Appalachian Thursday–7 Spring Favorites

Spring is technically still a ways off, but we have daffodils, forsythia peeking out, warmer days (followed by COLD ones), and last night I heard the first peepers of the season. So I’m indulging my spring fever with seven things I love about this time of year.

1) Snow on daffodils. In spite of warmer days, we’ll occasionally wake to a fluffy dusting of snow that clings to branches and flower petals without making a mess of the roads. Pretty then gone. Just the way I like my snow! Growing up, snows like that were called “poor man’s fertilize” and farmers would hurry to plow it under in the garden before it melted.

2) Peepers. I love to wake to the song of the little frogs singing and then walk with them at dusk. It’s the music of spring!

3) Fresh asparagus. I think it’s kind of a shame that you can get just about any produce any time of year these days. I remember how Mom treasured those first asparagus shoots poking up through the warming soil. Thank goodness for farmer’s markets where you can still find the real thing! Of course, my great-grandmother wouldn’t have had such fancy fixins–she would probably have enjoyed poke sallat or dandelion greens.

4) Fiddleheads. There’s just something about those tightly furled fronds that’s gorgeous to me. When hiking with my husband year round, I love to point out flowers and plants. He calls them ALL “fiddleheads.”

5) Lambs. When I was a kid, spring was all about the new calves. Dad and would walk out to check on the mothers about to give birth. Now I get to drive past a local farm college’s lambing pasture every morning and evening. And yes, I will pull over to watch lambs frolic. I mean, how can you not?!?

6) Seed catalogs. I don’t grow many vegetables anymore (even when I try, I don’t grow many!), but I still love flipping through the pages of those colorful catalogs. Giant tomatoes, golden corn, plump strawberries, crookneck squash, new potatoes, baby lettuces . . . Oh, shoot. Maybe I will plant something this year!

7) Open windows. It’s a bit early yet, but any time the temperature creeps upwards of 65 I sneak a window open at least for a little while. The day I can leave them open all night listening to the peepers will be perfection!

What do you love about spring?

Appalachian Thursday–When there’s a need

lasagna-kidsOur little, mountain church got word not long ago that some missionary friends on the far side of the world need a van. The old one gave up the ghost and transportation is important.

There were probably folks who thought about sending a few dollars, doing what they could. But a van, even used, well that would cost a good bit.

The kids, though, they got serious and began brainstorming ideas to help. They settled on a lasagna supper. They wouldn’t charge, they’d just ask for donations and have a few things to raffle off. They also thought about karaoke, but who does that?

Well, the adults got behind the idea. Donations came in for food and raffle items. Volunteers set to work helping the young’uns get their project off the ground. And one elder of the church mentioned in men’s Bible study that the kids wanted to do karaoke–ain’t that a hoot?

Such a hoot, that the next thing he knew, he’d been challenged to sing for his supper. And a fair amount of cash money was put up to see him do it.

The night of the supper the kids donned their aprons and served plates of pasta, salad, and rolls. The ladies set up a dessert table. That elder stood off to the side, trying to look calm.

mike-singingWhen he got up on the stage, he introduced the band–mandolin, guitar, and bass guitar. “This is how we sang karaoke when I was a kid,” he said. Then he took a deep breath and they were off. “Sing to the living God,” the tune went. The crowd grabbed the beat and kept a steady rhythm. Verses, choruses, instrumentals, steady on through to the end and a round of thunderous applause.

Then an encore of “Rocky Top,” just for fun.

The kids pretty well finished off the dessert table while the donation jars were emptied and counted. And the grand total was . . .

. . . $2,600 that will help buy a van for a missionary family on the far side of the world.

Amen to that.

New Years Food Traditions

vasilopitaAs much as I enjoy researching (and sampling) Appalachian food traditions, I also like to explore traditions in other cultures.

We often serve refreshments after church and yesterday was my turn. Since collard greens and black-eyed peas are a bit tricky as finger foods, I researched what else might work as fun, New Years food.

Which is how I learned about Vasilopita cake–a Greek confection typically served right after midnight. The fun of it is the coin hidden inside. Typically, the cake is cut in the sign of the cross, then several slices are set aside. One for Jesus, one for the house, one for St. Basil, and so on. The person who gets the coin gets the best luck in the coming year. If the coin is in a reserved slice, everyone gets the luck.

So I baked the cake, boiling a penny and wrapping it in foil to tuck into the batter. I opted to do the cross cut, then, with a bevy of little girls watching and waiting, I set aside just one slice for Jesus. As I served my church family, one of the girls eyed Jesus’ slice of cake and spotted . . . the coin! How cool is that?

On the side, I served grapes and cheese in honor of a Spanish tradition. At the stroke of midnight, Spaniards try to eat 12 grapes before the chimes of the new year end. If they do, good luck is sure to follow. Some say sweet grapes represent sweet months, while sour grapes are for not-so-great months. Interestingly, this tradition was begun by grape growers facing slow, winter sales.

Regardless of what you ate yesterday–lucky greens, a cake with a lucky coin, or just your usual PB&J–I hope your New Year is blessed!

An Appalachian Fourth of July

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Back home in West Virginia there was always a bean supper at Lucille’s for the Fourth of July. George and Lucille were first cousins to my dad and they had a little, white house up on the ridge above the church.

Each year, Lucille would organize the event with a big kettle of beans bubbling out in the yard, cakes of cornbread, chilled watermelons, and every kind of dessert you could imagine prepared by the ladies of the community. It was a potluck of sorts, although you knew the ham and beans would be there, having cooked for hours and hours in the open air.

Men played horse shoes and told tales. Women fussed over the food and talked the day away. Children ran wild, looking for trouble to get into and usually finding it. Some years we’d have a few fireworks that set Lucille to worrying we might start a fire in the pasture.

And as evening fell we’d gather–bellies sated, stories wound down, and children wore down–for music. They’d gather in the little front room of the little house and play and sing. Folks would sit wherever they could on the floor or the front porch, and listen or maybe join in.

And I would curl in Dad’s lap, dried sweat prickling my arms, equal parts exhausted and contented, and fall asleep to the sounds of music, crickets, and the voices of the people of my particular slice of this amazing country.

God bless America. God bless Appalachia. God bless the people who loved me so well when I was young and didn’t know how lucky I was.

Appalachian Thursday–Ramp Season

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My brother digging ramps on the family farm.

Flowers are blooming, afternoons are warm, the sun moves more slowly across the sky . . .

It’s the time of year when the old folks start shunning preserved foods for something fresh. Something green. Poke sallat. Fiddleheads. And ramps, which are somehow getting to be downright mainstream.

My great-grandmother would be thrilled with the chance to add all this chlorophyll and vitamin C to her family’s diet. And I, too, could be dining on fresh, wild produce. I know what it looks like. I know to pick dandelion greens in wild places where they haven’t been treated with chemicals. And I know where there’s a mighty fine patch of ramps.

But I’m not planning to head out with my foraging basket any time soon. Honestly, I’m just not that fond of these fresh, wild greens that were basically a matter of survival for my ancestors. Maybe I need another generation or two between me and this not very glamorous foraging–not for delicacies–but for sustenance.

I have a friend who took a cooking class in France. They prepared creasy greens and rabbit. Hmmm. So. They cooked plants my grandmother would have gathered in the ditches with meat my grandfather would have shot or trapped. I’m sure it was delicious, but it seems incongruous to me that this is haute cuisine.

I’m all for home-grown foods; for native foods indigenous to a place. But ramps make you stink. Poke turns poisonous later in the season and fiddleheads? Well, I prefer to just look at them.

Bon appetit.

Appalachian Thursday–Lean Months

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Spring dreams . . .

At the grocery store these days, I can buy strawberries and asparagus. This (along with a few days in the 60s) adds to my delusion that it’s spring. I could even try to trick myself into thinking it’s summer with corn-on-the-cob, tomatoes, and okra.

My great-grandmother had no such luxury. Mid-February was the lean time back in the early 1900s when she was growing up and raising her family. February 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 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.

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 a sort of “make-do” recipe when the cupboards are bare and the second a method for preparing those early greens just as soon as they peek through last fall’s leaves.

APPLESAUCE PIE
Leftover biscuits
1 jar applesauce
1 tsp. cinnamon
Dash of nutmeg
1/3 cup brown sugar

Slice cold biscuits and layer in a pie plate. Top with applesauce (how much is up to you). Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Crumble brown sugar over everything. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or so–long enough to melt the brown sugar and form a crust over the pie. Run it under the broiler for a few minutes if needed. Dish into a bowl and if you have any cream, pour a little of that over each serving.

FRIED POKE
Caution, only the tender, young leaves are edible–the root, and most parts of the mature plant are toxic. Which is why I don’t eat poke . . .

1 lb fresh, tender greens
3 or 4 strips bacon
Salt & pepper
Apple cider vinegar

Set greens to boil in water for 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse. While greens are boiling, fry bacon until crisp and set aside. Add cooked greens to hot bacon grease and fry. Add salt, pepper, and a splash of apple cider vinegar (all of these to your taste). Top with crumbled bacon.

 

 

Appalachian Thursday–WV’s Most Important Holiday

Going HuntingIt’s almost holiday time in West Virginia. Oh, sure, there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the REAL festivities begin on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The first day of deer season.

Many schools are out all week because, well, no one would come if they were open. Teachers, students, staff–they’re all out “celebrating” deer season.

So how does one celebrate? If you’re a hunter, it’s obvious. You go hunting. But what about non-hunters? That was always me. I know plenty of women who enjoy hunting, but I don’t happen to be one.

Even so, the week was a fun time for me growing up. First, we were out of school. Second, there was plenty of company. Friends and family would come to the farm to hunt, eat, nap, and tell tall tales (those seemed to be the primary activities). Which meant we got to indulge in junk food, questionable conversation, and interesting schedules.

One friend worked for Lays and would bring us a case of potato chips. We NEVER got potato chips. Hunters eat packaged cookies, processed lunch meats, soda–it’s kid heaven. There’d be a fire in the fireplace, funny stories we didn’t always understand, early mornings, and as soon as someone got a deer–venison tenderloin seared in butter.

Here’s one of my favorite deer season recipes. My dad is the master of this one. Mmmm, I could eat a plate full right now!

VENISON GRAVY
butter
1 smallish venison roast
flour
milk
water
salt and pepper to taste

Partially freeze the venison roast (or, if it’s already frozen, partially thaw it).  Melt a knob of butter in a skillet. Shave off pieces of venison until you have enough for however many are hungry and fry in the butter. As soon as the meat begins to brown add almost as much flour as you did butter and cook for a few minutes to get rid of the flour taste. Splash in some milk and stir, stir, stir until that begins to thicken. Alternately add water and milk until your gravy is bubbling and the thickness you like. Salt and pepper to taste (lots of pepper really is in order here). Serve spooned generously over hot biscuits (not from a can–please, not from a can).