In the South, Food is Love; Epilogue

Okra and Tomatoes

Dinner with Jordan and Caroline was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.  Food was part of the reason, but love had a lot to do with it.  Jordan and Caroline have both since passed on, and the pleasure of being a visitor in their home can only be shared as a memory of love.  Lucky for us, in the South food is love.  Families share cherished recipes widely, passing them like treasure through generations.  Food bridges our separation and brings the distant home.

Okra and tomatoes over rice is a simple Southern staple, rich and nourishing.  In September it’s the last of the summer’s abundance from leggy, overgrown tomato vines and tall stalks of okra.  There aren’t many ingredients, nothing but ripe tomatoes, okra trimmed and sliced, and white corn off the cob if it’s still in the garden.  There’s no need for much seasoning.  You can trick it out with onions, garlic, bacon, and sausage, but then you have something else entirely.  Embellishments get in the way of delicate flavors.  Okra and tomatoes tastes like summer.  If you’ve read this far, you deserve something nice to take home.  There isn’t really a recipe, but here are the instructions.

You need:

3 or 4 ripe tomatoes.  If they are still warm from the garden you are the luckiest person on earth.
1 lb. of okra.
2-3 ears of white corn.  If you still have silver queen you are the luckiest person on earth.
1 tbsp. sugar
Salt and pepper

Peel and dice the tomatoes.  Put them in a medium-sized pot.
Okra.  Love it or hate it. Love it for this dish or miss out.  The smaller the pods you have the better.  Bigger ones tend to be tougher and stringier. Rinse it to remove any debris from the garden.   At the thicker end where the pod attaches to the plant there’s a stem and cap.  Cut off any stem that’s left and trim around the top of the cap.  The pod is thicker there and if you don’t trim it will be tough. Using a sharp or serrated knife, slice the pods crosswise into bite-sized pieces.  Some people like to cut them lengthwise, but I think crosswise is easier to eat.  Let’s talk about the slime.  Yes, cooked okra can be slimy, but it doesn’t have to be.  One reason okra goes well with tomatoes is that the acid in the tomatoes cuts the slime and the okra thickens up the stewed tomatoes.  Perfect.

Shuck your corn and remove it from the cob.  You should have about a cup.

Add the okra and corn to the tomatoes and add salt and pepper, to taste. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce the heat.  Simmer uncovered for 20-30 minutes, until the okra is fork-tender.  You cannot mess this up.  If you cook it longer the flavors will settle and blend and it’s tasty, but it’s better if the okra isn’t mushy.

Taste a little.  If it seems bland, stir in a tablespoon of sugar and add more salt and pepper, to taste.  You want enough to enhance the flavor, but not cover up the delicate nutty taste of the okra and the sweetness of the white corn.

Serve hot with rice.  Cornbread is always good.  Have sweet tea so sweet it makes your teeth ache.

Try it out this weekend.  If fall is creeping in and it’s cooler where you are, it’ll warm you up.  Have a fire in the fireplace.  Don’t light it with a splash from a jar of diesel.  If you do and you lose an eyebrow it’s your own damned fault.

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In the South, Food is Love, Part 4

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Jordan and Caroline Holloway’s house is an almost magical embodiment of a sense of place.  To get there from Chappells, turn left at bumblefuck and left again on the first gravel road you come to.  After about a half mile turn right onto Doc Holloway road, and in another half mile or so of gravel you’ll begin to see an ileagnes hedge forming a wall thick enough to guard Fort Knox.  A mailbox on the left alerts you to a break in the hedge that reveals a dirt drive.  That’s it, hang a right.  As the drive curves onto the property, the house, a log and cabin with expansions added over the years in neat siding, comes quietly into view.  Nestled at the lakeshore under tall pines, it looks like it might have grown up there, low and painted soft brown with deep-green trim.  Sturdy glass doors and a sunroom of curving glass open the house to the trees and lakeshore.  Jordan, with the help of his close companion Ed, built the cabin with their own hands as a retreat for the family from life in a busy medical practice in the town of Ware Shoals.  One day, unbeknownst to Caroline, he sold the house in town lock, stock and barrel and moved them to the lake for good.  She grieved only for the loss of her clock on the mantel.  They set about making the lake cabin a home.

The house greets a visitor warmly, with comfortable rustic furnishings; an old wooden wagon seat polished to a sheen serves as a coffee table.  Barrels hold lamps beside the chairs and couches.  None of it is the precious cabin décor of a vacation house, but objects found round about, repurposed and functional. Every wall and corner is filled:   paintings, photographs, sculpted wooden gourds, feathers, moccasins, snares that fell Alaskan caribou.  All put the eye and imagination to work.  A huge fireplace handmade from river stones fills nearly one whole wall of the main room, and from his mount above the mantel Cedric presides over all.  In a former life Cedric was a tremendous moose with a magnificent rack of antlers.  He showed up at the house one day packed in a crate, a trophy stuffed and mounted.   He was domesticated for family life, dressed in a red-and-white checked tie and a corncob pipe.  Jordan was a complex man, a lover of poetry and chess and his grandchildren, but hardened by a brutal tour on Iwo Jima that left him with a deep misanthropy.  He showed a stern visage to the world, but spent his life healing the country people with compassion, accepting payment in chickens if necessary.  Cedric was the twinkle in his eye, the visible sign of good humor and a boyish love for a good prank that remained in him.  Sadly Cedric recently ended his tenure above the fireplace with a tremendous crash that left a large dent in the floor.  Cedric revealed a secret.  He was a taxidermy filled with concrete, weighed some hundreds of pounds, and was screwed into the fireplace with a Jordan solution that did the job at the time.  He lasted decades on wishes and miracles.  I have a photograph of the men of the family seated on that hearth:  Jordan, his son Bill, my then-husband Will, and our infant son. Cedric could well have taken out four generations.

It was dusk as Will and I followed Jordan’s truck down the drive up to the house.  We were filthy, sunburned, bug-bit and four hours late.  I became aware of my appearance.  The white blouse had crumpled a long time ago.  It was smudged with Saluda silt, as was the rest of me.  Under the straw hat my curly, unruly hair was plastered to my head.  The good Birks were a muddy memory.  Before we got out of the car I flipped down the mirror, straightened my hat (sagging chrysanthemum and all), and spit-wiped the mud off my face.  We had certainly inconvenienced Will’s grandmother, who had gone to trouble fixing dinner for us. Four hours ago.  I took a deep breath.  My mother always told me a lady does the best she can with what she has, then forgets herself and thinks of others.  I straightened my shoulders and followed Jordan into the house.  I had yet to meet Cedric, but most importantly had yet to meet Caroline.

She greeted us at the door.  Will let me go in first and followed me.  I was being thrown to the wolves.  Caroline was walking towards us at the door with a look that may have been concern or disapproval.  She was a petite, slight woman with a round, open face and small features, sharp brown eyes and an expressive smile.  She had light olive skin that showed the sun, and her long salt-and-pepper hair was wound carefully up into a neat bun.  As Will introduced me as his girlfriend she gave me a polite smile, looking me up and down with the appraisal I knew was coming.  She went to Will and embraced him. “We thought something might have happened, so Jordan went to find you,” she said. Will smiled ruefully and began to tell our tale of woe.  She looked at me and half-smiled, raising an eyebrow, “Something terrible must have happened to your hair, you’ve kept your hat on.”  Fair enough.  I asked for the restroom and she directed me.  Oh, lordy, here we go. I took off my hat and regarded the hair smushed flat to my head and the indentation on my forehead from the brim.  Nice.  I washed my hands and face, fluffed as best I could, cussed my Southern heritage and soldiered back into the fray.

Caroline stood near the kitchen and gave me a broad smile. I felt my shoulders drop from my ears. “Ya’ll come on, we’ve got dinner on.”  All that time and she had waited dinner for us.  Suddenly I realized I parched and hungry.  I could have kissed her.  A simple round wooden table was set with red and white checked placemats and ordinary plates.  Relief started to creep over me.  No fine china and silver and white tablecloths here. She went to the kitchen, a cabin galley painted barn red and separated from the main room by a wooden counter. I tentatively followed her, wanting to help but knowing a lady of her generation would not allow a guest into her kitchen.   As I hovered at the edge of the counter, she went to the stove, then smiled over her shoulder.  “Here, you can help me with this.  We’re having okra and tomatoes.”  One of my favorites.  I stepped into the kitchen.  She ladled the dish into a pottery bowl and handed it to me.  I picked up the breadbasket on the counter and took both to the table.  She poured sweet tea from a pot on the stove into a pitcher.  Her tea was a concoction so strong and sweet it made your teeth ache. “There now, Jordan, Will, we’ve got it ready, sit down.”  We.  The most ordinary act, bringing a dish from kitchen to table, carried a meaning both subtle and profound.  I was accepted; I was family.

In the South, Food is Love, Part 3

On the River

The day arrived with a hint of coolness in the humid air that would burn off by late morning.  We didn’t hurry.  We would float the river mid-morning, pull out at the farm and drive to Will’s grandparents’ house.  We’d be in plenty of time for dinner in the afternoon. The idea of dinner made my palms sweat.  Will had spent most of his childhood with his grandparents, Jordan and Caroline. He was their adored first grandchild, his grandfather’s namesake and his grandmother’s pride.  She would be looking at me with the keenest appraising eye on the planet:  the scrutiny of Southern lady fixed with laser precision on the girl with designs on her dearest.  Appearances mattered.  I ditched my usual ratty t-shirt and cut-offs for a nice white blouse and madras Bermuda shorts, topped off with a straw hat adorned with a fake white chrysanthemum.  And my good Birkenstocks.  Don’t judge.  It was the ‘80’s.  Truthfully, a zebra-striped leotard would have been more suitable for the river than that get-up.  But it was a lovely day, and recollections of punting on the Thames with a mop-haired English almost-gentleman floated through my head.  The green Saluda with my intended would be even better.

Miraculously the shuttle plan went off smoothly and we arrived at the put-in at Buzzard’s Roost as the sun began to heat the muddy banks. The buzzards were ripe.  For reasons unknown to the non-avian world, any buzzard in a twenty mile radius hangs out in the trees at that spot with dozens of its closest friends.  The smell of carrion drifts along the breeze for a mile.  At least they weren’t circling.  We slid canoe on the muddy bank, and I daintily stepped in, saving my good Birkenstocks from the mud.  Will hopped into the stern.  The duct tape held!  We were seaworthy. Jon gave us a shove off the bank and a thumbs-up, probably laughing his ass off all the way to the truck.  We were off.  The river was beautiful that day.  We pushed out into the current, paddles working in fluid concert.  The sunshine and water gleaming silver off the paddles, the light resistance in the dip-and-swing of paddling, and the synergy with my partner felt beautiful.   My psyche took a long stretch and settled, relaxing into the rhythm.  Soon we had rounded a bend and out of sight.

Wildlife in and along the river is abundant.  The banks are green with trees:  oak, sourwood, poplar, willow, and wax myrtle curve low branches over the water.  Hardwoods and pines climb the bluffs. A canoe slips quietly through the water, giving little disturbance to the daily goings-on on the river.  Yellow pine warblers flit in groups through the pines, cardinals fight in a flurry of red wings over the berries on the wax myrtles.  We paddled a little ways further until we spotted a blue heron standing one-legged in the cattails close to the bank.  We lifted our paddles and drifted as the heron stood stock-still, stalking minnows.  The canoe put us nearly eye-to-eye and we sat silent, marveling at the steely blue feathers, the sinuous neck and long bill perfectly designed for hunting.  The canoe drifted closer and before we could get a paddle in to correct he spotted us, unfurled wide wings and flew.  He landed, highly offended, on the opposite bank.

We paddled on, and we moved downriver among broad rocks and eddies.  Rows of cooters lined the rocks and logs, sunning themselves.  The water was growing shallower, and I looked into the water, hoping to spot the silver flash of a bass or the broad head of a catfish.  I was rewarded with the swirl of a school of minnows boiling the water in a shallow spot near a rock.  A rock.  Dang, nobody was paying attention.  The hull scraped along the rocks but Will got a paddle on in time and pushed us off before we grounded.  Eyeing the bank I noticed erosion exposing tree roots several feet from the water.  The water level was low, and as we moved downriver was getting lower.  The current began to disappear, and we had to work harder, maneuvering together to avoid the rocks and stay in deeper water.  This was work.  The thick branches and brush hemmed us in, and we were ducking to avoid the low limbs reaching across what little deep water remained.  There is another kind of abundant wildlife along the Saluda.  Snakes.  A swimming snake is mesmerizing to watch, head just above the surface, body undulating in waves behind it, the head fixed in its direction and miraculously steady despite the rippling motion.  Fascinating, until its direction becomes fixed on you.  Thick black water moccasins love rivers.  They swim, hunt, and drape themselves in ropy loops from the low-hanging branches. A bite puts you in the hospital.  Sodom on the Saluda is a long way from a hospital.  You see where I’m going with this. Hit the wrong branch and it’s moccasin death from above raining down on your head.  In an open canoe you don’t have much in the way of self-defense from a snake in the boat.  NB:  if you are in possession of a shotgun and moccasin death from above rains down into your boat, restrain yourself.  Pee yourself. Grab a paddle and fling it overboard.  Do not shoot the snake.  One family member, and I will not name took up arms and blasted a snake to oblivion.  Victory over the snake.  However, a shotgun blast will seriously compromise the integrity of your vessel.  He and his fishing buddy could swim, but the shotgun took a hit.  Fortunately there were to be no snake attacks on us this trip.

Are We There Yet?

Unfortunately, the river got shallower and shallower until we were drawing a couple of inches of water.  Portage time.  Definitely not punting-on-the-Thames.  The good Birkenstocks were toast. The white blouse was sticking to the sweat running down my back.  To our credit there was minimal cursing and infighting and we made our way in a slow muddy slog up the river.  We’d find a stretch of deeper water and paddle without the aid of a current.  The pleasant stretch in my arms became an ache, then a burn.  In a stroke of genius, we had decided to save ourselves the trouble of hauling water.  We’d only be out a couple of hours after all.  The sun that had been beating down overhead, sunning the cooters on the logs and making the snakes happy, was frying us.  It was also beginning to skim the tops of the trees.  A couple of hours had long come and gone.  We were hot, thirsty, muddy, and I had no clue where we were.  I was certain that my intended who had grown up on this river knew it like the back of his hand and would soon guide us to the farm.  I was one-third right on that.   When I asked, ever so gently where the f*()K we were and when the f())()&k we’d be where we were going, he reminded me of his congenital lack of a sense of direction.  He looked around at the tree-lined banks, that to my bleary eye looked just like all the others, scratched his head and announced that some rocks looked familiar.  The “soon” part was not to be.  We were still in his estimation an hour or so yet.  Maybe.  He was unperturbed, and although wishing for a cold beer seemed pretty amused at our situation.  I’m sure he was mostly amused at the now-bedraggled white chrysanthemum drooping from my hat, ornamented by a few leaves left over from branches that had been whacking me in the head.  I felt my sense of humor evaporate. I was officially, seriously over it.

It was not pretty.  Finally, muddy, sweaty, exhausted and bug-bit, we reached the bluff above the river at the farm.  Thanking the river gods I forgot I was exhausted and we hauled the canoe up the bank with the strength of ten, plus three (sorry Dr. Seuss).  The canoe was intact, duct-tape and all, and in much better shape than we.  In fact, it seemed to be mocking us.  We ditched it and started through the woods along the path that would take us to the car.  The car!  Air conditioning!  Warm beer!  Just through the woods, to the edge of the field, and . . .no car.  At that time in my life you could say that I was struggling with a barely contained rage problem.  The rage problem broke through its flimsy container.  My companion stood slack-jawed, and his good nature dissolved into his rage problem.  We must have parked farther down.  Back we went into the woods, thrashing around at the edge of the fields.  It was beginning to get dark, and if it got dark were screwed a thousand ways.  We scrambled through some tall brush and broke out into a road.  Up the road a little ways was the car!  The car!  And parked next to it a beat-up Toyota pickup, with Jordan, Will’s grandfather, leaning against the hood.  His strong-featured face looked set and stern as usual, but his eyes twinkled and smile hung at the corners of his mouth.  “When ya’ll didn’t show up for a couple of hours and we didn’t hear from you, I figured I’d better come looking.”  He knew his grandchildren well.  Much of his free time was spent in the truck or on a tractor, hauling vehicles out of the mud.  Well up in eighty, he was wiry, strong, and got things done directly.  Directly meant using as much firepower at his disposal, quickly, without regard for consequences.  He lit fires by splashing a mason jar of diesel fuel in the fireplace and tossing in a match. Singe an eyebrow and it’s your own damn fault.  He looked at us with amusement and a dash of impatience at our sheer stupidity.  We made sure the car started.  It wasn’t stuck, thank the river gods. Beat and bedraggled, we crept into the car and a wave of intense relief washed over me.  And the air conditioning.  He climbed back in the truck and took off.  We hauled to keep up and followed him out.

In the South, Food is Love, Part 2

Sodom on the Saluda

The Saluda River runs through the Upstate of South Carolina, dropping down from the Piedmont to the Sandhills, into the Pee Dee River basin and on to the Congaree River. The Saluda ran its way into my life as a wide ribbon cutting into the Holloway family farm in Chappells, South Carolina.  Chappells is an unincorporated crossroads in the wilds of Newberry County.  Once a thriving small community, it is now a gas station and used-to-be post office with a loose confederation of maybe a hundred souls.  Chappells would be a town, but when the last mayor stepped down after some thirty years of service, nobody else would take the job.  Where two or more South Carolinians gather, there you will find drama. Particularly when most are related.  Despite its diminutive demographics, Chappells is otherwise known as Sodom on the Saluda.  To find the river at the farm in Chappells, go to bumblefuck Egypt and turn right onto a dirt road. Keep driving (it is really a road) until you get to a rusty gate.  There you’ll either have to get out and walk a or drive around through a field, where you may or may not end up halfway to your hubcaps in slick red mud.  The risk is worth it. Pick up the dirt road there as it winds through piney timberland and rich bottomland, rutted and muddy but semi-navigable.  A truck is recommended, but it’s possible in an Oldsmobile Delta 88. When you hit the end of the road at the edge of a field, pines give way to old-growth hardwoods.  You have to get out here and walk a little ways, but it isn’t far until you’re standing on a bluff above the river.

I’d like to say the river at this spot is a cool, fresh-running stream skipping merrily over the rocks, or a still blackwater clear as glass.  It isn’t.  It’s wide, mostly shallow, and a greenish-brown, the flow sluggish from sediment collected passing through dams and silted farmland. Some days when there’s a mishap upstream a brownish foam collects near the banks.  The Saluda is beautiful still, broad water reflecting thick green woodland along its banks.  When I stood on that bluff for the first time I was a young girl come with my boyfriend Will, whom I would later marry.  That trip was to meet his family.  They were a close-knit iconoclastic lot, well-to-do and prominent in the community.  They were welcoming and kind to me, and I would later come to know them as one of the most open and loving families that could be.  But then I was clueless, a wary stranger with my own family in turmoil. The farm was the heart of the family, and the river was the heart of the farm. Aching for acceptance, I had to love it, to love all.

Messing Around in Boats

On a clear-lit-hot-as-hell day in early September, Will and I came up with the brilliant idea to float the river.  It would be 7 or 8 miles from our put-in at Buzzard’s Roost upstream near Chappells to the farm.  He said he’d done it before and would take a few hours. Word got around. Unbeknownst to me his siblings snickered.   He wasn’t known as the most outdoorsy or sensible brother. However, his grandparents were pleased at our interest and invited us for dinner after our adventure.  Score!

The night before the trip we stayed at his family’s lake house adjacent to his grandparents’ home in Chappells, just a few miles from the river.  The grand plan was laid in an afternoon of beers on the deck with Will’s brother Jon. We’d use the green Old Town canoe propped behind the basketball goal in the yard.  We’d haul the canoe in Jon’s truck, caravan down to the farm and leave the Delta ’88.  Jon would shuttle us to the put-in, and we’d pick up the car at the farm and deal with the canoe later. I suggested that we might want to check the condition of said canoe, so in a beer or two we wandered around to the driveway to take a look. We poked at it.  It had been sitting a while, but aside from some collected leaves looked serviceable.  There were even a couple of paddles stored in a shed.  We were golden.

A few hours later we heard swoosh thump, swoosh thump, swoosh thump from the driveway. I turned to Will with a “what the f*(*&k?” look, and was met with an “oh that again” smile.   I went to investigate, Will to watch the fun.  Jon walked up the driveway towards us, a bow in his hand, a half-grinning, half sheepish look on his face.  The wooden backboard behind the basketball goal made a great archery target.  He’d shot a few.  One missed and well damn. . .he shrugged towards the canoe.  An arrow was lodged straight through the bottom.  This should have been a sign unto me.  The gods and Will’s brother were trying to save us from ourselves.  Jon apologized profusely for ruining the canoe and our plans.  There was not a mean bone in his body and that grin could sell ice to Eskimos. We couldn’t be mad. Will decided it was no problem anyway. He grabbed a roll of duct tape, pulled out the arrow, surveyed the hole and slapped a few pieces on.  It would work just fine.

Food is Love, Part 1

Light in September

It’s mid-September and here in North Carolina it’s still hot enough to peel paint off the wall. The air is thick; walking out the door is like being hit in the face with a hot, wet blanket.  August never ended.   It has drifted on for weeks, caught in that state of light only William Faulkner could describe:

“. . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”

Ruppersburg, Hugh (1994). Reading Faulkner: Light in August. University Press of Mississippi.

A few precious days of this Indian Summer are bathed in that old light.  Other days tip into a searing, clear yellow that ends the day in burning amber.  My heliotrope of a brain is bending on a fragile stem this way and that, absorbing what I can before it’s gone.

Today the light is clear and the dashboard of my car will read 90 before evening, but the leaves on the cherry trees in my neighborhood are yellow and brown and dropping thick in the yard.  Even as I’m driving my everyday route to my son’s school, the light and the dropping leaves lead me by the nose to a day on a river twenty-five years ago.  At the end of that day a slight, birdlike lady, my future husband’s grandmother, would extend a hand to me in love in the most ordinary way.

stay tuned . . .

Welcome to the Attic

Writing is a discipline.  Writing is woolgathering.  Writing flows from observation.  Writing is exploring and finding .  Writing is giving the gift of a new experience.  Writing is finding a voice.

When a writer’s wheels are rusty, nothing flows.  The creaking and groaning of trying to push forward grates and frays and nerve dwindles. Either the wheels fall off the wagon, so to speak, or discipline chips away at the rust and gunk until the flow begins again.  It is easier to give way, but the hole not writing leaves is a gnawing emptiness.

Commonplace books have been around since the 1500’s, kept by scholars and scientists, writers and ordinary people.  Commonplace books are a repository of tidbits of knowledge, notes, significant quotes, and observations that the keeper wants to reside somewhere, a scrapbook of ideas.  It’s not a chronological journal or an introspective exercise, although I make no promises about introspection.  The activity of keeping a commonplace book is called “commonplacing,”  creating storage for the mind that is more jumbled attic than file cabinet.

Blogging seems self-indulgent, taking a selfie of the brain and painting it all over the interwebs.  I prefer commonplacing.  I hope to use this blog as a discipline and a pleasure, my own jumbled attic.  I’m not selling anything or promising anything.   This commonplace book  is the process of finding a voice.  It’s a selfish activity, but if you’re patient enough to read my experiments I hope to give you a new experience. Blogging gives the opportunity for commonplacing to become a conversation.  I hope you will add your own clippings, observations and ideas to make this attic a rich and beautiful clutter.

Welcome to the attic!

Margaret McClain