Appalachian Thursday – An Empty Larder

Snow DayIt’s January.

In case you hadn’t realized.

At the grocery store these days, I can buy strawberries and asparagus. This (along with an occasional warmish day) adds to my delusion that spring is just around the corner. The sun stays up just a little longer, rises just a little earlier. And yet . . . we still have February to get through. I’m just dreaming of sunshine and wildflowers.

My great-grandmother had no such luxury. The turn of the year was the lean time back in the early 1900s when she was growing up and raising her family. It was when last season’s put up food began to thin out. It would have been a long time since last fall’s hog killing, the shelves in the cellar would have more empty jars, and even the wild game would be getting thin (in quantity and quality).

Lean times.

Running to the store for fresh produce wasn’t an option. Chickens don’t lay as much in the winter and the cow’s milk has less cream. Christmas is past and Easter is months away.

This would have been the time when mountain folk began to dream of poke, creases, dandelion, dock, and other spring greens.

So in honor of these lean days, here are two recipes. The first is a “lean times” recipe using corn cobs to make jelly. The second, well, you judge what sort of recipe it is. These are both from my “Old Timey Recipes” cookbook.

CORNCOB JELLY

Boil 12 bright red corncobs in three pints of water for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain. Add enough water to make four cups liquid. Add on package fruit pectin and bring to a full boil. Add four cups sugar and boil two or three minutes until jelly stage. 

Allegedly, this tastes like apple jelly and the red corncobs give it a rosy hue. I suppose you could use any color corncobs if you weren’t particular about the shade of your jelly.

PORK CAKE

1 lb. mild sausage
1 pint black coffee
1 box raisins
1 cup walnuts
1 box dark brown sugar
1 T soda
1 tsp cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg
Enough flour to thicken

Put sausage in pan to simmer until grease seeps out. Drain and add all other ingredients. Bake 1.5 hours at 250 degrees.

Is it a dessert? A breakfast food? And is that a teaspoon EACH of those spices? I don’t know. That would have been expensive. And I haven’t had the courage to actually TRY this recipe. If you do, let me know.

Car Commercials and Birthdays

birthday giftsIt’s that time of year. The time when car commercials begin subtly hinting that this year a Jaguar or new SUV would be the perfect gift.

And while I wouldn’t say no to a Jaguar (even if it DID have 981 miles on it), that really isn’t my idea of a good gift. Rather, this past weekend was my idea of good gifts.

Yup, I turned 39 + shipping on Saturday. (I’m 47, I just get a kick out of that phrase!) And the people who love me best knew EXACTLY what kind of gifts I’d like.

There was the delightfully thoughtful gift from my husband–a new office chair for all my writing (plus dinner out!). We’ll actually shop for the chair this week since he’s also thoughtful enough to know I’ll have a strong opinion about it.

There was the collection of items from Mom & Jean. They commissioned a bookmark painted with watercolor thistles (my dog’s name) and queen Anne’s lace (my bridal bouquet). There was also a Luckenbooth shipped all the way from Scotland with a “stone” made from the compressed stems of Scottish heather. Sigh. If you don’t get that one, read The Christmas Heirloom. Now I have my own brooch passed from mother to daughter.

Then there was all the singing. The ladies at church sang to me (and Meg, who shares my birthday) as we decorated for Advent. Dad sang his own made up version of a birthday song for me. Mom sang. And best of all, my almost eight-year-old niece belted out Happy Birthday twice. And she remembered that 12/1 is my birthday. Remembering birthdays is her super power.

Finally, we extended my birthday into Sunday to celebrate with my adopted family (also Thistle’s godparents–dogparents?). Since mom’s far away and not up to baking anymore, I called her for the recipe for MY chocolate cake and made it myself. My friends asked me what I wanted for supper (adobo chicken and these AMAZING crispy potatoes) then we topped it off with Mom’s cake.

So am I just bragging about what a great birthday I had?

Oh, maybe a little bit. But mostly I’m pointing out that the very best gifts aren’t something you park in the driveway. Rather they’re anything laced with LOVE.

Now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Happy birthday to me!

 

Appalachian Thursday – Thanksgiving Hog Killing

cookbooks

Additional source material.

I was talking to Dad about Thanksgiving when he was a child and learned that it was often hog killing day in Appalachia. Everyone was off work and gathering together anyway, so it was a good day for many hands to make light work.

While I’m glad NOT to be spending today scraping a hog (they have hair) or boiling down lard, knowing that folks used to do that just might come in handy for a future story. And because there’s a long-standing tradition of “using everything but the squeal,” I thought I’d give you some idea of how those various pig parts were used–from head to tail as it were.

  • The Head – I know, I know. These days you’ll find “pork cheeks” on menus. That’s the head folks. The whole head was typically boiled to get all those tender bits of meat off. The pork was then used to make things like souse meat which was also called headcheese (spiced pork–kind of a terrine) or scrapple (pork mixed with cornmeal, molded, and fried).
  • Some parts of the head were held back. The tongue would have been cooked much like beef tongue and the snout (rooter) was sometimes roasted.
  • The Liver – This would be for your liver pudding or liver mush. You could slice and fry it or eat it cold like lunchmeat. (Well YOU could. It’s liver after all).
  • The Lungs – These were also referred to as the “lights.” One recipe calls for boiling them in salted water to the consistency of gravy. Hmmmm.
  • The Intestines – You may have heard of chitterlings (pronounced chitlins). You clean them WELL, boil in salted water, and fry. Or . . . some people do.
  • The Feet – Well, we’ve all heard of pickled pigs feet.
  • The Tail – Toss it in a stew!

Of course, most of that makes me grateful for the turkey we’re planning to eat today. But there is one recipe that I’d happily add to many a dish . . . cracklins. This is what’s left after all the pieces of fat have been cooked down to make lard. The bits of meat are basically rendered out and deep fried. Man, mix that in some cornbread and you’ll forget all about the liver pudding.

The Church in the World

BBQ 10-18This year, our church opted to do something a bit different in place of our usual homecoming. We hosted a party for the community.

Instead of focusing on our history, reminiscing, and then feasting in the fellowship hall, we invited the neighborhood to come out for free BBQ. And it was great!

This wasn’t about getting people to come to church and then feeding them. While they were welcome to come to services, they were also welcome to just come eat and enjoy some great bluegrass. It was about getting the community together to talk, eat, tap their toes and . . . well . . . spend time together.

Instead of a homecoming that focused on our past, we focused on our present. Our here and now going on right outside our door each and every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. (Shoot, I write historical fiction.) But it was nice to look out instead of in this year.

I hope we do more of this type of thing. I hope we continue looking beyond the walls of our church building to get to know our neighbors. Seems like there’s some scripture that mentions that very thing . . .

Mark 12:28b-31 – “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Appalachian Thursday – A Poor Harvest

applesI’ve mostly given up trying to grow our food. I keep a pot of herbs and this year I grew a cherry tomato in a pot near the front porch. Based on what I paid for the plant and the number of tomatoes I picked, I’d say I broke even on that one.

But, like the local bears, I’m opportunistic when it comes to harvesting food. Blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, grapes, and nuts tend to be plentiful in our area. We pick them wild and have neighbors who are glad to share.

This year, though, there just wasn’t much to harvest. I made an apple pie last weekend and had to supplement with store apples. The walnuts are few and far between. Even the hickory nuts are less this year.

Growing up on the farm, we had walnuts, chestnuts, and filberts (hazelnuts). Walnuts turned our hands (and clothes) black. Chestnuts could be removed from their prickly casing by pinching them between the soles of our boots and pushing them out. Hazelnuts we just let dry a bit and then whacked ’em good with a hammer.

Mom probably made things using nuts, but mostly the pleasure was in just eating them straight from the shell. And eat them we did! Chestnuts in particular were an easy target and the crisp texture and flavor of that buttery, yellow nut was SO good. You can score them and roast them briefly to make them easy to peel, but we just bit ’em until the shell cracked.

Hopefully 2018’s poor harvest is just an off-year–a down season in the cycle. And since there’s not much out there, I guess I’ll leave most of it to the critters. I kind of like it when the squirrels sit on the back deck methodically eating nuts that leave smears of black, walnut leavings.

Reminds me of how God provides for squirrels and growing children just the same. And how what he provides nourished my body back then and my heart today.

Appalachian Thursday – Old Timey Recipes

recipe bookMy friend Valerie recently gave me a treasure. It’s a copy of the 8th edition of Old Timey Recipes from 1975 as collected by Phyllis Connor. Inside the front cover someone wrote, “West Virginia, August 1976.” Since I would have been five years old then, I think I can safely say this is the food of my childhood!

Books like this one are priceless when I’m writing a novel and want to describe a meal or a way of preparing food. In addition to recipes “current” in 1975, Phyllis added this note, “We have put in a sprinkling of old timey recipes which are really out of date (such as sassafras jelly or hog jowl with turnip greens) but these are added because of their special interest.

Well, thank goodness–those are just what I need! There are also recipes for hickory nut cake, molasses candy, corncob jelly, vinegar pie, lime pickles, leather britches beans, clover tea, and moonshine. Talk about Appalachian cooking!

Since hickory nuts are in season right now, I thought I’d share the cake recipe with you. Of course, the REAL first step in making it is gathering and cracking all those hickory nuts. Warning, if you hit one wrong it will go flying!

HICKORY NUT CAKE

1/2 cup butter and shortening, about half and half
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1 cup chopped hickory nuts
4 egg whites beaten stiff

Cream butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Add alternately with the milk to creamed mixture. Beat until smooth. Fold in nuts and egg whites. Pour into 2 greased 8x8x2 pans. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes. Cool. Before serving put layers together and frost with sweetened whipped cream. Sprinkle with chopped hickory nuts. -Mrs. H. T. Matthews

End of Summer

cropped-gedc0131.jpgSchool starts here today. I used to look forward to the first day of school, but even so there was a bittersweet feeling in the air. Now I miss having the definition–the segmentation that came with the seasons. Life anymore is a bit of a blur.

And Labor Day weekend is right around the corner. When I was growing up that meant time for the annual hot dog roast at Toad and Berle’s. Yes, his name was Toad and he lived in what had been the community schoolhouse when my dad was a kid.

There would be a big bonfire and the men would cut sticks and sharpen the ends for spearing hot dogs and holding them in the flames. The women would bring every side dish you could think of and there would be watermelon. Oh, and desserts. My goodness the desserts. Plus marshmallows. Although I think s’mores were too fancy for us.

The creek was nearby (see photo above) and we were meant to stay out of it but we didn’t. There was also a cliff over on Uncle Willis’ land (that’s somehow not nearly as high as I remember). We were meant to stay away from there, too. But we didn’t.

After eating, folks would sit around smoking cigarettes, talking, telling stories (otherwise known as lies), maybe playing some music. We kids would set fire to the hot dog sticks and write our names with burning embers against the night sky. Until someone made us stop. And then we’d do it anyway and sometimes we’d get in trouble and sometimes we wouldn’t. We’d go to bed late that night, smelling of smoke, hot dogs, and burnt marshmallows.

I guess people still have picnics on Labor Day weekend. I guess they even have hotdogs. But I’ll just bet they don’t cook them on a sharpened stick over an open fire while dusk settles like a soft blanket and the voices of just about everyone who’s ever cared about them hums in the background.

This Labor Day I might build a fire out back and roast me a hotdog, but I have a feeling it won’t taste the same. Not even a little bit.