Category Archives: Feasting

“Sauce and Butter, that’s my plan . . .”

A blog entry in song and pictures

I got a peck of apples from the Georgia hills,
I made a pie and I ate my fill –
So ripe and sweet, it’s a shame to toss ‘em;
Guess it’s time to applesauce ‘em.
Sauce and butter, that’s my plan;
Why? Because I can.

– “Because I Can,” from Redbud Winter (2007)

 

Addendum: Looky what Southern Fried Curry did with her applesauce!

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Sally

Photo by http://www.twmeyer.com, friend and neighbor

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
— “Down by the Sally Gardens,” William Butler Yeats

Ten years ago this month, I was passing through some upheaval in my life. I was going through a divorce and finishing up a graduate program, and really I was trying to figure out how to reconstruct my life from the ruins. Instinctively I knew I needed to get outside of my own head, where things were pretty confused. I wanted to get involved in the community, do some volunteer work for an environmental cause. A friend connected me with the executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden Project, who was looking for someone to help out with their communications efforts. In many ways, over the next decade, Sally Wylde would inspire the Southern Urban Homesteader in me.

Sally called me up and invited me to lunch. We sat for two hours at Our Way Café over heaping plates of veggie comfort food (I love that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable in the South), and she asked question after question about my life history. Then she told me hers. A native New Englander who had made her way to Georgia to attend the Candler School of Theology, Sally was a seeker. She was an artist, had raised two amazing daughters, been widowed, had completed a master’s in theological studies at Emory, and several years before had remarried a wonderful Atlanta man and planted herself in Decatur soil. Her rural Massachusetts upbringing had cultivated in her a profound connection to the natural world. She had grown up knowing, as she put it, “secret wild spaces for children.” And that knowledge lay at the heart of her passion that gave rise to the Oakhurst Community Garden.

When Sally moved to Decatur in 1993, she witnessed a troubling phenomenon that to her emblematized the urban dweller’s increasing separation from nature. Every afternoon, children leaving a local elementary school cut through the yard of one of her neighbors in the Oakhurst district and trampled the neighbor’s beloved garden. Instead of involving the police, Sally and her neighbors invited the children to become caretakers of the garden. The children watched with delight and amazement as their plantings flourished and something ordinary turned into something special — a process they had never noticed or understood before. The group went on to create another garden in a nearby median strip. The children were honored for their work at a ceremony with the city’s mayor. And even after the work was finished, they kept coming back for more.

After a big fundraiser in the Garden in 2004 — friends, fun, and dogs. And martinis!

So the following year, Sally and her husband purchased a nearby, undeveloped half-acre lot that was at risk for development in the rapidly gentrifying Oakhurst. That piece of land became the Oakhurst Community Garden Project. As the Garden matured into an established grassroots nonprofit organization with Sally at its helm, the lot transformed into an urban oasis with vegetable and floral plots, a pond, art installations, beehives, animals, restored native habitats, and full program of environmental education for urban youth. For me, it was the endeavor that made Decatur truly my home. I found a loving, smart, energetic, optimistic community of people who shared an understanding of how a garden could unite people and save this stupid, beautiful planet.

Helping with the Garden’s newsletter and other communications was a wonderful way for me to learn its story and wisdom. And what was clear was that the Garden was really a manifestation of Sally’s spirit—radiant, colorful, inviting, fertile, imaginative, artistic, chaotic, spiritual, vital, visionary. It was healing work for me, and I fell in love. A year later, I joined the board of directors of the Garden. Another year later and I was board president. I remained board president for five years and after stepping down from that role, I remained on the board for another year still, two years after Sally retired from the Garden in 2005.

Sally had a magic way with animals

During those years, Sally and I spoke on the phone almost every day. Often after work I would ride my bicycle to her house, where usually there was food. Sally had this way of feeding people. Once a month the entire Garden board would gather at her home, and unfailingly she would have some delicious meal prepared for at least a dozen people — some kind of stew and bread, or maybe pasta and green salad. Always with garden fare. Always fresh and delectable. It was nourishing in more ways than one, and I knew I wanted to embody that same spirit of hospitality and generosity in my own home.

I remember arriving at her house for one of those amazing meals and watching her make pesto from an enormous bouquet of fresh basil. I asked where it had come from, and she told me, “From Gaia Gardens CSA.” “What’s a CSA?” I asked. So went my introduction to principles of local, sustainable agriculture. And six or seven years ago, she took a group of us to the Southface Green Prints conference dinner. It was more than your average conference banquet; it was a sumptuous affair with multiple courses and wine pairings. But more than that, it was my introduction to what food could be and what it could signify. A full-immersion baptism into the ecology and geography of good food. We took our time eating and enjoying the conversation around the table. We were told where each dish came from, who the grower was, what the particular terrain of our region contributed to the flavors we were experiencing. In some cases we met the grower. We talked about why it was important. It was a revelation. I went home sated but hungry for more of this new way of thinking about food. I will never forget that dinner.

Sally made this gourd chicken head and wore it to Cluckapalooza a couple of years ago

The first time I visited Sally in the Garden, she was weeding. Surrounding her were three hens, happy to help her dispatch the tasty green stuff and the insects she was unearthing. They were completely relaxed in her presence; her movements were gentle and unthreatening to them. Their soft, contented clucks and coos charmed me. This was 2000, and it was the first time I had ever seen chickens in the city. That scene took root in my own imagination, and four years later my neighbors and I had modified a shed in my backyard and acquired our first five chicks.

Sally taught me much about urban gardening — some practical, some aesthetic. She once told me that a garden needs something tall and upright in it — some kind of visual contrast rising up out of the earth. She had an artist’s eye for growing things. Mindful of that admonition I have always tried to erect something that towers in my garden. She also was a master at mulching. Before she left Decatur in early July to spend her customary summer months at her lovely family home in Massachusetts, she mulched her home garden deeply and well. Even weeks after we heard that the breast cancer she had been battling since 2008 had spread to her bones, liver, and lungs, and that she would not be returning to Decatur, her garden thrived through brutal heat and drought. It is still thriving.

Sally had more energy than anyone I have ever known. I’ll always remember the email she sent me some years ago after she ran the Marine Corps marathon: “I ran the damn marathon” was all it said. She was also a writer, a teacher, an activist. She took piano lessons. She got involved in an improv theater group. And illness didn’t stop her. Her husband used to joke two summers back about how the steroids she was taking to boost her immune system during her chemotherapy souped her up, and the result was the most elaborate garden she had ever grown. But even without the steroids, Sally just left life and beauty in her wake. One of her responses to her illness was to co-create a performance art piece titled “Lump Journey” with a group of friends. The performance at a local art gallery in 2008 was packed with friends and loved ones.

This painting of Sally's hangs in my house

Sally died last Thursday evening, August 19. It doesn’t quite seem real to me yet. It feels more like she is still in Massachusetts until Labor Day as usual, and I’ll see her in the fall after she makes the long drive home with her husband and her beloved canine companion, Red Dog, and we’ll have lunch at the Universal Joint. Knowing the reality will sink in hard as time passes, I want to keep her essence alive in my own life  — by sharing nourishing food and hospitality, bounteous gardens, creativity that inspires and transforms. Food, gardens, and art connect and heal us in a world that is struggling against its own toxicity.

After she retired from the Oakhurst Garden, Sally returned to her first calling and began making art again. I attended a show of her work and came home with this piece, which now hangs in my home. Sally had wings, and she inspired others — including me — to flight, too.

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We Found Our Thrill . . .

This week I took my friend Kelly’s 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, to the mountains for a few days. She had a particular desire to pick blueberries, so we spent the night at my parents’ house in Rabun Gap and raided their bushes.  Then a couple of days later we went to our friends Hank and Susan’s house out Hwy 76 and raided their bushes.

This is a lot of blueberries. And seeing as how 2010 is Fruit Year, I’ve been dreaming up ways to use lots of blueberries. And seeing as how it’s been too hot for too long this summer, I dreamt up a blueberry ice cream recipe.

There are quite a few blueberry ice cream recipes out there. But years ago my mom gave me a blueberry pie recipe that included cinnamon, so I decided to try adapting that flavor into my ice cream. Here’s the recipe I concocted:

Auntie Allison’s Blueberry Cinnamon Ice Cream

  • 1 cup of fresh blueberries

  • 1/4 cup of sugar (more depending on sweetness of berries)
  • 1/2 tsp lemon juice
  • 3/4-ish tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups regular cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • another 1/2 cup sugar

Combine the berries, the 1/4 cup sugar, the lemon juice, and the cinnamon in a saucepan over low heat. Mash some of the berries and stew them until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and set aside for the moment.

Combine the milk, cream, vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar in a small bowl and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Drain some of the liquid off of the stewed blueberries and pour the liquid into the milk/cream mixture.

Put milk/cream/berry juice mixture into your handy kitchen countertop home ice cream maker and let it do its happy little rumbly churny dance for about 25 minutes. Then add the remainder of the blueberries and let it churn for another 5 or so minutes until thickened to soft-serve consistency.

Makes 1 quart of delicious ice cream.

My intrepid Australian Shepherd, Caleb, also was amazed and delighted to discover that he likes blueberries, thanks to Hannah’s and my mother’s teachings. They also taught him to eat them right off the bush.

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Peck A Little, Talk A Little: More Chicken Chat

Your pullets getting picked on? Wondering what makes a hen happy? Questions from backyard flockkeepers just keep pouring in! Here is the second installment of Chicken Chat.

Q: Any advice on our pullets? They hide in the coop ALL DAY LONG, and appear only to eat and drink when I close the door so that they have free rein in the coop. The big girls are so mean!

A: Give them time. You could try setting them out among the big girls in a cage for a few hours a day. But really it just takes time.

Follow-up: All right — we’ll try to be patient. The pullets must be bored out of their skulls.

A: Just remember how tiny those skulls are. They don’t require much entertainment. Throw them some extra handfuls of something tasty when you feed them and they’ll be thrilled.

Q: Someone just asked me how you can tell chickens are happy. If they’re not they won’t lay as much, right?

A: I think you can tell a lot from their general health and physical comfort. They also know when they are safe from predators. Those are two conditions of their well being, I’d say. Their laying rate is dependent on lots of things — weather, light, diet, breed, and age, for starters — so I don’t think you can really count on that as an indicator of hen happiness.

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Q: My next-door neighbor gave me some eggs from his chickies, and the one I prepared this morning (softboiled) had a very tangy and unpalatable taste. I only ate one bite and threw out the rest. Do you think it was something the chickens ate, or was the egg spoiled? It smelled fine, so I’m hoping no GI distress lies around the corner.

A: It’s said that if you let your chickens eat pungent foods such as cabbage and garlic and onions that it will flavor the eggs. We have kept these foods out of our birds’ diet and have never had strange-tasting eggs (at least to my palate). You might ask your neighbor if they’ve had any of those things in their diet.

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A Hill of Beans

Beans have so much going for them. They are very easy to grow. There are countless varieties. Countless ways to preserve them and prepare them. Combine them with a grain and you have a perfect protein (which is great for vegetarians). Like all legumes, they gift the soil with nitrogen.

And they are tasty!

Because some areas of my garden are relatively new and the soil could use some help, I planted lots of beans this year. I generally like bush varieties. I planted two rows of blue lake bush beans because they aren’t stringy and two rows of nickel French fillet beans because I love the delicate flavor and crunch of those skinny little beans (and they aren’t stringy). I also tried interplanting more blue lakes with my sweet corn, mimicking the old Native American “three sisters” concept of planting beans, corn, and squash together (my butternut squash went in off to the side of the corn and beans). This works because again, the beans give the corn nitrogen they need, and the beans also help stabilize the corn plants, which tend to blow over easily.

Then one Saturday afternoon in the spring I was listening to one of my favorite NPR programs, The Splendid Table, and the host was interviewing the author of a book about beans about his favorite beans. He mentioned the yellow Indian woman bean, an heirloom variety of a shelling bean that when cooked, he said, is “weirdly creamy.”  And like many heirloom vegetables, it comes with a cool back story—that the yellow Indian woman bean was grown and passed down for generations in a Swedish family that settled in Montana, where it is now commonly found in Native American communities. He also said it was very prolific.

Of course, I had to have some. I searched around and found that Seeds of Change sells the beans by the packet, so I ordered some (big mistake — one of my perennial complaints about Seeds of Change is that they are so chintzy with their quantities, yet what a price tag! I barely got enough to plant a row and a half. I should have ordered a pound of them from Rancho Gordo).

But it’s been a fun first foray into drying beans. I harvested about a pint of the beans, most of which I will save and plant again next year, in hopes of increasing my quantities. That’s another cool thing about heirlooms — saving those seeds! To harvest drying beans, you wait until the pods have turned brown on the vine. then you shuck them and stick the shucked and already-dry beans into the freezer for a few hours to kill any lingering fungus, then you just store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Easy!

In the meantime, my blue lakes and nickel Frenches have been coming in. Some I have cooked and eaten fresh (here is my favorite recipe), and I spent several hours yesterday canning beans. You need a pressure canner for beans. Because beans are a low-acid food, the high temperatures achieved in a pressure canner are required to kill the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in a low-acid environment and causes the deadly botulism. My pressure canner belonged to my mother, who got it from my paternal grandmother, who got it from her next-door neighbor right here in Decatur decades ago. My canner has come full circle.

I followed the directions in the Ball Blue Book of Home Canning (the basic instructions haven’t changed since my grandmother’s 1932 edition). After a five-minute boil of the five pints of beans, I packed them into the hot, sterilized jars and covered them with the water from the boiled beans, leaving about an inch of head space. Then I sealed them inside the canner, turned up the heat to get a flow of steam going through the valve for about ten minutes. Then I closed the valve to raise the pressure to ten pounds (that’s 240 degrees). Then using the heat on my stove to control the pressure level, I processed the beans for 20 minutes at a steady 10 pounds.

And aren’t they pretty? I added in a handful of yellow wax snap beans I received through my CSA, and I love the contrasting effect in the jars — like a little sprinkle of confetti. Months from now, when the days are short and I am longing for summer, I’ll open a jar of these and cook them long and low with a little hunk of peppered bacon I keep in the freezer. Or maybe I’ll toss the jar into the slow cooker with some tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chicken stock, a cube of frozen pesto, and whatever else I might have in the fridge or pantry at the moment for a batch of vegetable soup.

Please pass the cornbread!

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“I don’t believe I said.” (or, “The Southern Urban Forager, Part the Third”)

My dad is more than happy to tell you the story of the eighteen-inch wild brown trout he caught during the green drake hatch. He delights in talking about the beautiful but apparently untouched pool he spotted on the last day of a camping trip. He grins as he describes the visions of that “honey hole” that haunted his thoughts for the next several days, until he finally went back to it around dark-thirty, waded in knee-deep, cast a line, and in no time had caught (and released) that big’un. He will even show you the pictures.

Just don’t ask him, “Now, where did you say that hole was?”

Because he will say, “I don’t believe I said.”

I know how he feels. For years during the early summer, I looked forward to walking over to a brambly but abundant patch of blackberries on the side a road near my house. That spot has given me untold pints of jam. But last year, heartbreak. Someone — more than one someone, I think — had gotten there first and cleaned it out. And then later in the year, someone else came through and bushwhacked the brambles, and that was the end of my blackberry patch.

All year long I grieved my loss. It just seems ridiculous to me to buy blackberries when they grow prodigiously all across the South, but a thicket of wild, publicly accessible blackberries in the city is a rare and beautiful thing. So you perhaps can imagine my joy when, on a long ramble with my dog one day this past spring, I discovered a new patch — this one bigger and more abundant than my old one, harder to reach, and less likely to get mowed down. At this point the berries were tiny, hard, and green. But there would be gallons upon gallons.

Over the next several weeks I kept an eye on “my” spot. I visited frequently to see how the fruit was coming along. I wanted to greedily, jealously guard it from other blackberry hounds that might coming sniffing. And then early this morning, I went back with a sack. In an hour and a half I had picked more than a gallon of berries, and there are plenty more to come. Best of all, I saw nary another soul prowling around my patch. May it stay that way.

This may be my honey hole.

I will give you a jar of jam at Christmas. I will make a blackberry cobbler and joyfully share it with you. I will pour you a tiny glass of blackberry cordial to sip. But don’t ask me, “Where did you say you got those berries?”

Because I don’t believe I said.

This may be an extraordinary year for my newfound secret patch, because by all appearances, 2010 is the Year of the Fruit. Regular visitors to this blog have read my rhapsody on the strawberry and my ode to  mulberry pie. Today I made 22 jars of blackberry jam using basically the same method that I used for the strawberry jam. With the two cups of berries remaining, I riffed on a blackberry cordial recipe with vodka, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick (in eight weeks or so I’ll let you know how that worked out).

Then there are the peaches, which I did actually buy during my very slow road trip last week. I picked up five pounds of Fort Valley, Georgia’s, best from a roadside farm stand. I have heard it said that due to a magic season of atmospheric forces, this year’s peaches are the earliest, most plentiful, and best-tasting in many years. I have to agree. Many I just ate standing over my kitchen sink so that I could rinse my chin afterward. Several wound up in two batches of ice cream — one for Father’s Day, the other for the Sunday night gang.

And oh, the cherries! Over Memorial Day weekend, my family gathered at our mountain homestead in Rabun County, Georgia. On Saturday afternoon, my father, niece, and I walked down the hill to check out the fruit trees that we planted about thirty years ago (I have a hazy memory of being in that orchard with my parents and brother digging holes, placing root balls, and watering by Coleman lantern on a very chilly autumn night.) There amidst the apple and pear trees, blueberry bushes, and grapevines (all holding promise of great things to come later this season) were two cherry trees absolutely loaded with fruit. The birds were none to happy with us for pulling down limbs and loading our sacks with bunches of cherries, but there was plenty for all. They looked like grapes growing on those branches. I took home maybe five pounds of cherries and made cherry-almond-chocolate chunk ice cream for the Sunday night gang, added cherries to some chicken salad, then the rest joined the strawberries and mulberries in the freezer for concoctions later on.

Here are 41 seconds of Dad and me at the cherry tree.

Still to come are the figs and blueberries growing in my yard. It will require some stealth to get to them both before the birds do. But that’s a whole nother story.

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The Southern Urban Homesteader Takes A Very Slow Road Trip

Caleb-dog and I took a lovely little road trip to the Georgia coast for a few days. We made it slow and easy; I decided in the interest of fuel economy to drive no faster than 65 miles per hour most of the way down on the Interstates. I loaded some audiobooks on my ipod, packed some snackage, and off we went. The trip down took about 5 1/2 hours, and I definitely got better gas mileage, but I got tailgated, honked at, and gestured at for going 5 miles under the speed limit. It took an act of will to maintain my steady pace. This while millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps in addition to raging at the BP machine, we should examine our own sick need to drive everywhere fast and consume more fossil fuel than necessary.

On the coast I stayed with my dear friends the Spratts, who own a bed and breakfast in Darien, Georgia. If you are ever looking for a beautiful place to stay in a sleepy little coastal Southern town, please check out the Open Gates Bed and Breakfast. Jeff and Kelly are both trained biologists and know much about the area’s rich natural resources. They can point you in all kinds of fun directions. They will also serve you some amazingly sweet locally caught wild Georgia shrimp (the area’s major industry) with grits for breakfast. I stopped by the Georgia Shrimp Company market and brought home five pounds of large shrimp and froze them in one-pound batches.

Oh, and saltwater swimming pool? Best thing ever — no chlorine!

We had a brief but thoroughly relaxing few days of early morning runs, a visit to the beach at Jekyll Island, a couple of dips in that marvelous pool in the heat of the day, and just hanging out and visiting. I goofed around with Kelly and Jeff’s kids a good bit. Here is a song that Hank and I wrote last year. We thought it deserved its own video.


Yesterday instead of trudging back up the interstate, I decided to make the journey part of the destination and took a meandering backroad drive home, going about 55 most of the way. Including some protracted stops, it took about 6 1/2 hours to get home. We broke up the trip by visiting some farm stands, where I picked up some Vidalia onions, peaches, cantaloupe, and pecans.

And as we passed through Milledgeville, on impulse I turned off US 441 into Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s beautiful 544-acre farm there. We spent an hour or so walking the  verdant grounds and spotted all sorts of wildlife, including four deer. Caleb happily sunk himself into the cool mud at the edge of the pond.

A self-portrait Flannery O'Connor painted in 1953. Gotta love a woman who loves her birds.

And joy to my heart, the peacocks are back. Flannery O’Connor was a passionate keeper of chickens, ducks, and especially peafowl. This is one of the reasons I feel a particular affinity for this writer. In her honor, we have a hen named Mary Flannery.

I have read that peafowl are wonderful for mosquito control, and indeed, I didn’t see — or slap — a single skeeter during the hot and humid hour we spent walking around.

Also captivating was Flannery’s mother’s milk storage house. Early on, Regina actually worked the property as a dairy farm and stored milk in this little structure. It was restored last year. I love the bottles in the windowsill.

Between the slow drive and staying with friends, it was just about the most frugal vacation I have ever had — yet completely enjoyable. Because of the money I didn’t spend on gas and lodging, I was able to take Kelly and Jeff out for a big splurgy seafood dinner my last evening there. Another mountain of shrimp followed by vat of peach cobbler and ice cream.

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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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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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Filed under Feasting, Gardening, Putting Up

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