. The kneading of the dough is very therapeutic, and the recipe only makes about two dozen candies so you’re not producing more than you can comfortably consume. I had to make a second batch to have enough to barter for radishes. Yes, it’s slightly tedious to cut waxed paper and wrap each piece individually, but the quicker you wrap them the less time they sit there on the kitchen counter looking like fresh poop.

Recipe 4: Suet Cakes

Birdseed is one of the items that seems to be in short supply around here. Also, it goes very quickly because nothing we do keeps the squirrels out of it. We have tried greasing Suet Cakesthe poles that our bird feeders hang from, and that is entertaining for about half a day as we watch the squirrels try to climb up, only to go sliding back down. But after several slides, all the grease has been transferred to the squirrels’ paws, and they simply wipe their little paws on the grass a few times and up they scamper. There’s just not enough grease in the world to make this a workable solution.

Suet cakes last longer than seed, and I can make them myself even when they aren’t available to buy. I’ve adapted a recipe I found that is very simple: Melt one cup of lard and one cup of chunky peanut butter over low heat until fully liquefied, then remove from the heat and stir in 3 cups of corn meal and 2 cups of quick oats (or you can reverse it to 2 cups of corn meal and 3 cups of oats). You can also mix in other stuff that might be around, including nuts or even birdseed if you’ve got plenty. Press this mixture into molds of some sort—the plastic containers that fresh mushrooms come in are perfect (as shown above), or you can use loaf pans and cut the final product in half to fit your feeder—then chill until firm. A single batch will make four cakes (five, if you keep them a little thinner). The suet cakes can be frozen for longer-term storage.

Recipe 5:  Wild Violet Tea Pie

Until recently I had never heard of Water Pie. Also known as Depression Pie, or as my friend Jeanne calls it, “Desperation Pie,” Water Pie was a project I tackled because it got in my head and I couldn’t shake it out. It had to be made. In essence, you pour water into an unbaked pie crust, sprinkle on a mixture of sugar and flour, drizzle in some vanilla, and launch five pats of butter into the pool. Then you bake it a long time and let it chill in the fridge overnight.

What kept me pondering this pie was the idea that it needn’t be plain water. It could be lemony water, or tea, like the Sweet Tea Pie we had last winter at the Nothing Fancy Café in Edenton, North Carolina. Then I remembered my white clover and wild violet teas, both of which have (it is said) immune-boosting, antioxidant benefits. So I went out and harvested enough wild violet leaves to brew a cup and a half of tea, and then proceeded with the recipe. The liquid and other ingredients, which you do not stir or mix at all, come together into a sort of gelatin. A gelatin with antioxidant powers! I didn’t take a photo of the pie before it was gone, but there are some nice shots on the site with the recipe that will give you the idea of how it looks. I don’t think making it with violet tea instead of water changes the overall appearance.

A side note on the crust: I bought the Food Lion brand frozen deep-dish pie crust, which I found to be absolutely outstanding. If Food Lion toilet paper is of similar quality, then my parents have nothing to be concerned about.

Bottom Line

Never underestimate the level of satisfaction that even a silly project can bring during a shelter-in-place order.  

Spring Work

Dogwood at sunset.4 1 2020

One evening this week, as the sun began to set, the little dogwood in our front yard filled with late-afternoon sunshine and held it. As John Muir, the naturalist, conservationist, and champion of American national parks once said: 

Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.

The dogwood is going about its spring work not only with joyful enthusiasm, but with a flair for the dramatic that makes me very proud. I feel the tree is a kindred spirit, because part of my spring work this year has also been an attempt to hold sunshine and preserve it. Here are three recent projects:

Dandelion salve. Dandelion salveA reportedly pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory ointment, dandelion salve may or may not ease the pain of arthritis, but it absolutely glows like trapped sunlight. Knowing that I could harvest dandelions to make salve transformed my ill-will toward dandelions. Suddenly, having more dandelions in the yard than anyone else on earth became a point of pride, something to celebrate. I collected a cup or two of the blooms, made a dandelion-infused oil, then performed the necessary magic that turned it into actual, successful, impressively rich and golden salve. I gave a good portion of the batch to my dad for testing. He said it makes his hands shiny.

A scarecrow! 

Another spring project that we tackled with enthusiasm was the making of our first scarecrow. We hope he’ll keep the critters and birds from eating our young garden. I have tied lengths of twine to his hands, with aluminum pie pans on the ends, thinking that when they blow in the wind they might startle the more nervous rabbits. After we got the scarecrow up, I had him model nearly every hat and helmet we had in the house. That last one is a fascinator, which would be nice for Easter but honestly wasn’t nearly as becoming as some of the other choices. It seems almost to enhance his pallor.

Wildflower teas. Recently a vast crop of white clover blossoms appeared near the back door, so this morning I brewed a quart of white clover tea. There it is at left, quietly humming along. White Clover TeaDoesn’t our Mexican cherub almost look as if he plans to take a dip in the tea? This is the second wildflower tea I’ve brewed this season, out of an abundance of flowers, an unusual amount of free time, and (most importantly) access to the wonderful website Grow Forage Cook Ferment (also responsible for the salve, above). Wild violets—we have them in purple and white, scattered all over our five acres—made a lovely teal-colored tea. Both teas taste of spring and are perfectly pleasant, especially when sweetened with a drop of honey. I have read that violet and clover teas are anti-inflammatory and bolster the immune system, which are strong arguments in their favor no matter what they taste like. On the other hand, having had two cups of iced clover tea in a five-hour span, I am beginning to wonder if the muscles in my back are seizing up. They feel a bit odd.

Come to think of it, I probably shouldn’t drink strange brews with such gusto, but should sample them judiciously first. But don’t you feel that judiciousness is anathema to joyful enthusiasm? That being so, I say let my muscles seize up! I will rub them with dandelion salve, and if I am not healed, at least I’ll be shiny.

Keeping Cheerful

 

Eggs 3 15 20

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. – Wendell Berry

I have the nicest little black-and-white mug that my sister Robin gave me (see photo above). On one side, a child marches in the snow with great determination. On the opposite side is a little verse, called “Keeping Cheerful.”

If it’s snowing, or it’s hailing,
Or late Winter checks the Spring—
If the northern wind is wailing,
Still this heart of mine will sing.

The mug’s bottom says that it’s from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but there’s no indication of who wrote the verse. The writer may have been influenced by Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” from which the quotation above was pulled.

Late Winter has not checked the Spring here in North Carolina, though the temperature is a little cooler at present. I believe the freezing weather, ice, and snow are behind us. But it feels like we’ve been through a long lead-up to a serious snow day, with everyone rushing out to get toilet paper (why?), alcohol, and hand sanitizer to protect against the coronavirus. Now we are mostly sheltering in place and avoiding contact with others, metaphorically (or perhaps literally) barricaded behind a wall of Charmin Ultra Soft. Well, that’s my brand of choice. Yours may differ.

So while we wait to see how this pandemic plays out, I am trying to keep cheerful by staying busy. Back in November, I ordered a supply of wool roving, needles, and leather finger guards to do more felting projects. This craft is perfect for me, because all you have to do is stab a barbed needle repeatedly into wool until it sticks together and turns into something. It is therapeutic, except for the inevitable stab wounds to one’s hands, and an excellent way to work out stress or anxiety. And then you end up with a super-cute black bear, like this guy! He has an oddly round head but is very comforting to hold and squeeze.

Bear

In anticipation of Easter, I’ve also felted several Easter eggs and a vivid gold chick.  (Speaking of chicks, we picked up ten Rhode Island Red biddies from Southern States in Pittsboro last Saturday. They are cute, and doing great so far. We should have fresh eggs by mid-July, if all goes as planned and the predators don’t upset the coop. Again.)

During my research of needle-felting techniques and projects, I came across some very interesting information on wet-felting. My largest Easter egg was felted using that method, which was quick and fun. Basically, you wrap wool roving around the egg, tuck the egg into the foot of an old pair of hose, and then dip it in hot water and massage it with soap. This turns the wool fibers into felt fabric while coincidentally sanitizing your hands to a degree that most people can only dream of.

Inspired by this success and Pinterest photos of felted hats, on Saturday afternoon I took all of my pink wool roving (dark and light) and tried a wet-felting technique to make myself a sort of fascinator. See?!

Fascinator

Well, okay, let’s just go ahead and call it a potholder. Potholdinator? I do think it gives our Seagrove face jug a little extra flair.

jug with fascinator

Oh, no. I forgot I’m not supposed to touch my face jug.  

Hang on to your compassion during these difficult times, be good to your neighbors and others who may need your help, and keep as cheerful as you can. Remember the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, who is something of an expert on difficult times. After all, she lived during the Black Plague and in seclusion, and yet one of her most important messages to the world was this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

Amen.

The wrong cornbread.

If you have known me for more than 15 minutes you probably know that I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly and tall, or cakelike. Grandma’s cornbread was flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have ever found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe in The Joy of Cooking. The name just about nails it, but it’s not exactly right, either.

I have the written recipe—I was alert enough to ask Grandma for it before she died—but it has never turned out right for me, and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong. I should have carefully measured the ingredients she used, noted the brand of cornmeal, and stolen the pan she baked it in. What I do know is this: Her recipe began with softening two or three biscuits in hot water. She then stirred in cornmeal, salt, and milk. As the oven preheated, she put lard (or shortening) in a 10 X 7 pan and placed it in the oven to melt. Once it melted she took it out and added the batter, which baked in a hot oven until browned.

That recipe has never worked for me. I have many sheets of paper with different versions of Grandma’s recipe—with two biscuits, three biscuits, self-rising cornmeal, white cornmeal, yellow cornmeal, an egg, more hot water, less milk. And yes, I am keeping very careful notes each time I make it, in hopes that one day I’ll hit it right and have the magic formula. (One of these variations even has a note written next to it: “This may be it!” The next time I used those instructions to make cornbread, it didn’t work out at all.)

Several years ago, at my uncle’s funeral in eastern North Carolina, one of the many items brought to the house for the family was a plate of cornbread. It looked like Grandma’s. When I tasted it, it tasted like Grandma’s. “Who brought this cornbread?” I demanded. Word came back to me that it was from a neighbor and distant cousin by marriage. Not being the time or place, precisely, to order someone to bring me that recipe, I made more gentle inquiries later on. Evidently they were too gentle.

This winter while visiting my cousins and aunt, I decided it was time to try again. I said to my cousin Rob, “I want to try to get that cornbread recipe. I believe it’s made the same way as Grandma’s.”

Rob pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll ask her right now,” he said, and he sent a text message to the neighbor/cousin. Within minutes, he had it, and in a few more seconds, so did I. My euphoria was brief; the ingredients list included Jiffy cornbread mix and a can of corn. It had sugar in it. This was modern cornbread, and not the ancient version I craved.

Still, I figured what the hell? I might as well give it a shot. So I did, and the cornbread was delicious. But it was not Grandma’s.

Hopes dashed, I remembered hearing that Rob’s sister, my cousin Dianne, had also been interested in recreating Grandma’s cornbread. I figured it was time to join forces. I wrote to her by e-mail of my failures, my dreams, and my disappointment. She wrote back:

Well, if you are going to work at it you may as well have what I have.  We took Grandma’s recipe, Grandmama Lane’s recipe, and Mama on the phone and Chuck came up with a recipe.  His even has notes on what to do when there is no milk!  As I was going through the box, I found Miss Sybil’s too.  I don’t think we tried it.  Chuck’s is good.  It’s just not Grandma’s.  

Not only had Dianne sent her version of Grandma’s recipe, she had sent Miss Sybil’s, Chuck’s, and her Grandmama Lane’s. She also sent copies of recipes in Grandma’s handwriting for a number of other things: Apple Snack Cake, Brownies, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Yellow Cake. It was like hitting the jackpot at a slot machine, and having jillions of coins come spilling out. I didn’t know whether to collect them all carefully in a bucket, or roll on the floor and let them rain down on me.

I tried following Dianne’s version of Grandma’s recipe, which differed from mine slightly, but not enough to make a difference in the finished product. Once again, I was out of luck. Dispirited, I vowed (again) never to try to make cornbread again, at least not in an attempt to make it like Grandma’s.

But of course I will. Because there’s always a moment, right before I taste the cornbread, when I feel like I might have it. It smells wonderful, and the top is dark golden brown, and the edges are brown and crispy. In that moment I feel as if the spell is broken, and this pan of bread is exactly what I have yearned for over so many years.

And frankly, that feeling is worth a lot.

So I know I will try again at some point, but in the meantime I’ve been making a more modern bread product: Keto Biscuits. I’m not sure where the original recipe came from, exactly, so I can’t credit the cook. But I have renamed it to bring it in line with my eastern North Carolina roots. Because the biscuits are made in a jumbo muffin tin and come out looking rather like low-rise muffins, I call them “muscuits.”

Muscuits
(makes 6)
1 ½ c. almond flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tblsp. baking powder
2 eggs
1/3 c. sour cream
4 tblsp. melted butter

Whisk the sour cream into the melted butter, then whisk in the eggs. Add dry ingredients and blend. Spoon batter into a jumbo muffin pan and bake at 400 degrees until brown (about 13 minutes).

Muscuits are good with muscadine jelly (naturally), but they are also delicious with sausage and yellow mustard, or ham, or with soups and stews. They are hearty, providing the strength and fortification needed to tackle any challenge—like a fresh attempt at making Grandma’s cornbread.

#Delighted

Fred and Ginger, “Follow the Fleet,” 1936

I recently came across an essay from Wilson Quarterly, the spring 1994 issue. The title is “Goodnight, Delight,” and something about it compelled me to make a copy and tuck it away (more about the tucking later).

The author, James Morris, takes about three pages to complain about how awful times are and how lacking in lightness, in humor—in delight. His launching pad was a question Barbara Walters had asked in an interview (he doesn’t mention who she was interviewing, but I think it was Bill Clinton). What sort of tree would he be, if he could be a tree?

All right, it’s not a brilliant question, but Morris takes it much too personally. From the depths of an apparently deep despair, he wonders what sort of tree would sum up the 1990s:

A lemon tree, maybe, and if not the entire tree, then its workaday fruit, which might roll to the corner of the produce department and lie unnoticed for days, sour and yellow and softening. Not unlike the times. We live in a lemon of an age, and if it came with a warranty, we’d be entitled to a refund.

Then he riffs on how horrid everything is:

The popular culture is starved for wit and lightness and ingenuity, and the society is full of groups determined to jump till every soufflé falls.

We are losing our capacity for delight.

Mr. Morris goes on to say that the 1930s, in contrast, were certainly dark times, and yet delight was still abundant! He points to one particular example, and I think it was this description that made me want to save the article (I can’t imagine what else appealed to me about it):

Perhaps the most gravely beautiful dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever performed occurs in the otherwise frivolous 1936 film Follow the Fleet. Gamblers down on their luck and close to despair, the two meet on an absurdly elegant casino rooftop, where each has come to commit suicide. They look like a million and are worth not a buck. Out of their individual gloom, to Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” they create ravishing romantic images (Ginger in a sexy dress that moves with a will of its own), and they leave together as lovers, arm in arm. Just before they exit the stage, when the dance seems done, there is a moment so surprising and audacious that it stirs the purest delight. The pair sink side by side to one knee, rise slowly, move backward, then forward several paces; suddenly they arch their backs, lift one knee high and triumphant, and lunge into the wings, the dark, the future.

Mr. Morris is a fine poet when he wants to be. But then he relapses:

[M]any of us are counting the days till our grim ghost gets the boot. Until then, goodnight, delight. Sleep well and keep your beauty. Your time will come round again.

I have saved Mr. Morris’s piece for many years, and I can tell him that in spite of everything, delight is not sleeping. You may have to look around for it, though. I found “Goodnight, Delight” in a 3-ring binder of recipes, toward the back. I often save things I like among my recipes, because it’s a guaranteed way of not losing them entirely. I’ll be frantically looking for an old page ripped from Southern Living that has a recipe for cream cheese pie crust and catch sight of something else I’d thought worth saving. “Oh, look!” I think. “There’s that thing I liked.” It slows down progress in the kitchen, but gives me a pleasant little surprise, a flash of delight.

What delights me may not delight you, so I can’t draw up a list of things that are guaranteed to sweep your grim ghosts aside. I can only share those delightful bits and pieces that I have saved, such as the following piece entitled “Bloopers from Church Bulletins.” I have no idea where it came from, so can’t give credit (or assign blame) where it’s due. I think it’s nearly as delightful as Fred and Ginger, though a tad less elegant.

Bloopers from Church Bulletins

  • Scouts are saving aluminum cans, bottles, and other items to be recycled. Proceeds will be used to cripple children.
  • The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on people who are not afflicted with any church.
  • Morning message: “Jesus Walks on Water.” Evening message: “Searching for Jesus.”
  • The Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Please use the back door.
  • The third verse of “Blessed Assurance” will be sung without musical accomplishment.
  • For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
  • Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.
  • The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the church basement on Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.
  • The concert held in Fellowship Hall was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who labored the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.
  • 22 members were present at the church meeting held at the home of Mrs. Marsha Crutchfield last evening. Mrs. Crutchfield and Mrs. Rankin sang a duet, “The Lord Knows Why.”
  • Today’s Sermon: HOW MUCH CAN A MAN DRINK? with hymns from a full choir.
  • Hymn 43: “Great God, what do I see here?”
  • Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.
  • Pastor is on vacation. Massages can be given to church secretary.

Now go find your own delight.

Conjuring Snow

Winter, circa 1972

Ferguson Road is a short leg of my daily commute, and the most mysterious. Punctuated by small bridges on each end, it curves to connect two more important roads. The bridge on the end that is dark and heavily wooded is prone to flooding and has been closed several times this fall, when rain- and snowfall exceeded the creek’s ability to cope.

There are houses spaced out along Ferguson, but the area maintains an air of unsettled wildness. I’m sure it’s mostly imagined on my part, because there are farms and late-model cars and power lines—all the usual signs of civilization. But Ferguson has a nostalgic spirit, as if time has stopped and we may have slipped back in a world with no cell phones, home computers, or doorbell security systems.

One house on Ferguson has always been my special favorite during the holidays. It had cedar trees in the front yard, and the family (an imagined family; I never saw a soul around) ran an invisible line between two of them on which they hung a flurry of homemade paper snowflakes. I loved those snowflakes. They were perfectly charming and non-commercial. I often thought about leaving a card in the mailbox to thank that sweet family for their gift, but I never did.

The snowflakes didn’t appear last year. This season the largest cedar at that house was filled with multi-colored lighted orbs. They were pretty, but didn’t give me the same sense of magic as the snowflakes strung on the line. I wonder if the children who lived in that house used to hang the snowflakes as a way to attract real snow and a day off from school. Maybe they had grown too old to cut paper snowflakes and yearn for snow days.

One of my co-workers in St. Louis had a daughter who, though a good student and socially well-adjusted, was devoted to trying every possible spell to make it snow and avoid school. She wore her mittens to bed, put a spoon beneath her pillow, and turned her pajamas inside out. Sometimes these tricks worked, sometimes they didn’t. Maybe the lesson is that dedication and vigilance are the elements most required to eke out a little magic.

Missing the paper snowflakes, I decided to write a sestude about them, to go with the vintage photo I found this week of Holli walking toward the pond with Lucy following behind.

Paper snowflakes cut and glittered to decorate the classroom had been brought low, discarded to make room for fresh art. She gathered them all in her backpack and flew homeward, entranced by a vision: flurries displayed from the winter-still clothesline, a charm to conjure a snowfall. Suspended from lines of floss, the snowflakes spiraled gently—brushing her bare head, dazzling the air.

I love this photo, and finding it was like discovering a hint of old magic. Maybe I’ve been sleeping with my pajamas inside out and didn’t even know it.

Seven Wonders

Metric Wonder Cup

Some time back I was making a honey walnut pie, and of course I used my Metric Wonder Cup to measure out the honey. I bought the Wonder Cup at one of those parties where kitchen items are demonstrated and sold. It is a plain thing, but its brash name and elegant simplicity elevate it to a true wonder. As seen in the photo from Etsy (where it’s no longer available, but where at one time it was presented very beautifully with lace and linen), the cup has a solid yellow plastic cylinder that slides into a clear plastic measuring cup to form a moveable bottom. The idea is to push the yellow core down from the top until the proper measure shows on the upper, clear part of the cup. Then you fill the open part with something sticky (peanut butter, honey, molasses) and push the yellow sliding cylinder up. As it slides, it scrapes the sides clean and pushes every molecule of honey into your mixing bowl.  

I know that in the grand scheme of things this is of little consequence. But I will take my wonders where I can get them, and lately I find myself needing them to counterbalance the unwonderful, non-delightful, far-from-enchanting issues that dominate world news. If only I could spread around some of the homey, comforting things that make life tolerable, surely the world would be a slightly better place.

Here are a few random wonders that make me cheerful:

Honey Walnut Pie

Not only is the Wonder Cup itself a wonder, the honey walnut pie that it helped me bake is fairly wonderful, too. It contains no refined sugar; it’s just honey, eggs, butter, nuts, and a little vanilla and nutmeg. Here is the recipe, which I found back in 2012 on a pretty blog called Romancing the Bee.

What makes this pie a wonder is the Miracle of the Eggs that takes place during the making of it. Once you bring the honey to a boil, you pour in the beaten eggs. This immediately causes a reaction similar to combining baking soda and vinegar (though not as violent). But the eggs don’t scramble, which to me qualifies as miraculous. A couple of times some white strands of egg remain ropy and won’t go away. When that happened I took care to strain them out before adding the other ingredients. I lost enough of the filling that my pie ended up a bit shallow.

Still, the pie was popular in my family, so I shared the recipe with a friend who wanted less sugar in her diet, too. She told me afterward that she really enjoyed it. Only then did I confess. “Sometimes I get white strands of egg that won’t incorporate into the honey,” I told her. “Did you have that problem?”

“Yeah,” she said, quite matter-of-factly, “I had a couple of ghosts.”

Now that I think of the white streaks as ghosts, I’m no longer haunted by them.

Family Recipes

My friend Kathy recently sent me a photo of an old recipe for chocolate cake that was her mother’s. We were laughing (via e-mail) about the fact that so many of the old recipes that get handed down don’t have anything like complete instructions. This one was really just a list of ingredients, and the rest she had to muddle through and figure out. She told me that her grandmother used to make a topping for angel food cake, and the recipe called for a “big tub of whipped topping” and a “39-cent Hershey bar with almonds.”

I love this description from another friend, Frieda, who wrote me about her grandmother’s miraculous biscuits: “…the best biscuits in the whole world. She used no recipe and never ever used a measuring spoon or cup. She knew just the right height for flour piles, just the right size for lard globs, and just the right number of buttermilk glugs; voila— perfect biscuits every time.”

I guess we’re all muddling through, most of the time, with only a dim idea of what we should be doing, and in what order, and what size pan we need.

The wonder is that things often do come out perfectly fine in the end. So find an old family recipe and see if you can work through its mysteries.

Eastern North Carolina Barbecue

I had two servings of Hursey’s barbecue this week—always a good thing. About the only barbecue that compares to it is Eddie’s. Eddie has in the past made barbecue as a fundraiser for my parents’ church, and his was so delicious that I begged a copy of the sauce recipe from him.

“When are you going to make another batch?” I asked him, since I would rather eat his barbecue than go to the trouble of making my own.

“Never,” he vowed. He then described how, after building a roaring fire in a 250-gallon drum, the flames leaped 20 feet into the air, and could be seen by cars as they turned off of Highway 49 some miles away. The heat caused the drum to turn cherry red, and the rebar Eddie had positioned inside to hold up the wood disintegrated. He also blistered his own face.

As my father would say, “Anything worthwhile is hard.” 

Grady Comes Home

Don’t think that every wonder is food-related (though many certainly are). Last winter we lost a dear friend and co-worker, Frances. Her cat, Grady, was an outside cat and it took a little while for Frances’ daughters to find him a good local home. Or really any home at all. Ultimately, Jeanne and Bill accepted Grady into their household, already stocked with two daughters, a dog, and a house cat. When I asked how Grady was settling in, Jeanne told me that he spent a lot of time being nervous, running into their basement when startled. He also crept underneath the house in general, and because he has a large, bushy tail he often emerged with things stuck in it, like moths and cobwebs and dust bunnies.

“Do you know what’s funny?” Jeanne said. “Bill’s grandfather’s name was Grady. Our house once belonged to him.” 

Ice Formations in the Bird Bath

In 2016, we had a small wonder crop up overnight in our bird bath.

Ice Spike 4

2016: Ice vase

As I wrote at the time:

One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

It was. I read about these formations (ours was what some people call an “ice vase”), which are similar and somewhat related to the crystals of ice that sometimes form in the soil. Evidently they require a certain freeze-thaw cycle and specific temperature fluctuations and soft water.

Imagine my delight when, this winter, our bird bath came through a second time, and an ice candle appeared in it one morning. I could hardly believe our great good luck. Unlike the ice vase, the ice candle was solid, but it was wonderful even so and from certain angles resembled a penguin.

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2018: Ice candle

Brenda and Frieda

Good neighbors are the 7th wonder of my collection, and possibly the 7th wonder of the world in general. Brenda lives a quarter-mile up Redbud Lane from us, and I’ve spoken of her before, noting her nearly magical tendency to stop by the house and leave something I needed (or didn’t know I wanted) each time. Persimmon pulp, black-eyed Susans of unusual size and beauty, fried apple pies—Brenda is an inexhaustible fountain of wonders. She gave us a rose bush not long after we moved in, and it is thriving. This year she appears to have taken our front yard under her wing entirely. She has lavished us with another rose bush, two large hostas, one of her black-eyed Susans, a lavender bush, six or either blackberry plants that are just beginning to produce, and various day lilies. Twice she has come over and just planted things while we were at work, including a mystery flower that she placed in the large and sterile pot beside the garage (the squirrels kept removing my plantings from that pot and replacing them with hickory nuts). Brenda doesn’t remember the name of that one, but says it will have a purple flower. I wouldn’t be surprised if it bloomed extravagantly, opening to reveal a tiny image of Brenda’s face in the center.

Frieda is exactly like Brenda, only she lives farther away and conducts some of her magic more remotely. Knowing that Ernesto and I are without a kitchen as it undergoes a major renovation, she has been tireless in the provision of delicious things to keep us fed: poppy seed chicken casserole, squash casserole, and an aptly named Paradise Salad. Since her husband visits my parents’ house once a week for a church singing group practice, she often sends things to me via Don. I’ll get an e-mail letting me know to expect it, and all I have to do is pass by my parents’ house on my way home from work. (Don’t ask me how I got to be so richly blessed. It’s obviously not deserved, unless the level of my gratitude counts as a virtue. Maybe it does.) Frieda also shared with me this week a copy of a book called Friends at Holly Spring, about the early Quakers in North Carolina and specifically in Randolph County. It includes this tidbit of information about the early Quaker settlers: “For a hundred years and more in many communities, the living room was called “the house” to distinguish it from the kitchen area….” I felt a happy shock when I read that, because my Quaker grandparents in Perquimans County always referred to the living room as “the house.” Probably Grandma just wanted to get us all out of her kitchen when we sat too long around the table after a big meal. “Come on in the house,” she’d say, and we’d walk the six or eight steps from the table to the living room. But what perfect delight to have that memory awakened so unexpectedly.

Homework

I know you must have at least seven things of your own that qualify as wonders. Do this for me: Write them down, and see if you don’t feel miraculously uplifted. Then, while you’re still feeling uplifted, think of something special that you can share with someone else. It will help make the world a more wonderful place.

Ginger Pig

A ginger pig from Cane Creek Farm

Some years back I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s book, Cross Creek Cookery. Rawlings is most famous for her book The Yearling, a coming-of-age story about a Florida boy and the fawn he tames. Rawlings also wrote a memoirish sort of book called Cross Creek, named for her home in central Florida (now a state park). She talked so much in that book about food, that she was compelled by her fans to follow it up with a cookbook, and that (obviously) is Cross Creek Cookery. Anyway, it included a recipe for Baked Peanut Ham with Sherry. Your first thought, like mine, may be that peanuts don’t have hams, and if they did have them they would be tiny.  Reading further, though, it seems that Rawlings was talking about a ham from a pig that had been fed peanuts. But before she got to the point of explaining how she prepared her ham with sherry, she talked about ham in general. She confessed that she is not addicted to the aged Kentucky and Virginia hams that some people love, adding:

Moreover, the choice old country hams are so valuable and valued that one feels guilty in eating as much as one wishes, and is expected to nibble daintily on wafer-thin wisps. This convention once ended a friendship of long standing. A friend had an old Kentucky ham as the pièce de résistance at a Christmas buffet supper. She was horrified to discover a respectable lawyer standing at the buffet board, hacking off half-pound wedges of the sacred ham, and eating as fast as he hacked.

“I never, ” he said fatuously, “ate such delicious ham.”

He was never invited to her house again.

Ernesto and I have had our share of delicious ham, especially choice bits that we ate during our travels in Spain and Portugal. But I must say that I don’t like wafer-thin wisps, either. I like large portions.

Recently, Ernesto—who has long wished to purchase half a hog from a local, reputable farm that he can process as he wishes—found that a class on butchering was being offered this weekend by the Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw. The notice read:

A Celebration of the Pig.

Join us for a ride all the way down the rabbit hole with a full day of hands-on butchery, curing meats, and making sausages, followed by an in-depth farm tour at Cane Creek Farm.

Because the day included breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a bonfire by the river, I was happy to sign on. Besides, if there is going to be a celebration of the pig, you can always count me in. I love pigs. Maybe it’s wrong, but I love them alive and I love to eat them, too.

But as the weekend approached, the weather turned nasty. We saw it coming, and on Thursday we got an e-mail saying that the day would go forward almost as planned, but the bonfire and riverside cookout were no longer on the agenda. Also, we should bring an extra pair of boots for the farm tour.

I don’t have the right pair of boots for a muddy farm tour, so I stopped at my mom and dad’s Friday afternoon to see if they had some I could borrow. I was in luck. Daddy said, “I think there’s a pair in the closet of the laundry room.” I went to check it out, and sure enough, there was a tidy little pair of black Totes rain boots, with fur lining. They were not only perfect, they were adorable. I tried them on, and they were just a tiny bit big. I could not have been more pleased.

“Let’s just hope they haven’t dry-rotted,” Daddy said, “or your feet will get wet.” But the boots were perfect in every way.

Yesterday morning, we packed up our boots, extra socks, rain gear, hats, and a cooler and headed to Saxapahaw. With my bonfire hopes dashed, I have to say I set off with more determination than enthusiasm, but I did look forward to wearing my super-cute little boots. And eating ham.

The day started off beautifully. We drank coffee and ate enormous sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits from the Saxapahaw General Store. Then we gathered around a half of a butchered hog (slightly more than half, since the head was still on) and Ross Flynn, our teacher, gave an overview of the day’s events and then divided us into two groups. One group of six left with Logan, the master sausage maker, to make sausage in another classroom. Ernesto, three other students, and I stayed with Ross and began to dismantle the hog. Ernesto did some sawing and cutting, but I mostly just observed and took a few photos as the others brandished their knives.

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Ross Flynn of Left Bank Butchery instructs Ernesto on sawing off a hog’s leg.

For lunch we had delicious schnitzel sandwiches and homemade pineapple coconut soda from Haw River Farmhouse Ales, then we switched, and our group made sausage with Logan while the other group dismantled the second (headless) half of the hog. (Eventually, all of us divvied up the pork chops and bacon and sausage and various other bits that we carved and took it home.)

It had been drizzling rain off and on all day, and when we arrived (stylishly booted) at Cane Creek Farm, the rain was coming down pretty steady. Eliza MacLean, the owner, gave an introduction to the farm under the shelter of her carport, where she had thoughtfully provided hot chocolate. Then we went on a walking tour of the farm, beginning with the farrowing house, where three sows and thirty piglets sent any lingering regrets over the loss of the bonfire flying off and forgotten. I would rather see piglets any day, and these were little and spotted and sweet.

Then, as Eliza described the property and how the hogs were used to clear and fertilize the land,  we walked down to see the pigs that lived among the woods, further from the house. Midway to the pig pens, I heard a flapping noise and noticed that the left sole of my Totes boot had come loose at the heel. Ernesto thought that was the funniest thing ever, as I tried to walk through the wet grass with one sole flopping. Then the right sole commenced to flap. “Oh, crap,” I said, “now they’re both loose.” About that time, the left one detached completely, so I picked it up.

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The first sole falls off.

“Give me your phone, give me your phone,” Ernesto said, and stopped laughing long enough to get a shot of me holding my left boot sole. He then insisted that I share it with my parents right away. While the rest of our group heard what I’m sure was excellent information about the humane treatment of livestock, we hung back and I sent the message. Then we walked on, and my right boot sole fell off. I was four yards away before I realized I’d left it behind. I went back and fetched it.

By then I had a reply from Daddy: “So sorry about the boot but Mom can’t stop laughing.”

I soldiered on through the farm tour, walking on cardboard insoles. They were surprisingly sturdy but naturally failed to keep my feet dry. We saw pigs, farm-stay campsites (including a yurt, where a beautiful black cat slept on the queen-sized bed), then walked through the stickiest red mud you ever saw to visit the sheep barns and the baby lambs. At one point I considered just going back to the car to get my dry socks and shoes, but I did want to see the lambs, and they were very sweet and well worth seeing.

Back at the Haw River Ballroom, Ross brought in platters of the most delicious charcuterie and bottles of wine, then we had a wonderful dinner of copa with risotto and salad, followed by a muscadine doughnut. It was such a great day, one in which the pig was well and fully celebrated as we learned more than we ever hoped to know about processing our own food and the community connections that sustain us all.

And while it was all memorable and nourishing, nothing—not ham, not doughnuts, not even wee spotted piglets—is as truly divine as dry socks when you really need them.