Old houses, spirits and comfort food

By Karen Dill • Special to Smoky Mountain News

October is a glorious month. Brilliant colors dot the mountains against clear blue Carolina skies. Fall leaves turn our world into an amazing canvas and spirits soar like the geese that fly high in the sky toward their winter place. It is one of the last times that we can enjoy basking in the warm afternoon sunlight and storing up warmth for the long winter days ahead.

The warm days will grow shorter and meld into cool evenings. Thoughts turn inward, and the mind creates ghostly images as we walk in the evenings toward our warm homes. As I walk along Buchanan Loop in the late evenings, dogs in tow, I recall the wonderful ghost stories from my childhood. In comparison to the current horror and gory movies, these stories now seem tame, but as a child and even as an adult, they have an eerie and realistic quality.

My father told stories of walking home from school or from an old sawmill in Bethel on late October evenings up the long and winding road to his weather-beaten shack. After enduring many terrifying minutes of the sound of deep breathing and spotting yellow eyes in the bushes, he would encounter a mountain panther (he called it a “painter”). I had never seen this creature in person or in a book but at nights, I was sure he was breathing and crouched beneath my bed at night in Bethel. Hollywood has yet to recreate the terror that this story delivered.

My mother would recall similar stories of night creatures, but my favorite story was her encounter with a white horse on a dark October night in downtown Asheville. She was working during WWII as a telephone operator in the old Southern Bell building at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street. As she left her late night shift following a series of strange calls over the telephone switchboard, she walked onto the street under a full moon. As she continued down the street for a few feet, a white horse with neither saddle nor rider appeared and galloped straight for her. My mother was frightened of horses, but this one simply passed her by, turned the corner and disappeared up Lexington Avenue. Cold chills creep up my spine as I picture the scene, but I love the image of that beautiful white ghost horse. This encounter turned out to be an omen to an event (the disappearance of her first love) in my mother’s life that would forever change her.

When my husband and I bought a house in Webster in 1990, we began to create our own ghost stories. The old house that we bought came with ghosts, we soon discovered. Our two-story farmhouse was built in the late 1800s. It is rambling and rustic and we dubbed our décor as “shabby chic” long before Martha Stewart made it popular. We arrange throw pillows over stuffing leaking from worn holes in the wingback chairs facing the fireplace. We favor comfort over style, and the spirits seem to approve.

The dining room is haunted, we decided, after moving into the house. Neither animal nor construction worker would linger after dark. This room is the perfect setting for an October dinner. The candles are lit to hide the cobwebs lacing the ancient chandelier that dangles over the dining table. Fresh flowers, linen napkins and the good china complete the scene and await our guests. The lace curtains flutter softly in a breeze that may indeed be created by spirits circling the room.

I choose a menu that utilizes the wonderful foods in season. October calls for comfort foods that warm the chilly evenings and placate the shivering spirits. I love to coordinate foods with the seasons and I look forward to each step of the preparation. This is an inherited trait from a long line of mountain women. Food is comfort; a form of self-expression and a creative gift of love. When words fail (as they often do in this culture of hard scrapple survivors), food speaks volumes.

I create with food. I daydream about recipes and dinner menus. I read cookbooks in our spooky old house at night as intensely as I read a good novel. Despite the simple cuisine of my childhood, I long for the exotic. I love to combine the simple tastes of ordinary foods with touches of exotic flavor from faroff places. A dinner gathering provides the perfect audience for this expression, and the season provides the perfect fall foods.

For this meal, I decide that a rustic theme will suit the ghosts of the dining room and will accommodate the freshest local foods available at the Sylva Farmer’s market. We will begin with a salad that I’ve adapted from a recipe taken from the October 2009 Bon Appétit magazine. The actual recipe calls for spiced pumpkin, lentils and goat cheese. I substitute the suggested French green lentils for our regular lentils that are easily found in any grocery store. I roast the pumpkin pieces according to the recipe but serve them over a bed of baby greens instead of arugula. Instead of crumbled goat cheese, I sauté a medallion of local goat cheese (Dark Cove is my favorite) in butter that I have dipped in egg and coated with breadcrumbs. The warm goat cheese medallion melts with the sweet and spicy pumpkin wedges over the tart greens creating a delightful mixture of taste and texture.

As I serve the salad, I take hot cheese biscuits from the oven. There is no real recipe for these — I simply combine self-rising flour (White Lily is my southern favorite) with heavy cream and shredded cheddar cheese and plop spoonfuls of the mixture on a baking sheet. They cook quickly and are delicious. A note of caution: mountain cooking is not for the faint of heart. Bacon grease, heavy cream, and butter are staples and while used sparingly, they will all be found in this meal.

I’ve chosen pork, sweet potatoes and kale as the main dishes. These were plentiful in my childhood and to this day, signify the return of cold weather for me. They were comfort foods long before we knew what to call them. My husband, Tom has grilled the pork tenderloin over charcoal and hickory chips earlier in the day. I’ve basted the pork with a raspberry chipotle sauce that delivers a distinct kick.

Right before serving, I will heat the pork loin and slice into thick medallions. The medallions will be served over a bed of apple and Asian pear slices that I have sautéed in butter with sprinkles of brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger. The raspberry chipotle sauce will be drizzled over the pork with a few fresh raspberries thrown into the mix. This sauce is too hot for some tastes, but I’ll provide a bowl of the sauce to pass around the table for those who enjoy an extra bite.

The sweet potatoes are mashed with butter and heavy cream (I warned you) and drizzled with bit of local honey that my friend and colleague Devlin Wilde has given me from his bee hives. The tart Asian pear and sweet apple slices blend nicely with the sweet potatoes. The fresh kale is first blanched, then chopped into smaller pieces and finally thrown into a frying pan that I have used to cook several bacon and onion slices. I add sugar, vinegar and some red pepper flakes to the greens and top with bits of bacon and cooked onion.

I serve corn muffins as well as the biscuits with this part of the meal. Pork and greens simply require cornbread. I’ve added chopped onion, some leftover frozen corn kernels from our garden and some red and green chopped bell peppers to the cornmeal. Butter is optional but strongly recommended for the hot corn muffins.

Our guests have been greeted on our wide front porch along with the traditional dog and cat and the not-so-traditional peacock who has taken residence in our yard. He welcomes all newcomers with a bullying squawk for he is an arrogant bird. We warn him that he could easily become our evening’s entrée. I’m thinking peacock with pomegranate glaze as he struts away with an indignant bellow.

As the meal is served, we eat slowly, savoring the flavors and the company. Conversation flows as I enjoy a mug of pumpkin ale (I recommend the latest Highland October ale). We talk easily as friends do who enjoy good food and agree on a number of topics. We lament about the crazy politics in Washington and the need for better heath care, share our fears of losing our beautiful mountains to wealthy developers, and share stories of childhood, travel and of course, food.

Dessert is simple. I’ve made a fresh apple cake earlier in the week after work. I could probably make this cake in my sleep. It is an old family recipe that utilizes local apples and black walnuts. My aunts who have passed on would just roll over in their graves if any other nut was substituted for the black walnuts. I’ve saved some from our old faithful walnut tree that I’ve shelled tediously in the warm autumn sun. For tonight’s dinner, I warm the slices quickly in the microwave and serve with freshly whipped cream, finely chopped black walnuts that are sprinkled over the whipped cream, and a couple of thinly sliced apple slices for garnish.

We sip fresh coffee and enjoy the winding down of a beautiful fall evening. We are quiet, reflective as the candles flicker and lace curtains flutter in a soft breeze that appears from nowhere. Another gift of the ghostly spirits, I suppose. The spirits in the old house are apparently content with the meal and the company. Percy is mercifully silent, roosting in the oak tree outside the window. Perhaps he is dreaming of his elusive peahen or perhaps simply smug in the knowledge that he has been spared as the entrée of our dinner. As I glance out the window, I’m relieved that the October night hosts neither panther nor white horse — just a lonesome peacock and the gentle spirits of our old house.

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