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Ginger Pig

A ginger pig from Cane Creek Farm

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

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

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

He was never invited to her house again.

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

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

A Celebration of the Pig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first sole falls off.

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

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

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

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

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

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Egg with woodland phlox

I am reflecting on Easter memories, as chronicled in letters written over the past 10 years. Here are a few excerpts:

Fernandina Beach, cheesecake, a cat on the table: Easter 2002

After church I picked up the ham, deviled eggs, cheesecake, and six orchid corsages and drove to Susan’s house in Fernandina Beach. Susan and I got everything ready and Day, Joan, Teresa, and Teresa’s friend Katherine came over for a late lunch. We pulled the long poplar table in the kitchen out from the three raised windows and gathered around it. A nice breeze blew through while we ate; Joan said it was like eating on a porch. Bougainvillea bloomed right outside the window, flowers bloomed on the table, a lady cardinal with a vivid orange beak hopped on the railing, and in the middle of the meal when we were all talking and laughing Susan’s cat, Kiffin, suddenly jumped on the table, creating quite a stir.

Then, in the conversational equivalent of a cat jumping on the table, Susan said, “Joan, tell everyone how you injured yourself watching TV and had to be life-flighted to Jacksonville.”

Joan said that on Friday evening she stood up and found that she’d lost the use of her left foot.  She called her doctor, who sent her to the emergency room. Fernandina Beach hospital life-flighted her to Baptist Hospital in Jacksonville for stroke evaluation, but it turned out it was a pinched nerve from sitting with one leg folded under her to watch TV. 

A food-related illness: post-Easter 2008

I am not feeling at all well, so I have gone back and made a list of everything I cooked (and ate) on Saturday and Sunday:

Saturday morning:  Coffee, of course.  At about 10:00 ate a ham and cheese sandwich. Ham left over from Easter; perhaps it’s beginning to Go Bad?? 

Saturday afternoon: Ernesto wanted shepherd’s pie so I browned the ground beef with onion, garlic, and broth to get the process started. Ate nothing at that point.  Made naan, the Indian flat bread that we love.  Ate one piece while warm and delicious.

Saturday evening:  Went to Applebee’s. Ate spinach and artichoke dip with tortilla chips, two mini-chicken sandwiches, two mini-steak quesadillas, a mini chocolate sundae. Maybe I ate too mini?

Sunday morning:  Pancakes, bacon, butter, maple syrup. Absolutely new package of bacon, absolutely new bottle of syrup.  Pancakes were frozen.  Butter is never bad. Right?

Sunday afternoon:  Hot dog with mustard and ketchup, jalapeno and cheese potato chips. Hot dogs have been around for maybe 2 weeks, but I hear that they stay good forever.

Later Sunday afternoon:  Started cooking for the week ahead.  Marinated chicken in yogurt and spices, then grilled it to make chicken tikka masala.  Ate one chunk of chicken. It was delicious. Made mashed potatoes to go on top of shepherd’s pie already in progress, assembled pie and placed it in oven. Through all of this, licked up quite a lot of mashed potatoes. Decided we’d have shepherd’s pie for supper, so put chicken in fridge to finish on Monday. Ate a delicious Russell Stover bird’s nest, then started making a pasta dish to pack for my lunch in the coming week:  Sauteed mushrooms, onion, garlic and spices in a bit of butter. Added milk, flour, and cream to the skillet.  Stirred a mighty long time, if you ask me. Finally it began to bubble. Drank a bottle of acai juice because it’s supposed to be good for you. Added one can of diced tomatoes and a package of frozen spinach, previously thawed, to the pasta sauce. Tasted the sauce.  Decided to get rid of more Easter ham by shredding some up and throwing it in with the pasta.  Ate a bite or two of ham. Dropped a mushroom in the sink—picked it up and ate it.  Ate shepherd’s pie with naan for dinner.  Ate a slice of leftover Easter coconut cake.  Drank a glass of milk. Had an emergency dose of Pepto-Bismol brought to me in bed by Ernesto. Threw up.

When I look back at the weekend, it occurs to me that at some point Ernesto and I also split another ham and cheese sandwich, but I can’t tell where in the world it fit in. I was the only one who got sick—which points to the mushrooms as the possible source of the problem.  And those mushrooms started off on a bad foot before they even got out of the grocery store.  When the cashier rang them up, she said, “You gonna eat mushrooms!?”  I told her it wasn’t as if I went out and picked them in the woods—they were legitimate, commercial mushrooms. That cut no ice with the cashier. And maybe she was right. 

Carrot cake and marzipan: Easter 2010

This year, Ernesto requested a carrot cake for Easter. I soon learned that I despise grating carrots. I found a recipe that called for one and one-half cups of grated carrots, which at least sounded more reasonable than the recipes that called for three cups, and I grated two of my fingernails completely off. That is only a slight exaggeration. The fingernail on my right thumb is down to the quick, and the fingernail on my right middle finger is grated a bit, too.  It’s possible that there are trace amounts of fingernail in the cake, but by the time I was finished grating I did not care.  

I bought a nice supply of Easter eggs yesterday to fill in the cracks that a carrot cake cannot possibly fill. Aldi had adorable little coconut and marzipan chocolate eggs. I have eaten one of the coconut batch, and they are very good and the perfect size. What I really crave, though, is my annual Russell Stover chocolate and coconut nest with three mini jelly beans inside. I love those a whole lot.

Tornadoes, bird’s-nest candy, and flan cake:  Easter 2011

Holli called yesterday to make sure that we had not blown away with the tornado that touched down here Friday evening. We are only 10 minutes from the airport, which got hit pretty hard, but we didn’t have any trouble at all. The storms passed after an hour or so, and the Cardinals were able to finish playing their game downtown.

Holli also mentioned that my niece, Anna, had a friend coming over in the afternoon and they were going to make bird’s-nest candy. She said to make the nests you must melt butterscotch chips and dump in a large can of La Choy chow mein noodles, then glop the mixture onto waxed paper to form little nests. She said she had a bag of Hershey’s candy-coated chocolate eggs to stick in her nests. Well, I caught bird’s-nest fever, and added chow mein noodles, butterscotch chips, and little candy eggs to my shopping list. I couldn’t find the Hershey eggs, but I got a small bag of Cadbury eggs and another little pack of Reese’s candy-coated peanut-butter eggs. Today, after about 15 minutes of nest-making, I had butterscotch up to my elbows and 17 charming little nests all done. It’s a messy project, but easy and satisfying.

Ernesto requested a flan cake for Easter this year. He said it’s a cake with a layer of flan on top. What would I do without the computer? I looked up “flan cake,” and voila—several different variations! Basically you line a bundt pan with caramel, spoon in a yellow cake batter, and then pour the flan custard mixture on top—evaporated milk, condensed milk, and four eggs. After baking in a water bath for an hour, the flan sinks to the bottom and magically becomes the top when you remove the cake from the pan. My cake is cooling on the counter right now, and we are nervously anticipating flipping it over. I’ll let you know how it goes…. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it went “gloomph” and came out in a big wet mess. We’ll see.

[Note: The flan cake turned out fine.]

Update: Easter 2012

This year we had a pecan rum cake (Holli’s recipe, using coconut rum) but decided against ham, having had an Unpleasant Experience with our Christmas ham. Ernesto is determined to procure a country ham from somewhere soon, so we will look forward to that. And tomorrow I’m going to stop at three different stores and buy up all the leftover, half-priced Russell Stover coconut nests that I can find.

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