Appalachian Thursday – Berry Season

HelvetiaSummer is a fruitful time in the soft, green mountains of Appalachia. The black raspberries are gone and the blackberries are just getting started. Typically we have MORE than enough to go round–even sharing with the bears!

When it comes to blackberries there are pies, jellies, jams, sauces, salads, and even sweet tea. But really, I think most of two things–cobbler and wine. My great-grandmother was a believer in blackberry wine to cure most things. A family story goes that when my brother was a baby he had an, er, intestinal complaint that doctors couldn’t cure. A tablespoon of blackberry wine from Grandma Jane and he was good as new!

So here’s a recipe from a booklet titled, Oppis Guet’s Vo, Helvetia. It includes recipes, household hints and cures collected by Eleanor Mailloux from the residents of Helvetia–a Swiss Village near where I grew up in WV. I don’t know if the recipe is any good, but the writing is great!

“On a lovely August day, find yourself a blackberry patch and pick a couple of gallons of berries. Put in crock and cover with water. Let set for a day–whenever you think of it mash and stir. Strain into containers and add 3 1/2 cups sugar to every gallon of juice. Usually, blackberries don’t take yeast, but for your first try you might add 1/2 cake dissolved yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water–add to juice and stir well. Ferment until stops working, put in jugs and cover tops with cloth. Let continue to work in warm place until bubbles cease to rise. When completely fermented, seal. Drink the following spring.”

And for a more practical recipe, you might try this cobbler from the Jubilation Cookbook for the Joyful Woman given to me by Anna Cutright in January 1989.

Blackberry Cobbler – Margaret Holmes
-Put 1 stick of butter in a deep dish and put into oven at 350 degrees.
-Mix: 2-4 cups blackberries with 1 cup sugar
-Mix: 3/4 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup sweet milk, 2 tsp. baking powder
Stir into a smooth batter. Pour batter gently into center of melted butter. DO NOT STIR. Gently pour fruit into center of melted butter and batter. DO NOT STIR. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.

My advice would be to serve that with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream!

Appalachian Thursday – The First Cutting

grassesWe’re finally having some truly warm weather with days that might even be what you would call “hot.” And as summer approaches, I’ve seen some folks in the area start to put up the first cutting of hay.

When I was a kid, the first cutting typically came pretty close to the last day of school. For so many children, summer meant freedom–going to the pool, plenty of time to play, vacations. For my brothers and me it meant working in the hayfield–or the garden.

Until I got old enough to be more help than hindrance in the field, my job was to carry Mason jars of ice water out to the workers. Not a hard job, though fresh-cut stubble is mighty hard on bare feet.

When I got a bit bigger, I stacked bales as they were tossed onto a wagon moving slowly through the fields. It’s important to alternate rows for a secure stack. Some days I got to drive the tractor which is almost fun until you get to a steep hill and have to stop and start without jerking bales (or people) off the wagon.

And there was always the need for extra hands to unload the wagon (we used a hay elevator to carry the bales to the barn loft) then to stack the hay inside. I can remember more than one rush to the barn as dark clouds swarmed the sky. Rain is NOT good for hay.

And then the best part–a long shower or a trip to the swimming hole to wash the chaff from places you wouldn’t think it could go. It’s almost worth getting that hot, sweaty, and dirty just so to feel cool water sluice across your skin. Then a well-earned supper perfectly seasoned by the day’s labor. I don’t remember what we ate, but it was good.

Now don’t let me fool you. I worked, but nearly so hard as my brothers and the other boys and men my dad hired to help. Sometimes it pays to be the girl.

And now, as an adult, when I drive by a field of freshly mown hay, or see a farmer tedding in preparation for the rake, then the baler, I roll down the car window and breathe deeply. The smell reminds me of the satisfaction of a barn full of hay ready for winter. And it almost makes me wish I could spend a day sweating under the summer sun.

Almost.

A May Day Posey for Your Virtual Doorknob

There’s an old-time tradition of hanging May baskets on people’s doors on the first day of May (May Day). Small paper cones or other containers would be filled with candy, small gifts, or flowers, then hung–anonymously–on someone’s door. Of course, hanging a May basket on the door of someone you admired romantically was a common twist.

I think this is an utterly charming tradition and wish we still did it. Sort of a spring Valentine’s Day that hasn’t been taken over by the greeting card companies and commercial businesses looking to mass produce plastic May baskets.

And since tracking all my readers down to hang a basket on their front doorknob is impractical, I thought I’d send you a virtual basket of flowers courtesy of my April hikes. I wish I could present you with an actual bouquet, but hope this virtual one will bring you the joy of spring just the same.

Song of Songs 2:10-11 – See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land.

Appalachian Thursday – Foraged Food

morel2
Found this beauty last weekend and brushed the leaves back for someone who will be delighted by a fresh morel.

Spring is prime foraging time in the woods where we hike. We often see folks out with baskets or net bags and I know they’re looking for tasty tidbits to add to dinner.

Personally, I’m more of a catch and release forager. I love finding things I could eat, but I’m not really all that interested in actually consuming them. Plus, I know just enough about wild mushrooms to realize there’s a fair chance I might poison myself. I just take a picture and move on.

But I often think about my ancestors eating these plants not because it was cool or trendy, but because they were hungry. Especially for something green after a long winter of preserved foods.

Wild foods are so popular these days that there’s actually a company here in Asheville, NC, called No Taste Like Home Wild Food Adventures. You can call them up and book a guided foraging trip. I haven’t had any dealings with them (although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen their groups in the national forest where we hike), but I like the disclaimer on their website, “You can’t learn to forage from a website. Always learn from an expert, preferably, your parents.”

Which is a little bit ironic, because while my great-grandmother knew all about foraged foods and remedies, she would have taken pride in having children and grandchildren who didn’t need such knowledge.

Last weekend, I called Dad and asked him if he ate that stuff when he was a kid. Not really, he said, although there was a great aunt who did. Folks ate poke sallat, creasy greens, and ramps, but they didn’t brag about it. As a matter of fact, if they ate ramps, they’d skip church that week for fear of being too stinky.

As a seventh-generation Appalachian, I’m glad to have some idea about the sorts of things I can eat in a pinch, but mostly I’ll be sticking with the farmer’s market and grocery store.

Appalachian Thursday – Allium tricoccum

GE DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this week I was cutting through the woods on the mountain back of the house when I saw a lush patch of green off through the trees. I recognized it right away.

It’s ramp season in Appalachia.

I found an on-line article that said, “Ramps are a spring ephemeral of deciduous forests in eastern North America.” Man, I like the sound of that.

I pulled up just two, chopped them in butter and made a cheese omelette that evening. I’ve long felt ramps should be more of a seasoning or garnish than a main dish. It also saves others from having to smell me as my body processes the stinky plant.

Ramps were a spring tonic back in the day–and I suppose they still are. The first wild, fresh green of the season packed with nutrients. But now–NOW–ramps are trendy. Plenty of downright ritzy restaurants are weaving ramps into their spring menus.

My chef friend Dale Hawkins in Buckhannon, WV, posts his daily special for a full month at a time. On April 10 he’s offering: Pork Roast w/ Sauerkraut, Fried Potatoes & Ramps. I’d eat that. The Marketplace here in Asheville, NC, is offering a lamb dish with ramp pesto.

My theory is that trained chefs have hit on the right formula for cooking ramps. They really ought to be treated as a condiment–a flavoring or seasoning. Sure you can blanch them then fry them in a little bacon grease and sprinkle on the vinegar, but if you don’t regret that dish your close friends will.

It might be better to chop a few and add them to a potato and bacon hash or mix them with scrambled eggs. Or better yet, find some outstanding chefs somewhere in Appalachia and see how they’re working their magic on the legendarily stinky first fruit of the season.

Love it or hate, you just LOST an hour

sunrise with deer
The sun will STILL rise and set on its own schedule.

We’re now on Daylight Saving Time–or “fast time” as my grandmother called it (since that first day just flies by!). Blech. My circadian clock is firmly meshed in a standard 24-hour cycle. Yesterday, someone robbed me of an hour (hmmm, I think that was an hour of writing time!).

Some helpful folks out there offer tips for dealing with the lag created by the time change, but I’m not sure they’re all that practical.

The first is to set your clock ahead in 15 minute increments for four days prior to the change. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my schedule without changing a standing 10 a.m. appointment to 10:15, then 10:30 . . .

Another tip is to go to bed an hour early the night before. Done. But it’s DARK when I get up now, so I’m not fooling myself at all. I’m just well rested AND grumpy about how dark it still is when I take Thistle for her morning constitutional.

Studies even show that the incidence of heart attacks rise the day after we “spring forward” and decrease after we “fall back.” Can’t we leave the clock alone for the good of our collective health?!?

I know, soon enough I’ll be adjusted and will enjoy more daylight each evening for dog walking, writing, hiking, or just sitting on the porch. But I still don’t like the time change. Hopefully, one day I’ll live like my great-grandma Jane. She got up when it was light and went to bed when it was dark, letting her body tell her what was needed.

Because our bodies are smart. Waaaay smarter than whoever came up with Daylight Saving Time. And now, my body is suggesting that one of those peanut butter Easter eggs in the pantry would help me adjust–or at least distract me from the need to adjust.

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?