Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

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.

ice-cande.jpg

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

20180407_094100-e1523221103221.jpg

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.

20180407_161149

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.

Read Full Post »

Last weekend I spent some time cleaning out the guest bedroom and the three-drawer oak dresser that’s in it. Both were in bad shape, because during the holidays the guest room becomes my Christmas gift staging area, and I hide the clutter in the dresser. There was also a large plastic bin in the room that I’d been using to collect stuff to take to Goodwill, and because we’re short of shelf space there were stacks of books on the floor. I found space for the books in different places, mainly the linen closet (which has more books than linens in it). During the process, a “Loose Change” envelope from Wachovia Bank fell out of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

“Loose change” seemed like a pretty good sum-up of the stuff I discovered as I tidied the room and cleared out the dresser. I came across many long-forgotten and mildly interesting items in the drawers: a box of old letters and cards; a stained-glass star with the tip of one arm broken off; a decorative round box that held an orphaned earring, a pearl button, several red beads, and a safety pin; and a basket about the size of a baseball. Oh! I also found my two autographed baseballs! I am forever putting them away where the sun can’t fade the signatures and then forgetting where they are. It’s always a lovely surprise when I come across them. One was signed by Pee Wee Reese, and the other by Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

The letters and cards I found—from my friends Kathy and Ruby, and two from my grandmother—got me interested in seeing what I had written to them, so I checked my old computer files to re-read my side of the conversations. Here’s some of the loose change I found there (edited for clarity and loosely organized):

Fine Dining I

Jeanne and I decided we wanted to go to a lowbrow place for lunch, so we picked the Waffle House. When the waitress came over to take our orders, she looked down at her pen and clicked it a couple of times experimentally.

“There’s grits on my pen,” she said. “But I reckon it’ll still write.” 

We ordered, the pen worked fine, and while we waited for our food Jeanne took two dollar bills to play some songs on the juke box. She played “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and two of the Waffle House songs, including “Special Lady at the Waffle House.” That got all the waitresses riled up, and the oldest one—a tiny woman with a fierce expression—came to our table, brandishing a mop. She looked straight at me and said, “Hold my arm.”

I clamped my hand on her free arm. She turned to Jeanne and shook the mop at her. “You better be glad she’s holding my arm,” she said, “else I’d come after you for playing that dang Waffle House song!” 

Fine Dining II

Ernesto and I went out to dinner with my parents this weekend. We had finished our meal and paid the bill, and finally we got up to go. Ernesto and I went first, and my dad came along behind with Mama. She didn’t have her walker with her, so she was holding tight to Daddy’s arm. We made it to the door of the restaurant well before they did, and Ernesto held it open for them to come through. As they approached, Daddy noticed that Mama still had a grip on her extra-large cloth dinner napkin, which was nearly dragging the ground. He said, “Virginia, you’re about to walk out with your napkin.” At that moment, our waitress came up behind them, said, “I’ll take it,” and whisked it away. Daddy proceeded outside with Mama, and Ernesto let the restaurant door close behind them. At that point Daddy said, “Well, you’ll never get a whole set like that.”

The Church Bake Sale

I was working the church baked goods table at our annual craft fair and hot dog sale a few years back when two sisters, a short, pretty one with short dark hair, and a tall, pretty one with long red hair came at the end of the day. I had just put up a sign declaring that everything was half price. Each sister had a baby in a stroller, and as they chatted I learned that the red-haired sister was visiting the dark-haired sister for the weekend and both were concerned about having plenty of food for their combined families. They bought an apple pie, all of the muffins and sausage biscuits on the table, loaves of bread, and assorted cookies. Since they still wanted to go look at some of the craft tables, once they’d paid for the baked goods I helped them tuck it in the shade underneath the table for safekeeping.

Later, when the sisters returned, I started pulling everything out and placing it on the table. The last baked good to come up was the apple pie, with a tinfoil lid. When I put it on the white-clothed table I noticed a few tiny ants. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m afraid the ants found the pie while it was under the table.”

The tall, red-haired sister removed the foil and examined the top crust carefully. “There are only two, or maybe five,” she said. She blew lightly across the surface of that pie, sending flakes of top crust sailing onto the grass. Then she blew again, a little harder, and a larger piece of crust broke off and flew. “There,” she said. She slapped the foil back on top and started stacking muffins onto the stroller.

Spiders…

Earlier in the day, a lady came by the bake sale with a sort of dark blue medical device on her right foot, one of those cushiony things with two Velcro straps across the top of the foot.

“How’s your foot?” I asked. I figured she had sprained her ankle.

“It’s feeling pretty good,” she said, looking down at it. “I got bit by a brown recluse spider. It was hiding in the toe of the shoes I keep in my carport, so I can just slip them on when I want to run outside.” She looked up, and shook her head. “That spider bit me to the bone,” she said. “I lost a toe!”

I was horrified, but she added calmly, “You can bet that when I see a spider now, I stomp it good and hard.”

…and Snakes

My nephew, Will, has been in school in Idaho, and he came home this summer wearing a rattlesnake rattle on a leather cord around his neck. It wasn’t store-bought; he had actually killed the owner of the rattle. My sister told him that she did not wish him to tangle with rattlesnakes, and she told him about a colleague whose father was bitten by a rattlesnake while reaching into some brush to retrieve a bird he’d shot. “He nearly lost his hand!” she said. “He had to take anti-venom treatment for weeks.”

Will acknowledged the truth of this. The director of the school had already told him, “Whatever a rattlesnake bites, you should be prepared to lose.”

That same summer my dad found a black snake on the back porch steps, so he decided to relocate it. The snake attempted to flee, and slithered into a crack as if it planned to enter the crawl space (and from there the basement). Daddy was quick enough to grab the snake by the tail, but he said that a snake is surprisingly resistant to being dragged out of a crack, and he thinks he sprained the snake’s tail. He successfully relocated it to the woods, though.

Engineered Potato Salad

Daddy not only wrangles snakes when he has to, he also makes a mean potato salad. He printed the recipe in extra-large type from a site on the Internet. And because he is at heart an engineer and a craftsman, he is a stickler for precision.

“He would kill you, making potato salad,” Mama told me. “He gets his recipe out, and it calls for two pounds of potatoes. So he puts his potatoes in a bowl, and then he carries them down the hall to the bathroom. He weighs himself first, and then he gets back on the scale holding the bowl of potatoes.”

It’s good potato salad, too.

I Avoid Making a Pun (Until Now)   

Our minister has two granddaughters who were visiting this weekend. They are 4 and 3 years old, I would guess, and just as cute as they can be. They announced that they would like for the congregation to sing “Zacchaeus,” so he brought them up to the front of the church, and they led the singing. Both girls wore very pretty little butterfly clips in their hair. When I commented on the clips, their grandmother said, “The girls found them yesterday. They used to belong to their aunt.”

I started to say, “Ah, hairlooms,” but I was afraid that no one would get my joke and it really wasn’t good enough to survive a long explanation.

Adding It All Up

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem called “Ode to Things,” and I think that it is a decent sum-up of what it means when you revisit the bits and pieces that you’ve collected in your life, whether they are solid as a glass star or as light as a bake-sale memory. Here’s a fragment of his poem:

…these buttons
and wheels
and little
forgotten
treasures….

all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handles or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
lost
in the depths of forgetfulness.

O irrevocable
river
of things…

many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.

 

Read Full Post »

thanksgiving-hike-2016

A snapshot of Thanksgiving 2016.

Ernesto’s cousin, Pablo, and his wife, Andrea, drove down from New York for the long weekend, and this year’s holiday was like a dream of Thanksgiving: The turkey obediently turned golden brown and was finished all the way through at the appointed hour, and every side dish from Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and Liberty was heated and on the table in proper order. Robin’s sweet potato casserole was a symphony; Holli’s mashed potatoes were a poem; my oyster dressing was warmly appreciated by a discerning few.

After the clean-up it was time for the annual Thanksgiving Day Hike, and ten (out of 14) people and five out of 5 dogs headed down the path toward the creek and up into the back field.

Ernesto and Pablo had devised a scheme for the Friday after Thanksgiving: They wished to cook a leg of pork in a hole in the ground, Cuban style. Ernesto and my dad dug the hole a week before, finding the spot where, ten years earlier, Ernesto had roasted a pork shoulder. Daddy had kept all of the items we had used on that occasion—the metal lid for the hole, the grate to hold the pork, and four long-handled hooks (probably coat hangers in a previous life) to help lift the grill in and out of the hole. We were ready.

On Friday morning, Andrea and I went to Food Lion to collect a few things for the side dishes, while Ernesto and Pablo drove straight to the farm to start the fire. There was some concern that we would be cooking deep into the night if we didn’t get it going fairly quickly. They started a second fire in the wood stove in Daddy’s shop, which could provide a continuous supply of fresh coals for the pit. What with one thing and another, it was nearly noon before the pork leg, lovingly marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, emerged from its cooler and was lowered into the pit. We were already about two hours behind schedule.

Imagine the next six and a half hours, if you possibly can. Well, I know that you can’t, so I will try to give you the flavor of them. The weather was unseasonably warm, nearly 70 degrees. Ernesto and Pablo settled into chairs around the pit, sweaters and jackets came off, the two big dogs stalked around the edges of the site. We had a digital remote meat thermometer, not meant for gauging the heat of a fire pit, but it was rather nice because we could poke the metal probe through a small hole in the metal lid over the pit and let it dangle down, while the temperature gauge on the other end told us how hot it was down there. Everyone thought that the temp would shoot up to 400 degrees when we first fed it down into the hole, and we were anxious when it only registered about 275. But it was early, and we remained hopeful.

Every 40 minutes or so, Ernesto and Pablo shuttled burning coals and chunks of wood from the wood stove to the pit. When the heat didn’t rise, they devised better ways of insulating the metal lid so that heat couldn’t escape. They used hoes to beat back small grass fires that occasionally erupted around the edges of the hole. They grew progressively smokier. During one of the intervals when the pork was lifted out so that coals could be added to the pit, I measured the leg’s internal temperature. It was 65 degrees. Clearly, we had a distance to go.

As anxiety rose, the bucket loads of burning embers from the wood stove grew larger and more fiery. The guys had been sharing one pair of heavy leather gardening gloves, but soon Pablo appeared wearing a pair of stout black rubber gloves.

“Where did you find those?” Daddy asked. Pablo said he’d seen them under the shelter, so he borrowed them.

“Well, don’t touch the meat with them,” Daddy warned. “Those are my dog-washing gloves.”

Andrea decided she would take a walk around some of the trails that we had missed the day before. The next thing time I turned around, she was holding a crude map that Daddy had drawn to show where all the trails were, and how they connected. I got out the fishing gear and headed for the pond. About 30 minutes later, I caught a bass on the artificial worm, and as word of my success reached the fire pit, Pablo and Andrea and Maggie, the black lab, joined me.

Pablo hooked a bass on the fly rod, but it spit the fly out before he could bring it home. I gave Andrea the artificial worm gear, and she worked her way around the entire pond, trying to find a fish that hungry. Maggie splashed around the edges of the pond with great energy, repeatedly. Pablo returned to his duties at the fire, and I caught a bass on the fly rod he abandoned.

As Andrea completed her circuit of the pond, I went back up to the fire to check on progress. I found Pablo gingerly brushing ashes off the pork leg, which was out of the pit during one of the periodic coal-fetchings.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, we had an accident,” Ernesto said. “The leg rolled off during our maneuver.” He considered the pork thoughtfully, and added, “It was the sacramental anointing of the ashes.”

The big dogs, exhausted, lay in the cool shade by the shelter and fell asleep. Fishless, Andrea collected greens from Fred’s fall garden and snipped some of his rosemary. She spent the next hours in the kitchen, massaging kale and greens in lemon juice, then adding chopped apple and pomegranate seeds for salad; sautéing apples and onions for a compote; peeling potatoes and seasoning them with rosemary for roasting in the oven. Holli’s husband, Bobby, hung around the kitchen, no doubt wondering if he would ever be able to eat dinner and go home.

“Rosemary is my favorite herb,” Andrea told us. “It helps improve memory.”

“Really? One of my mom’s caregivers suggested that I get her a rosemary plant,” Bobby said.

“Now that’s what I call an excellent caregiver,” I said, but Bobby said she wasn’t around anymore, because he had fired the company she worked for and found a different one.

The rosemary potatoes went into the oven, and I put together a corn and cheddar casserole that was very similar to a macaroni and cheese only with corn instead of macaroni. Pablo came in periodically to instruct us on how to prepare tostones—twice-fried slices of green plantain, which between the first and second frying are smashed into round discs.

We joked that the meat might not be done until midnight (or possibly breakfast), but it came into the house around 6:30, and it was lovely. Pablo and Ernesto removed the charred and somewhat battered skin, regretting its loss. By the time the table was set and the side dishes assembled, it was ready to serve.

Holli donated her fluffy pink Jell-O salad, which had gone mostly untouched on Thanksgiving Day because it was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

We ate.

Afterwards, when the dishes were washed and the leftovers put away and the fluffy pink Jell-O stuff had been tasted and one or two slices of leftover pumpkin pie were consumed, we toasted the day, Thanksgiving, and each other with sparkling cider that Pablo and Andrea had brought as a hostess gift.

Thank goodness we had eaten a good deal of rosemary, so we can remember it all forever.

Read Full Post »

In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

Read Full Post »

peach ice cream.43.45

So much depends upon the peach ice cream, tucked with a spoon in a blue willow bowl

I have been too busy making frozen summer treats to write. Some weeks ago we bought a peck of peaches from Roland’s farm up the way. There were 22 peaches in our peck, and I made a peach cobbler and two batches of peach ice cream.

Ernesto admired Roland’s tomatoes, which were large and picture-perfect. The day after we bought the peaches I was talking peaches at church with Margie. Margie had purchased some of Roland’s peaches, too. “Did you get any tomatoes?” I asked her. “We didn’t buy any, but Ernesto said his tomatoes were beautiful.”

Margie sniffed. “Roland didn’t grow those tomatoes,” she said. I went straight home and told Ernesto this news, and he nodded as if he were not surprised. “He probably doesn’t grow the peaches, either,” he said, which seemed unfair because Roland has about five acres of peach trees.

And in fact, later that afternoon we witnessed Roland crossing the road in his four-wheeler, hauling several half-bushels of peaches from the orchard to his house. So unless Roland is so devious that he places California peaches from Food Lion in his orchard then carts them around to make it appear as if he has picked them from his own trees, we can be sure that we had been eating fresh local peaches. I have to say, Roland doesn’t look one bit devious.

There’s nothing devious about this ice cream recipe, either: It’s simple and delicious. I had forgotten how much I loved peach ice cream.

Peach Ice Cream

Peel, pit, and slice 2 pounds of very ripe peaches (6-8 medium peaches).
Puree the peaches in a blender, then pour into a large bowl. Stir in:

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Stir thoroughly until the sugar has dissolved. In a separate bowl or large measuring cup, stir 1/3 cup of sugar into 3 cups of light cream. When the peach mixture and the cream mixture are both free of sugary grit, pour the cream into the peaches and mix thoroughly. Some people who are more patient than I am suggest that you must chill the mixture in the refrigerator until ready to proceed. I am always ready to proceed right away, and if you follow my instructions and stir thoroughly, you’ll be ready, too. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Once the ice cream is ready, spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer.

Once the peaches were gone, we moved on to cantaloupes. Our garden produced about seven excellent cantaloupes this year, and I found a nice recipe for a sorbet which I am tampering with, adding various herbs from our patch.

Herbed Cantaloupe Sorbet

First, make a sugar syrup by mixing one cup of water and one cup of sugar in a small pot over medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then bring the mixture to a boil. Throw in a handful of mint or basil and allow the syrup to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, pour into a jar or bowl. Cover and chill. Yes, you heard me: This time you really do have to wait for the stuff to chill.

When the syrup is chilled, strain out the herbs and pour the syrup over 4 cups of cubed cantaloupe. Add the juice of one small lemon. Place the cantaloupe mixture in a blender and purée until smooth. Freeze in an ice cream maker, then spoon into a freezer-proof container (or two) and place in the freezer. This is smooth and silky on the first day; later it will become icier and won’t scoop quite so prettily, but it will still be good. You don’t have to include any herbs if you prefer not to.

Even though I haven’t been writing much while in the middle of turning fruit into frozen desserts, I have been reading quite a bit on the side. First, I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. It’s hard to explain why I loved it so much, except that I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses, playing house, nests, shells,  and daydreaming–all of which Bachelard discusses at length. Then he wins my heart by saying:

Words–I often imagine this–are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. Common-sense lives on the ground floor, always ready to engage in “foreign commerce,” on the same level as the others, as the passers-by, who are never dreamers. To go upstairs in the word house is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down in the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words. To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life.

Enchanted, I immediately tried to find every other book G. B. had ever written. I came across a different title in the Kindle Store, and glanced at the reviews before buying it. One reviewer gave the book four stars, but wrote: “I’ve been reading all of Bachelard. No reason to. Read Poetics of Space. Then he repeats a lot.”

While the Kindle Store sent me a list of Bachelard books, it also spat out a book by e.e. cummings: The Enormous Room, a memoir about his time as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I. I don’t know why in the world it came up—it was a miracle, plus it was free or maybe only 99 cents on Kindle, so I got it. I’ve always liked cummings’ strange modern poetry, but I really love his prose. For example, one of his fellow inmates (cummings is in a French prison, more or less by mistake) is a man he calls the Schoolmaster, a thin man in too-large clothes, who is “quietly writing at a three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand.” 

I might have something more to say about the cummings book when I’ve had a chance to finish it, but in the meantime here is a snippet of an e.e. cummings poem, one that fits rather well with August and summer:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

No, I have to give the last poetic word to William Carlos Williams, as we wait for our fruits and sugar syrups to chill:

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Read Full Post »

Book Lover's Cookbook

Such a sweet gift—a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill…. – Garrison Keillor, “How to Write a Letter” from We Are Still Married, a passage included in The Book Lover’s Cookbook, by Shauna Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen.

Two of my favorite things on earth are handmade writing and homemade cake, and the two collide in The Book Lover’s Cookbook. In the book, a passage from a piece of literature that describes a meal or a particular food is followed by a recipe for the featured dish. Sadly, the authors were unable to include some of my favorite literary foods, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her homemade mango ice cream, or Gene Stratton Porter’s description of how Eudora’s mother fills her new lunchbox in A Girl of the Limberlost.

I’ve always enjoyed reading about food, and writing about food comes pretty naturally, too. Because I write a lot of letters and bake a lot of things, handmade writing and homemade baked goods often collide in my own life. They did so in October 2014 when I wrote a letter to my friend, Ruby, about the cake I made the preceding Saturday night, in a rush, for homecoming at my parents’ church:

I called my mom at 8:00 last night, and she reminded me that their church’s homecoming was today and asked didn’t we want to come. Ernesto said sure, so I decided I better go ahead and make the cake I had planned to make on Sunday afternoon.

I already had the butter out to soften, so that was good. But I wanted to make a recipe that I had found in my grandmother’s old cookbook—one that she had written in by hand on a blank page of the Lizzie Sills Friends Cookbook. It was called Orange Slice Cake, and it included chopped dates and two cups of nuts. I had everything I needed, and thank goodness I bought the dates that were already chopped. But I had to chop the walnuts and the one pound of orange slice candy. That took forever. I also hit a snag with my hand mixer. I always keep the beaters for it in one particular kitchen drawer, and I could only find one last night. So I creamed the butter and sugar with one beater, and beat in the four eggs. It took longer to get full coverage of the bowl, plus, it looked ridiculous. That was actually nice, because while I was striving mightily to get everything beaten properly, I kept laughing at how silly my unbalanced, one-beater mixer looked.

My grandmother had written “Bake at 325 for 3 hours.” Three hours!! I preheated the oven to 350, and then turned it down to 335 hoping that would help. It was 9:00 before the cake went into the oven, and I finally took it out at 10:45, well after Ernesto gave up on the project and went to bed. I let it rest for 10 minutes, then had a devil of a time getting it out of the Bundt pan. I was in despair, when I finally gave it one last, violent shake and yes! it popped out. I made a glaze of powdered sugar and orange juice and doused the hot cake, cleaned up the worst of the mess, and went to bed.

The cake turned out okay, I think. I like it. It’s sort of like fruit cake but it wasn’t a true replica of Grandma’s cake, because I had used half the amount of dates that the recipe called for and didn’t have a full pound of orange slices because I had eaten about a quarter of them, and I left out the coconut because it didn’t seem necessary.

Maybe I’ll begin a project to compile vintage recipes into a volume, with annotations. When I was thumbing through the Lizzie Sills cookbook this week, a page torn from the December 1992 North Carolina Farm Bureau News fell out. The headline reads “Try These Favorite Holiday Recipes.” There was a recipe for Honey Bun Cake that sounded easy and fabulous, but the information, as is so often the case with these passed-along recipes, is lacking. “Pour one half batter in greased long pan.” What exactly does “long pan” mean? I guess I could find out, assuming the woman who submitted the recipe is still among the living. The Farm Bureau included the full name and mailing address of each submitter, so I know that Honey Bun Cake came from a Mrs. Dupree in Willow Spring, NC. I bet she would be surprised to get a letter from me with a question about her cake recipe.

I own a 1997-vintage church cookbook from a Baptist congregation in Louisville, Kentucky. Even though it is slightly more modern than Lizzie Sills  and the Farm Bureau article, there are some mysteries in it, too. On page 45 is a recipe for Gorilla Crush, which involves milk, orange sherbet, orange juice, and a banana. There is a wonderful sandwich filling called Fake Shrimp Salad. The ingredients are one can of ground Spam, one grated onion, one grated carrot, and enough mayo to make the stuff spreadable. The instructions are simple: “Mix all together in mixer – delicious!” I am most interested, though, in the Upside Down Pecan Apple Pie. It sounds fabulous—you make a sort of streusel mix and put it in the bottom of a pie pan, then place the bottom crust on top of it. Next, add the apples, sugar, and spices, and crown it with a top crust. Then it gets tricky. The instructions read: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” The next step is: “Fold edge of top crust under bottom crust.” No matter how many times it is repeated, I don’t get it. Maybe if I had the multiple crusts in front of me I would understand how that works. After baking, you must keep the pie upright for 5 minutes, and then invert it onto a plate. I am going to try this pie, even if (as I suspect) I will end up with third-degree burns from hot syrup scalding my arms during the inversion process.

For now, until we have Honey Bun Cake and Upside Down Pie to enjoy, here are some more tasty morsels pulled from The Book Lover’s Cookbook:

Alice Hammond’s Laws of the Kitchen

  1. Soufflés rise and cream whips only for the family and for guests you didn’t really want to invite anyway.
  2. The rotten egg will be the one you break into the cake batter.
  3. Any cooking utensil placed in the dishwasher will be needed immediately thereafter for something else; any measuring utensil used for liquid ingredients will be needed immediately thereafter for dry ingredients.
  4. Time spent consuming a meal is in inverse proportion to time spent preparing it.
  5. Whatever it is, someone will have had it for lunch.

From The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection by Arthur Bloch


E. B. White, speaking of the classic Charlotte’s Web:  “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told why I sneeze either. A book is a sneeze.”


Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes, found tucked between recipes in the book. It is from If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow by Cooper Edens:

If there is no happy ending … make one out of cookie dough.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »