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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC.

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition of Moravian landscapes at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC (www.mesda.org).

Katherine Mansfield once said something very mean about one of my favorite writers: “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” she said. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”*

I think that’s a terrible thing to say about a fellow writer, and Katherine should be ashamed of herself. But I do think it’s a pretty good quote, and it helped me recognize a terrible truth: it’s a quote that applies to me, especially at Christmas. I can warm up the pot, but my fire goes out long before the tea is brewed. Back in mid-December, I had a wreath on the front of the house, and I had hung the stockings (because how hard is that?) but there was no tree up then and there was not one up on Christmas Eve, either. I produced several batches of fudge and spiced nuts, but I never got around to making my usual cream cheese cookie-press wreaths with tedious little maraschino cherry bows.

As E. M. Forster himself once said: “I do like Christmas on the whole…. In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.”

It certainly feels clumsier every year, and on top of that my Christmas skills are weak. I spent 45 minutes on December 14th trying to wrap the top and bottom of a shoebox separately in nice paper, like you see all the time in magazines. The box was meant to hold a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread. Well, I finally got the wrapping paper on both parts, but it looked like hell. Ernesto shrugged it off. “At night and walking fast, no one will notice,” he said. That was a comfort, since the loaf was being shipped to his mother.

I’ll tell you who knows how to do Christmas (besides Martha Stewart): the Moravians. I grew up near Winston-Salem, where Moravians settled at Bethabra and Salem and then spread out from there, and the holidays were greatly enriched by Moravian traditions like the candle tea and the Moravian star, Moravian cookies and sugar cake. It’s a high-calorie religion.

I remember multiple school field trips to the historic village of Old Salem. A large tin coffee pot stands at its boundary, and rumor had it that a soldier once hid inside the coffee pot during some war or another. My classmates and I trooped through the village, visiting shops and homes and the doctor’s office and even the cemetery. We saw beeswax candles being made and sampled paper-thin ginger cookies from the bakery. Everything smelled divine.

The Moravians also excel at Christmas carols, sweet coffee, and lovefeast buns. My family once attended a Moravian holiday service in Winston-Salem, and I could not have been happier: I got my very own beeswax candle in a red paper frill, I drank a cup of sweet coffee, we sang carols, and I ate my first lovefeast bun. Later my mom bought us an entire bag of them for non-festival use. They look a bit like hamburger buns, but they are faintly sweet and make the best fish sandwich you ever ate. I believe that I prayed for several years that I would turn into a Moravian, but I never did.

How I yearned for lovefeast buns during the 23 years that I lived in the wilderness outside North Carolina! By 2007, when we had migrated west to St. Louis, the stars and the Internet and someone’s treasured family recipe aligned, and I found instructions for making my own lovefeast buns online.

I gathered the ingredients and waited for a day with no other distractions. Lovefeast buns are a project: They start with a batch of mashed potatoes and they must rise for two hours before being divided into little balls and then they have to rise again until doubled in size. But a terrible hunger for lovefeast buns drove me, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I rolled up my sleeves and commenced to make a mess.

I made the mashed potatoes—dry, unseasoned, plain potatoes. I mashed them for long minutes to avoid lumps in the bread. Then I creamed the butter and sugar, and added the yeast and warm water. When I stirred the potatoes into the mixture, a Christmas miracle occurred. The dough became silky-smooth, and glossy. It was beautiful.

I added nutmeg, mace, orange and lemon peels, and flour while singing a silent fa-la-la-la-la inside my head.

It was a cool day of dark rain-clouds, not an encouraging environment for bread dough. I circled the house trying to find a warm spot for it to rise.  Finally I warmed the oven up a bit, turned it off, and stuck the bowl inside.

By the end of the second hour, Ernesto had taken over the kitchen to cook a ham hock in the pressure cooker. “Look at the size of this hock!” he said, holding it up before it went into the pot.

“How much does it weigh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it cost $5. It came from a huge pork.” He left me with very little counter space, and I needed to preheat the oven for my final baking, so I removed the pan of dough from the oven and set the proper temperature for the baking.

I formed my little rolls and placed them on a large pan, covered with a dishcloth. By now a tiny, uncertain sunbeam fell on the center of the dining room table, so I left the pan there for the final rising.

Ernesto’s pressure cooker was singing and sputtering, a fog of steam hung near the ceiling, and he had a large pan filled with potatoes, tomato sauce, onions, and garlic simmering on the stove. I left the area to do something else, and when I came back into the kitchen 30 minutes later to check on my rolls, I found both windows next to the dining room table wide open.

“Why are these windows up?” I asked, running to close them. Ernesto ran to open them again. “They need to be up,” he explained, “because of the steam and food smells.” The temperature inside the house dropped.

My buns never did double in size. But I baked them, anyway, and they came out looking like rather large, smooth biscuits.

We ate our love biscuits with Ernesto’s $5 ham-hock-and-potatoes dish.

“This is real soul food,” he said. I had to agree. They weren’t exactly right, but those far-from-home lovefeast buns fed my soul.

Now that we’re back in North Carolina, my friend Sara keeps me supplied with actual lovefeast buns. Sara is a true Moravian. She dressed in a Moravian costume and presided over an open house at the Leaksville Moravian Church in Eden last month, as part of a holiday tour of homes. “I always tell a little about the history of the Moravians in America, and the history of our church,” she explained. “And we have beeswax candles in all the windows and of course the putz is always on display.”

“Of course. The what?”

“It’s spelled p-u-t-z, but it’s pronounced to rhyme with foots.” It’s German, meaning decoration or adornment. A Moravian putz is a Christmas village, usually with a nativity scene incorporated into it. Sara told me that her household putz includes twelve scenes from the Christmas story, beginning with Isaiah prophesying the birth of Jesus. “We have a small figure of Saint Thomas representing Isaiah,” she said. “He sits in an abalone shell.”

She asked me if I hadn’t seen the putz on display at the Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem, and it turns out that I had. One of my clearest memories from those long-ago field trips was standing in front of a large table with a miniature version of Salem village on it. I just didn’t know it was called a putz.

My one Christmas success this year was a sort-of putz. I put fake snow and tiny fake evergreen trees into vintage jars. It’s not Isaiah on the half-shell, but they were still rather nice. In fact, now that Christmas is well and truly behind us, I have them gathered on the mantel as a wintery accent thing.

I’m sure that Katherine Mansfield would argue that my quasi-putz are, like most of my attempts at holiday cheer and home-making, a mere warming of the teapot, and not a brewing of good, strong tea. But they are a simple adornment, so they do qualify. They also feed my soul, just as E. M. Forster does. Like Ernesto, he always has something comforting to say when things go clumsy. Forster put it this way: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

That’s right. And Katherine Mansfield is a schmuck.

 

*Zadie Smith, “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

 

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chicken (2)

Photo credit: My niece, Anna Singleton.

In May 2002, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies hosted a conference about chickens:

The Program in Agrarian Studies is pleased to announce the international conference entitled The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets. The three-day conference will bring together over 75 scholars, agronomists, public intellectuals, chicken growers, workers, industry representatives and activists from the labor, farm, animal welfare, environmental, and public health movements, whose work has helped to define and to change what we know about chickens and their production and consumption.

o   Over 15 diverse panels and plenary sessions!
o   Food, films and documentaries!
o   Advocacy information and book tables!
o   Concurrent chicken-related exhibits at Sterling Memorial Library and
the Yale Art Gallery!

Isn’t that a charming description? It’s presented with such enthusiasm and so many exclamation points that I know it was a great success. I was proud to see North Carolina well-represented at the Chicken Conference, with experts from East Carolina University and NC State University making presentations. I didn’t read far enough to know who was speaking on the subject of the chicken in myth and literature, but I do know that Chanticleer and the Little Red Hen were on the agenda. And isn’t the idea of concurrent chicken-related exhibits interesting? That’s what inspired me to collect some exhibits of my own, because I have a fairly long history with chickens, myself.

In fact, I made my acting debut in first grade as the Little Red Hen, wearing a full-head mask made from a large brown-paper grocery sack. That was my earliest experience with chickens in literature, and it is nice that the Little Red Hen held the moral high ground in that story, because in general chickens don’t. A year earlier, as I helped my grandmother gather eggs from her little coop, I had tried to imitate her confidence and reach beneath a hen to extract her eggs. But before I could get my hand in position, the gimlet-eyed chicken in the nesting box coolly leaned forward and pecked me—hard!—on the upper lip.

I wasn’t permanently scarred by that experience, and when I was about 20 years old I got a summer job in a commercial hen house, collecting eggs for pay. I was better prepared this time around, with a tobacco stick that I could use to knock the roosters down if they became too confrontational, and an athletic sock with the toes cut out to wear on my arm for protection against henpecks. I went up one side, and then down the other of the long, low metal building, placing the eggs in large plastic flats that stacked on a sort of trolley that hung from an overhead track and could be pushed along as I went. It was a wonderful job. One morning I found a passel of newborn kittens in a nest. Then the weather got really hot, and the Grim Reaper reaped him a bunch of hens and not long after that the egg season was over.

Those commercial hens were large and white, and they pecked my athletic sock with a vicious little twist of their beaks when I reached under them to get their eggs. Our hens (as in the photo above) are approximately the color and size of footballs. They aren’t aggressive or angry, but they do sometimes raise their wings and hunker down, as if they are about to do something drastic and painful. It appears to be only a pose.

At the moment my chickens can do no wrong, because they have begun to lay eggs! The eggs are mostly small, although a few have been full-sized (and usually double-yolked). Because of this bounty, I am in a mood to salute the chicken—in literature and on the nest—with some odds and ends I scratched together.

1.  “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams. It is as simple and pure as a hard-boiled egg:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

2.  M.F.K. Fisher once said: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” If you want to risk invading the privacy of an egg in a violent way, there is a trick that you can try. Place an egg in your hand and, holding your arm out straight, squeeze as hard as you possibly can. The physics of it is that as long as you keep your arm perfectly straight, you can squeeze until you’re red in the face and the egg won’t break. But if your elbow bends, even the slightest bit, the egg will explode and a great deal of egg yolk will go all over everything, including in places where you won’t find it for years. So if you want to try that particular trick my advice is to go outside and do it several yards away from the house.

3.  Speaking of tricks, here’s Flannery O’Connor: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathe News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

4.  Apparently E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Once and Future King, had as much trouble with his flock as he had writing fiction: “I don’t know which is more discouraging,” he once said, “literature or chickens.”

I vote for literature, since at the moment I am happy with my chickens.

5.  And here is the pearl of my collection, from Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse:

…I feel as if I should never move again. I have run faster and farther than I have done since I was at school. You have no conception of the difficulty of rounding up fowls and getting them safely to bed. Having no proper place to put them, we were obliged to stow some of them inside soap boxes and the rest in the basement. It has only just occurred to me that they ought to have had perches to roost on. It didn’t strike me before. I shall not mention it to Ukridge, or that indomitable man will start making some, and drag me into it, too. After all, a hen can rough it for one night, and if I did a stroke more work I should collapse. My idea was to do the thing on the slow but sure principle. That is to say, take each bird singly and carry it to bed. It would have taken some time, but there would have been no confusion. But you can imagine that that sort of thing would not appeal to Ukridge. There is a touch of the Napoleon about him. He likes his maneuvers to be daring and on a large scale. He said: ‘Open the yard gate and let the fowls come out into the open, then sail in and drive them in a mass through the back door into the basement.’ It was a great idea, but there was one fatal flaw in it. It didn’t allow for the hens scattering. We opened the gate, and out they all came like an audience coming out of a theater. Then we closed in on them to bring off the big drive. For about three seconds it looked as if we might do it. Then Bob, the hired man’s dog, an animal who likes to be in whatever’s going on, rushed out of the house into the middle of them, barking. There was a perfect stampede, and Heaven only knows where some of those fowls are now. There was one in particular, a large yellow bird, which, I should imagine, is nearing London by this time. The last I saw of it, it was navigating at the rate of knots, so to speak, in that direction, with Bob after it barking his hardest. Presently Bob came back, panting, having evidently given up the job. We, in the meantime, were chasing the rest of the birds all over the garden. The thing had now resolved itself into the course of action I had suggested originally, except that instead of collecting them quietly and at our leisure, we had to run miles for each one we captured. After a time we introduced some sort of system into it. Mrs. Ukridge (fancy him married; did you know?) stood at the door. We chased the hens and brought them in. Then as we put each through into the basement, she shut the door on it. We also arranged Ukridge’s soap-box coops in a row, and when we caught a fowl we put it into the coop and stuck a board in front of it. By these strenuous means we gathered in about two thirds of the lot. The rest are all over England. A few may be in Dorsetshire, but I should not like to bet on it.

So you see things are being managed on the up-to-date chicken farm on good, sound, Ukridge principles. This is only the beginning. I look with confidence for further exciting events. I believe, if Ukridge kept white mice, he would manage to knock some feverish excitement out of it. He is at present lying on the sofa, smoking one of his infernal brand of cigars.

From the basement I can hear faintly the murmur of innumerable fowls. We are a happy family; we are, we are, we ARE!

P. S. Have you ever caught a fowl and carried it to roost? You take it under the wings, and the feel of it sets one’s teeth on edge. It is a grisly experience. All the time you are carrying it, it makes faint protesting noises and struggles feebly to escape.

P. P. S. You know the opinion of Pythagoras respecting fowls. That ‘the soul of our granddam might haply inhabit a bird.’ I hope that yellow hen which Bob chased into the purple night is not the grandmamma of any friend of mine.

____________________________________

Note: I am deeply indebted to Chickens in Literature, my source for the Wodehouse excerpt and the Flannery O’Connor quote. The site also has amazing chicken illustrations. Go look for yourself, and enjoy a truly fabulous chicken-related exhibit.

In the meantime, here’s a peaceful picture of our very first eggs. Don’t they seem to glow?

Redbud eggs

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Father's Day 001

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

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