Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Pie Goes Viral (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Second”)

Melanie, this one’s for you. Happy retirement, and may you bake lots for and with that new grandbaby!

Last weekend Caleb had a sleepover with his favorite troublemate, Next-Door Katie, whose family was away for the weekend. One Australian shepherd plus one German shepherd equals more than two, so I was looking for ways to burn off some canine hyperactivity. On Sunday I took about 12o pounds of dog for a long ramble in an open field bordered by some woods and a pond not too far from where I live. The walk came with an unexpected bonus: mulberry trees in full fruit.

I took one of the many, many empty doggie poop bags I had brought along and filled it with these deliciously ripe purple berries. Mulberries look like blackberries, but their flavor isn’t quite so sweet or intense. And there are no briars to contend with. Mulberry juice is deeply hued, though, and it stains liberally.

Mulberry trees grow everywhere around here — they’re considered trash trees — and can be found all along the streets our neighborhood. This year they have been groaning with fruit; I have never seen such a bounty. Kids love to pick and eat them right there in the playground across the street from my house. The fruit is so heavy it falls off the branches and has turned the asphalt of my little street purple. I have tracked mulberry muck onto my kitchen floor by my shoes. The birds love them, too. There is purple bird poo all over my white car at the moment.

I brought my berries into the kitchen with a recent Facebook post from a friend of mine in my mind. Esther had been on a mulberry kick and had made three pies in three nights. I messaged her — could she send the recipe? And did I have to pick out all those little green stems? She shared the recipe (it’s easy and it’s here) and told me not to worry about the stems, that they seemed to dissolve right into the pie.

I modified the recipe a bit — used tapioca instead of flour, added a pinch of allspice and cinnamon, and cut the sugar back to a scant one cup. And I confess to using storebought frozen crusts because I’m terrible at pastry dough.

But that pie. That pie! The perfect, melt-in-your-mouth, not-too-sweetness, a quick surprise shot of the spices, the firm yet berryish texture. It’s impossible to describe the flavor, but it’s nothing like any other fruit pie I have ever had — not quite blackberry, not quite anything else.

We now speak of it reverently in hushed tones as The Pie. The Pie is the boss of me, and I do not worship alone. I posted pictures on Facebook, and the next thing I knew, The Pie had gone viral. Another friend was collecting mulberries from the tree in her yard. I sent Sheryl the recipe that Esther had given me. (Sheryl’s tree was so loaded, she said, that her dog’s butts were purple from sitting beneath it. I forgot to check Caleb and Katie’s.)

I inherited my paternal grandmother’s cookbook collection. Retracing her culinary steps over the years, I discovered the phantom cookbook: all those scribbled notes in the margins of the “real” cookbooks, the index cards with handwritten recipes stuck between two pages, a scrap of personal stationery with a note at the top in the back — “Marjorie’s Meatloaf, but I cut the tomato sauce in half.”

Sheryl's Pie, which is much prettier than mine

In a way, we are doing the same thing, aren’t we? We are, electronically now, passing along our favorite recipes, sharing our tricks and tweaks with one another (Esther recommended cutting the sugar; I suggested the cinnamon and allspice to Sheryl), so that they evolve into something personal, yet with a history. Our grandmothers did this on index cards and scraps of stationery. We are doing it on Facebook.

Yet while our grandmothers’ mulberry pie recipes went viral in one another’s kitchens over coffee, I have never even met Esther in person, although we live in the same city (we connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other). And even though Sheryl lives two blocks away, we’ve only visited face-to-face a couple of times.

Are we closer or more isolated in this digital world? It still feels like a community to me.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Foraging

Strawberry Fields Forever

Good strawberry growing advice sometimes sounds a little bloody and violent: “Kill the mother.” “Pinch the babies.”

Last spring I put in 25 or so strawberry plants. I pinched the babies. That is, I picked off every single blossom before it turned into fruit. This, I have been told, strengthens the plants and ensures more vigorous production in future years. So I resisted the temptation to let those blooms turn to berries and instead rejoiced in the way the plants almost instantly began to spread. Forming off of runners—tendrils that shoot out from the mother plant and form new leaves—offspring plants sprung up in circles around each of the mother plants.

You see what’s coming, right?

Pinching the babies paid off in spades. In the past couple of weeks, I have harvested a pint to two pints of strawberries a day. What I didn’t eat immediately while standing there in the patch, I brought into the house, rinsed, hulled, and froze. I also made two batches of jam and two batches of strawberry ice cream.

Two weeks after the strawberry bacchanalia, production is slowing down. I’m getting a half-pint daily—but these later-season berries are also much sweeter and more flavorful than the earlier ones.

Next year the volume won’t be quite as outrageous. The year after that will be even less impressive, as the strawberry plants’ three-year cycle winds down. And this is where killing the mother comes in. Time to man up, strawberry growers.

After their second year of production, you dig out the original plants and leave the offspring that are only in their first year. They will continue to produce and send out runners. Then you take them out, too. That keeps the plants reproducing themselves and bearing fruit.

And that’s how you get strawberry fields forever.

About that jam. I washed and hulled about two quarts for my first run. These berries were so ripe they were almost rotting. Perfect. I mixed them with tons of sugar and boiled it until it had thickened (you can use fruit pectin — Sure Jell — to speed things along but I had time to do it the old-fashioned way).

I then ladled the  jam into hot, sterilized jars, put hot, sterilized lids on the jars, and processed them in boiling water for ten minutes.

Then I took them out and placed each jar on a towel on the counter and waited for my favorite part:

Do you know that sound? That is the sound of hot jars forming a vacuum and pushing the air out of the 1/4-inch of space between the jam and the lid. It is the sound of reassurance that the air-free jars of jam will keep indefinitely on a shelf in time for the holidays.

It’s  worth noting that the recipe for strawberry jam in my grandmother’s 1932 edition of the Ball Blue Book of home canning is not that different from the one in my 2003 edition.

Did someone say strawberry ice cream? In fact, my friend Cyndi asked for some for her birthday, which was last Sunday. Since it was a special occasion, I spared no riches and made an egg custard base for the ice cream. And instead of using vanilla extract, I started with the actual bean, which I split open and scraped into a saucepan of milk and cream and simmered.

I added in eggs and sugar and cooked it until it had thickened. Then I drained the strawberries, which I had sliced and let sit in lemon juice and sugar, and poured the sweet juice into the custard, and I let the whole thing chill in the fridge thoroughly.

I added in the strawberries and then put the custard into my wonderful Cuisinart ice cream maker to churn for about a half hour. Here is the result.

And here is what a bunch of deliriously happy strawberry-eaters looks like. Not that you didn’t already have an idea.

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Poke Sallet Granny (or, “The Southern Urban Forager”)

Every day ’fore supper time
She’d go down by the truck patch
And pick her a mess o’ poke sallet
And carry it home in a tote sack . . .

Those lines are from one of my favorite Tony Joe White songs, “Poke Sallet Annie,” but it might as well be called “Poke Sallet Granny” for my maternal grandmother, who loved poke sallet (“salad”) more than anybody I have ever known.

What, you might ask, is poke sallet? If you’re asking, you must not be from these parts. Tony Joe explains it pretty well, actually:

If some of y’all never been down South too much,
I’m gonna tell you a little bit about this, so that you’ll understand what I’m talking about
Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields,
Looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it poke sallet.
Poke . . . kuh . . . sallet . . . ungh.

Mee-Ma lived with us for awhile when I was in my early teens. She really would take a grocery sack — a poke — and walk the country roads near our house and pick the smallest, tenderest shoots of this weed. She’d bring a ton of it back to the house, wash it thoroughly, then boil it several times until the house stank like some kind of hot sulfur springs. Then she would scramble it in eggs cooked in bacon grease until the eggs were brownish-green and the house really stank. She’d eat the entire mess with a big hunk of cornbread  crumbled up in a tall glass of buttermilk.

Mmmmmmm-mmm!

Pokeweed in late summer

Poke doesn’t grow only in the woods and the fields. Last weekend I was piddling around on the back 40 and watching the chickens forage. They were feasting on the long-legged purple ladies of poke I have let grow freely at the rear of my lot, partly because I think they are rather stately and partly because birds other than the chickens love them for the berries they form in the late summer.

They reminded me that I’ve been meaning to give Mee-Ma’s recipe, which I haven’t tasted since I was about thirteen, a try. So I gathered up a mess in a basket (I didn’t have a poke handy).

Mee-Ma didn’t eat the youngest, smallest leaves just because they were the tastiest. Poke sallet is actually pretty poisonous, the roots and berries especially (though not for birds), and the larger leaves can make you very sick. She boiled them three times because that’s how she cooked the toxins out.

In fact, if you read around, the prevailing wisdom is that only a damn fool would eat poke sallet, even if you cook it over and over again. My favorite dire warning comes from Wikipedia:

The eating of limited quantities of poke, perhaps of the shoots, may cause retching or vomiting after two hours or more. These signs may be followed by dyspnea, perspiration, spasms, severe purging, prostration, tremors, watery diarrhea and vomiting (sometimes bloody) and, sometimes, convulsions. In severe poisonings, symptoms are weakness, excessive yawning, slowed breathing, fast heartbeat, dizziness, and possibly seizures, coma and death.

Well, there’s no fool like a southern fool waxing nostalgic for her dead granny’s weird cooking. Mee-Ma had to have eaten enough poke sallet in her life to kill her several times over, and while she may have suffered from prostration a time or two (mostly due to orneriness, I’d say), she lived a long life and died because she was old and wore out.

So I went with it. Between my obsessive weeding and the chickens’ nibbling, there really wasn’t much in the way of young poke to be gathered. So my mess was pretty small, which might have been a blessing. I gathered what I could, brought it in and gave it a good washing, carefully took out all the stems, and put it through its first cooking in salted boiling water.

Palava with chicken over rice in Liberia

I drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again in more salted water.

Drained it, rinsed it, boiled it again, this time with a hunk of smoked pepper bacon. Now the house was smelling pretty good.

After the third boiling, I noted that the greens were beginning to resemble a traditional palava dish of okra leaves that I had eaten in Liberia a couple of years ago, which had been delicious, so how bad could this be?

Mee-Ma would have answered that there was nothing that bacon grease couldn’t make taste good. So I melted a good tablespoon of it in a skillet and let the slimy poke slide in along with some spring onions. After it sizzled a bit I threw in a couple of eggs and a good dose of salt and pepper. I cooked them down til the eggs were dry.

It looked familiar. Mee-Ma would have eaten it, I think, but she would have fussed at me for not having any cornbread and buttermilk for her.

I washed mine down with a big glass of iced tea. It weren’t too half bad — the poke gave the eggs a darkened flavor that was definitely enhanced by bacon grease. Caleb liked it, too. And in spite of some excessive yawning and a wee bit of perspiration, we both lived to tell the tale — so far.

Here’s what Tony Joe White has to say about it.

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Filed under Feasting, Foraging

Meat

As a little girl I used to stand in my pajamas at the utility sink in the laundry room and watch my father clean fish after an evening on the river. He would empty a creel of eight or so trout under running water into the sink — brookies, browns, rainbows. Sometimes they were still faintly flapping and gasping. Dad would take a fish in one hand, and with a sharp knife in the other, he would slit its belly from gills to tail.

He would slip his finger in, and out would slide the guts and organs into the sink. Sometimes we’d find eggs close to the tail of the females. He would scrape scales off the skin and cut the head off. Then he would pack the cleaned fish along with several others in an old milk carton or plastic bag, which he would fill with water and stash in the freezer.

I watched my father catch, kill, and clean a lot of trout, and I would feel sorry for the trout. I also ate a lot of fried trout. I have long lived with an awareness of the conflict, but it has never kept me from eating trout (or fishing for them myself).

Lately I have been greedily devouring a wonderful book by Novella Carpenter called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Ms. Carpenter lives in a section of Oakland, California, that is so beset with poverty, homelessness, drugs, and crime that no one seems too worried about the goofy white girl who has taken over a vacant lot next door to her apartment and planted an organic utopia of fruits and vegetables and is keeping a slightly illegal array of chickens, bees, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and (once) pigs.

Her story is compelling and funny. Ms. Carpenter is earthy in many senses of that word — from her impressive growing abilities to her language to her fearlessness with livestock.

She is raising animals for meat. Ms. Carpenter is not insensitive to the full implications of breeding and caring for a creature for the purposes of killing and eating it, and her telling of the life and death of Harold the Thanksgiving turkey is detailed and unflinching. In the course of the book she kills and eats other animals, too. There is always a moment of breathlessness, in which she seems to step outside of herself and watch her own actions with horror and fascination. It is not unlike the sensation I experienced watching my father clean trout.


While she seems unresolved about the act of killing a sentient being and consuming it, I would argue that Novella Carpenter  is courageous — more courageous than most of us. Generally speaking (and faithful vegetarians notwithstanding), we modern carnivores don’t want to see, don’t want to know about that moment when a creature’s throat is cut, or when a body shudders in death throes, or when the eyes cloud over. We don’t want to know about plucking or flaying or bleeding out or viscera. Yet those moments have occurred so that we may eat what we crave. What we want to know is cellophane-wrapped protein that is completely disconnected from its life source — cold and bloodless, with little resemblance to an actual animal.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

My chickens have names and chickenalities. I know them, I nurture them, I even love them. People sometimes ask me if I would ever kill one of my chickens if I got really, really hungry. The answer is yes, I would. I have considered raising birds for meat, but I’m not sure how my neighbors would feel about the bloody mess the process entails. And truth be told, I’m not sure I’m up to it yet. I still see the fish flapping and gasping, but those were my father’s hands, not mine.

Angora Bunny

Recently I have been thinking about rabbits. Some say that rabbits are the new backyard chicken. I’m not so sure the analogy holds up, but then I got to thinking about knitting, and yarn, and spinning, and angora rabbits. So I’ve decided to do a little research. A couple of friends have offered to help me learn to spin fiber. Wouldn’t it be interesting to harvest angora and spin it into yarn?

Whether this would be a step closer to meat or a step further away I am not certain. But it is a step closer to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life — and death.

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