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.
(loosely based on the recipe from the October 2009 Bon Appétit magazine)
• 3/4 cup lentils
• 6 cups 1-inch pieces peeled seeded sugar pumpkin (from about one 2-pound whole pumpkin or butternut squash)
• 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika (found in most grocery stores—I found mine in the Fresh Market Grocery in Asheville or you can add some cayenne pepper to smoked paprika for the same effect)
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
• 4 cups of baby greens
• 1 log of soft goat cheese log, sliced into ? inch medallions, dipped in an egg mixed with a little cream and coated with finely chopped breadcrumbs (I use the packaged Progresso kind)
• 1/4 cup thinly sliced mint leaves
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Soak lentils in cold water for about 10 minutes. Drain and cook in salted water until tender but firm, about 30 minutes. Drain lentils. Rinse under cold water, then drain.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place pumpkin in large bowl, toss with 2 tablespoons oil, cumin, paprika, and sea salt. Arrange pumpkin in single layer on baking sheet; roast 20 minutes. Turn pumpkin over. Roast until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool.
Combine lentils, pumpkin, and oil from baking sheet with mixed baby greens, mint, vinegar, and 1 tablespoon oil. Season with salt and pepper. Right before serving, sauté goat cheese medallions in olive oil and a little butter to help brown the cheese.
Divide the salad mixture among plates and place the warm goat cheese medallion on top of each salad.
• 1 1/2 cups Wesson oil
• 4 or so medium sized apples, chopped finely (I use a couple of red delicious and a couple of yellow delicious apples); It is ok to leave the peelings on but I usually don’t.
• 1 cup of black walnuts, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 2 cups of white sugar
• 3 eggs
• 3 cups sifted plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
Cream together oil, sugar and eggs in a mixer. Add dry ingredients and fold in apples and nuts. Add vanilla. Place the mixture in a greased, floured bundt pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour or so. Test with a toothpick or broom straw for doneness in the center of the cake. Because this cake is so moist, I rarely frost it. It gets better after a few days but is delicious right out of the oven.
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 cup small diced onion
• 2 teaspoons minced garlic
• 2 teaspoons chipotle chilies in adobo, chopped
• 2 pints raspberries, rinsed
• 1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
In a medium saucepan, heat oil. Add chopped onion and cook, stirring until slightly caramelized—about 4 minutes. Add the garlic to the pan and sauté for 1 min. Add the chilies and cook, stirring continuously for 1 minute. Add the raspberries and cook until soft, 2 or 3 minutes. Add the vinegar and stir to deglaze the pan. Add sugar and salt, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until thickened and reduced by half, about 8 to 10 min. Remove from heat and cool before using.
For a clear glaze, strain through a fine, mesh strainer by pressing on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible.
*A note: I love this sauce but if I’m pressed for time, there is a nice bottled raspberry chipotle sauce (brand is Dan T’s Inferno) that is sold at Sam’s Club and other good brands of raspberry chipotle at Fresh Market. It works just fine in a pinch.
September in the mountains is an emotionally poignant time as it signals the end of summer and the beginning of fall in a dramatic show of color against a sky of brilliant blue. It carries an air of bittersweet longing accompanied by a scent of dying flowers and burning leaves as well as a sense of transition. Comings and goings, good-byes and tears all flood the soul like the swollen mountain streams. September is a time of changes that pull at the heart.
The mornings have become cooler with a hint of fall in the air. The days are still warm but shorter and the evenings chilly. Local churches organize homecomings and invite their members, old and new, to join in a day of reunion. There is singing of old hymns, delicious foods, handshakes and hugs through laughter and tears.
In 1971, I left my small Bethel community in September to attend college. I was a first generation college student and had little more than hopes and dreams of escaping mountain life to steer my course. My goal in life at that time was to leave this backwater community at any cost. This was a goal that I would both achieve and regret to some degree. Appreciating one’s childhood home is not a reality until a few years and many tears have passed.
This new world of freedom in a university was not only intoxicating but also filled with contradictions and disillusions. It was the 1970s. The Vietnam War continued hopelessly as young men died or came back broken in body and spirit. Racial disturbances continued. Richard M. Nixon lied to the nation about his role in the Watergate scandal. Our leaders were flawed. My newly found freedom was more than a little marred by the ugly truths of politics, wars and injustices. It was my first realization that life was far from simple. I was learning that personal freedom is rarely achieved without struggle and change.
I managed to avoid going home for months and when I did, I would pull out of our dirt road in my boyfriend’s VW bug early Sunday morning to avoid the inevitable church attendance. Finally in late September 1973, I was caught. I would attend the annual Homecoming at my childhood Baptist church. No argument. My mother was firm; for this, young lady, was a command performance. So on a clear, achingly beautiful September morning with a slight nip in the air and the leaves beginning to turn red and golden, I headed back to a building of mere wood and mortar that housed a lifetime of warm memories.
I had agreed to shed my faded jeans for a denim skirt but wore a faded peasant blouse on which I had embroidered flowers and symbols of peace. Despite my changing beliefs in politics and religion, I loved these good people who had watched me grow up and now welcomed me home. And it was with their hugs and their quiet show of love, I knew that I could still come home.
As the strains of “Amazing Grace” filled the air, I humbly joined the church members for dinner on the grounds. I knew that I was home. The plank table held comfort food for the weary soul; food that was as predictable and made from the recipes that were handed down generation to generation; foods that the women of the church had cooked at dawn that morning. Armed with a paper plate and paper cup of sweetened iced tea, I realized that the differences were not as great as I had imagined.
The smells from the food were intoxicating, as the preacher led the congregation in a blessing for the food, this community and the many joys of this earthly life. As I listened to the preacher, I opened one eye and as I absent mindedly brushed away a fly, I gazed at the beautiful array of food. I recognized the platters of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans laden with fat back, fried corn, fresh tomatoes, trays of deviled eggs and a multitude of congealed salads and desserts of all descriptions. All was simple and fresh, without complications.
The dessert table seemed endless with old standards like strawberry short cake, banana pudding, apple stack cake and numerous pound cakes and with new arrivals such as the sock-it-to-me cake and better-than-s-e-x chocolate cake. In the Baptist Church, the word sex was not uttered but spelled aloud.
The congealed salads were congregated at the end of the table near the desserts and could be found on every plate. They must be eaten quickly as they did tend to melt on a warm September afternoon and each church member seems to have a distinct favorite. The congealed salad in the South and in the mountains of North Carolina carries a history that probably began as regular bowl of jello spiked with some canned fruit cocktail. The dish evolved quickly from that humble beginning and became the star of the “church circuit.”
New “church circuit” dishes seem to begin with an initial preparation by women in a church, probably the Methodist, as I imagine their tastes to be more sophisticated than the Baptist. Once approved by the congregation at one of the many potluck occasions, the dish is then deemed worthy of making the circuit and travels by word of mouth or those little recipe cards to other congregations.
A host of congealed salads (most containing the inevitable crushed pineapple and Cool Whip) had made the circuit as well as the ever-popular casserole. In the mountains and rural South, these dishes were a definite departure from the simple dishes of fresh vegetables and meats. They combined flavors and textures and were exotic to the simple rural tongue. They caught on like wildfire. And as each new dish was tried and tested and ultimately made the church circuit, it was added to the annual church cookbook. Many of these cookbooks had separate sections for casseroles and congealed salads though I suspect that this also originated with the Methodists.
As I gazed the usual selection of salads, I recognized my favorite apricot salad as well as the blueberry/cream cheese salad and even a cherry Coke salad that became popular when Coca-Cola appeared in cans. But there — innocently nestled among the faithful was a newcomer — a strange green concoction with what appeared to be miniature marshmallows, a canned fruit and some brown objects. This new dish, my mother proudly crowed was ... Watergate salad! No one seemed to know why or to care exactly how this glowing green glob was christened “Watergate Salad” but it seemed to be all the rage.
Timidly, I made room on my paper plate for the strangely named Watergate salad, secure in the conviction that I would find its taste as disgusting as its looks. I was wrong. I identified the green fluffy stuff as pistachio pudding, the white blobs as marshmallows and the dark pieces as chopped pecans. The combination of sweet and salty unfamiliar to my palate was delicious. I was hooked and unabashedly returned to the table for two or three more helpings.
The recipe, tucked in the pocket of my bell-bottom jeans, was carried back to my dorm room. I impressed my new college friends with the dish and I continue to revive it throughout the years (adding red maraschino cherries at Christmas for a festive look). It is out of vogue now — replaced by other more sophisticated dishes on the church circuit, but I pull out the ingredients every now and again and remember ...
I remember the color of leaves in late September, the brilliant blue of an early autumn sky, the smell of dried leaves and wood smoke. I remember the moment in time when a still innocent young girl could return home and despite disillusion, despite the beginning of a cynical mind, could enjoy the sweet and the salty taste of Watergate salad at a church homecoming and shed a few tears of gratitude and homesickness for the simple life she had left.
Throughout the years I have continued to fix “Homecoming” foods but do change them to suit my changing tastes. I love the simple foods but choose to add my personal signature to familiar dishes. I add a dash of ground red chili pepper to the fried chicken and I bake chicken breasts with olive oil rather than with my mother’s lard scooped from a tin can.
I have numerous variations of the deviled eggs from a dash of curry powder to the addition of capers, cilantro or tarragon — all delicious. The changes may enhance the familiar tastes but the freshness and flavor in these good mountain foods remain the same. I may not get up at dawn to prepare my dishes, but I cook with the same love and attention that the women of my mother’s generation cooked their Sunday dishes.
While I wouldn’t dare change the sinful dessert recipes, I do limit them to once or twice a year and give the leftovers away as soon as I have had a helping. Too much “better than s-e-x cake” cannot be good for the waistline, but I miss the days when I could easily eat several helpings.
Old habits can be changed; new recipes can evolve from traditional ones; and old beliefs can be revised. I still hold the belief that God is larger than any one church or religion; that God is as present in the quiet of a forest or in the dark corner of one’s soul as in a church filled with golden offerings; that God is seen most often in the eyes of children and dogs.
I am still rather cynical about truth in politics and I keep a suspicious eye on the wealthy and the pompous, but I do believe in the possibility of change and the probability of transformation with love. While Nixon lied to a nation, Watergate salad made its debut among the old standards in a small Baptist church in Bethel, North Carolina. The simplicity of mountain foods can be enhanced to fit changing tastes and healthier habits. A young mountain girl could go back home again and be welcomed with open arms. If cynicism can give way to a heartfelt tears shed on a Homecoming Sunday in late September, then almost anything is possible.
• 1 (3.4 ounce) package instant pistachio pudding mix
• 1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, with juice
• 1 cup miniature marshmallows
• 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
• 1 (12 ounce) container frozen whipped topping, thawed
In a large bowl, mix together pudding mix, pineapple with juice, marshmallows, and nuts. Fold in whipped topping. Chill. Eat on a late September day, wearing a tie-dye shirt and faded jeans.
Apricot Congealed Salad (my favorite)
• 1 (8 ounce) crushed pineapple
• 1 (3 ounce) box apricot gelatin
• 1 cup buttermilk
• 1 (8 ounce) container Cool Whip
• 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Heat crushed pineapple and jello until dissolved. Refrigerate until cool. Add buttermilk, cool whip and nuts. Refrigerate until set.
Deviled eggs are pretty simple fare and there are numerous variations.
• 7 hard-cooked eggs
• 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
• 1 scant teaspoon prepared mustard
• 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
• salt and pepper
• paprika, optional
Cut 6 of the hard cooked eggs in half lengthwise. Scoop yolks out of egg halves. Press yolks and remaining whole hard cooked egg through a sieve into a small bowl. Stir in mayonnaise and mustard; season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with a little paprika, if desired, and top each deviled egg half with an olive half, cut side up. Makes 12 deviled egg halves.
Variations to the basic deviled egg recipe:
• Add some pickle relish and top with a sliced green or black olive.
• Use ranch dressing and cream cheese instead of mayo with chopped onion and pickle
• Add scallions and a dash of curry powder to the basic recipe
• Add cumin, Dijon mustard, 1 chopped jalapeno pepper, a dash of red chili powder and top with snipped cilantro
• Add chopped smoked salmon and top with green onions
• Add a touch of horseradish and freshly ground black pepper
• And my favorite: add capers and sprinkle with freshly snipped taragon
Oven Fried Chicken
Spicy oven fried chicken recipe with chili powder, a little cinnamon, cumin, and lime juice.
• 4 chicken breast halves
• 2 tablespoons honey
• 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
• 1 teaspoon finely grated lime peel
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon chili powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
dash cinnamon or allspice
• 2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
• 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
• 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
If desired, remove skin from chicken. Combine honey, lime juice, peel, salt, chili powder, cumin, pepper, and cinnamon or allspice in a large shallow bowl. In a large bowl combine the bread crumbs, chopped cilantro, and vegetable oil. Dip chicken in honey mixture, turning to coat well. Add coated chicken to the bread crumb mixture, patting on crumbs. Transfer to a foil-lined baking pan. Bake at 425° for about 30 minutes, or until chicken is browned and juices run clear. Serves 4.
Better than S-e-x Chocolate Cake
• 1 German chocolate or other chocolate cake, baked, 13x9x2-inch
• 3/4 cup fudge topping
• 3/4 cup caramel or butterscotch topping
• 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
• 6 chocolate covered toffee bars
• 1 tub of whipped topping or whipped cream from a can
Do not remove cake from pan. After the cake has cooled, make holes in the entire top of the cake using a large fork or the handle of a wooden spoon. Pour (one at a time) fudge, butterscotch, and condensed milk over the top of the cake and let each flavor soak in before adding the next. Crush 3 of the candy bars and sprinkle on the top. Frost the cake with the whipped topping (or decorate with squirts of canned whipped cream) and crush the 3 remaining toffee bars to decorate the top. Try to keep your hands off of this great cake before serving! Serves 12
By Karen Dill • Special to The Smoky Mountain News
August in the Appalachian Mountains is a time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Summer is winding down, and we look for simple and free escapes to get through the end of the hot days. Wading in a cool stream, walking barefoot in the heavy dew of the early morning and eating ripe tomatoes straight off the vine are only a few of the ways to enjoy August in the mountains. Meals are ones that are easy to prepare, take up little energy and utilize ripe vegetables from tired gardens that are winding down in the August heat.
My first child was born in late August 1980. I can still remember the sultry heat, the heaviness of my body, and the sweet smell of ripe tomatoes that seemed to be forever in my mind. Indeed I felt like a large tomato plant in August; lumbering, awkward and overladen with fruit (or child). I seemed to crave ripe tomato sandwiches and never tired of cups of cornbread and milk for supper. Though I was living in another country far away from the mountains of my childhood, my body seemed to crave the simple dishes of those long-ago Augusts.
I had always had a love affair with the tomato. I loved a sliced tomato for breakfast with scrambled eggs and with fried corn for supper. When we did not have sliced bread (light bread it was called), I would carry a tomato biscuit in my lunch sack to Bethel Elementary. I easily tolerated the teasing from the kids with sliced bread, as there are a few other lunches with leftover biscuits filled with sliced ham, bacon and even tomatoes.
Ripe tomatoes seem to mark the downhill march of summer. The air is heavy with heat and the crisp cool mornings of early summer have gone. Gardens are crowded with vegetables ready for picking. It is a bountiful time, a time of abundance and pregnant fullness. It is a time to sit back and enjoy the simple gifts of the earth.
As a child growing up in Bethel, August also meant work. My father would harvest our family garden and my mother would spend days in the sweltering kitchen canning tomatoes, green beans and preserving all of the other vegetables from the garden. And as if that were not enough, my father would lead me to the tomato fields in our valley to pick the remains of the crop and later to the tomato packing houses to gather the culls that didn’t make the cut in some imaginary tomato pageant.
My father’s friend, Way Abel, had several large tomato fields and a tomato packing house in Bethel. Earnest Beck grew tomatoes for profit also. These men were my father’s old friends and he was not too proud to ask for free tomatoes from their fields. It was in these fields that I learned the lessons of hard work. I would head to the fields with an old wooden wagon with the promise of a dollar from my father if I could fill up that wagon with good tomatoes. Sometimes, he would throw in an extra quarter for a job well done — but not every time as my daddy seemed to understand the power of intermittent reinforcement.
As the summer sun beat down on my head, I would trudge through the rows of tomatoes and pick the leftovers. I learned to pick carefully as a rotten tomato would easily squish in my hand and leave a horrible odor. I was a rather nervous child and when I could not wash my hands, I became anxious (my mother blamed my bad nerves on her side of the family). So I would try desperately to pick the red orbs with great care. During these long hot treks down each row, I decided that I wanted a future that required reading books rather than hard physical labor.
Despite the hard work involved in the harvesting of tomatoes, I grew up loving a good garden-grown tomato. My father would eat tomatoes like apples as he sat in the grass under a shade tree at the end of a tomato row. I preferred my tomatoes sliced and salted for a tomato sandwich. And I was very particular about the making of that sandwich.
The tomato had to be warm and just picked from the garden. The bread had to be white (preferably Bunny Bread). The mayonnaise (best to be Ann Page from the local A&P store in Canton) had to be thickly slathered on both sides of the bread. The tomato slices were salted. The sandwich was then neatly sliced in half, and if we were lucky enough to have some barbequed potato chips, these could be placed inside the sandwich. This addition came later in my life while I was in high school but has added a nice crunch to the standard tomato sandwich ever since. The simple pleasure of constructing a really good tomato sandwich is hard to beat.
As summer farmers well know, tomato sandwiches are only a few of the many delightful dishes from the August garden. Zucchini and yellow squash are so plentiful that neighbors have been known to leave them on doorsteps in the dead of night to avoid being caught. And because my father could not bear to waste a single vegetable, he continued to bring me baskets of those green missiles long after I had moved out of my childhood home to my own rented house on the “backside” of Pigeon River.
I was teaching 2nd grade in Canton and had a full schedule, but my father would show up on my doorstep many evenings in August with baskets of vegetables that begged to be canned, frozen or baked up into breads. I quickly learned how to bake zucchini bread and had filled a small freezer by September. He once appeared on my porch with a basket of over-ripe bananas that had given to him by a local grocer, and I stayed up until dawn making endless loaves of banana bread. I was after all, my father’s daughter. Waste not, want not.
I think that I learned the necessity of frugality and the joy of simplicity from my parents. They had few material goods but found so much pleasure from the gifts of the earth. My mother loved to grow flowers and in the summer, our yard was abloom with colorful flower carpets. My father loved to carve and restore anything that was old and ready to be thrown away. He once made me a set of clay marbles from a clay mud mixture that we dug from a nearby creek. It took days of baking in the hot sun, but the clay marbles were a treasure that I kept for years. These were reminiscent of the simple toys of his childhood.
I can still see my parents as they sat at the kitchen table with its red-checked oil tablecloth at the end of a long day in August. Fresh vegetables would grace the table as bright offerings at an altar. My father would crumble up his cornbread in buttermilk and my mother would chop a slice of onion to add to her cornbread and milk. Talk about the preparation of new vegetables from the garden would be the daily topic of conversation.
Many years and travels later, I cannot resist the allure of plentiful vegetables in August. I will wake up in the early morning planning the evening meal around the vegetables that demand to be picked. I love to see the dinner table laden with bowls of boiled okra, fried corn, squash, sliced tomatoes, boiled potatoes, and green beans. All this meal needs is a cake of corn bread and maybe some onions.
This year I have decided to try a dish that I recently heard about on an NPR show — tomato pie. It sounded a little crazy and the recipe is definitely not low-calorie, but I have decided that it is worth a try. It requires mayonnaise so it can’t be too bad even though it will be hard to rival the standard sandwich.
Fresh vegetables from the garden will accompany this strange pie. Cornfield beans are plentiful, and I fix them in the traditional mountain manner with streaked meat. A side dish of corn is simple to prepare. I scrap the kernels off the cob and saute them with some onions and chopped bell peppers in some butter. I would love to serve a side of cornbread and milk but compromise with a cornbread salad that also utilizes fresh vegetables and is pretty when constructed in a glass bowl. Blueberry lemon pound cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or dash of whipped cream will finish off this meal. This meal is a medley of simple foods that seems to inspire a quiet sense of contentment and gratitude for the earth and its remarkable bounties.
Simple pleasures are plentiful the year round in our mountains, but August seems to be a special time to enjoy them. On warm sultry days and cool evenings, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for life in a beautiful place with four distinct seasons and every imaginable type of weather. I am grateful for babies born in this hot month. I am grateful for a simple childhood that keeps me humble. I am grateful for beautiful ripe tomatoes and simple pleasures that living in the mountains bring.
1 deep dish pie shell (found in the frozen foods section)
6 medium ripe tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves (optional)
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Follow baking instructions on the pie shell package. Remember to poke the bottom of the crust with a fork to prevent bubbling. Peel the tomatoes, slice and drain as much water as possible by placing slices between layers of paper towel. Layer the sliced tomatoes, chopped onion and basil leaves on the baked pie crust. Mix together the sour cream, mayo and cheddar cheese. Salt and pepper the mixture to taste. Spread the mixture over the tomato slices. Sprinkle the top with parmesan cheese and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Slice and serve.
1 package Hidden Valley Ranch dry salad dressing
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 pan cornbread, crumbled
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 can (16 oz) black beans
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped green onions
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
10 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
2 cups of fresh corn, cut from the cob and sautéed until tender
Combine salad dressing mix, sour cream, and mayo. Set aside. Place half of crumbled cornbread in the bottom of a large serving bowl (a tall glass bowl works nicely). Top with half of beans.
In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes, green pepper and onions; layer half of this mixture over beans. Layer half of cheese, bacon, corn and reserved salad dressing. Repeat layers using remaining ingredients. Garnish with cheese and bacon bits. Cover and chill 2-3 hours before serving.
Blueberry Lemon Pound cake
2 cups butter, softened
3 cups white sugar
1 cup milk, room temperature
2 teaspoons lemon extract
1 tablespoon baking powder
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh blue berries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the lemon extract. Combine the flour, baking powder, and lemon zest; stir by hand, mixing just until blended so the batter is not over mixed. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl often. Fold in the blueberries. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan for at least 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to cool completely.
My Favorite Zucchini Bread
I like this recipe because it is super easy (I have it memorized) and has walnuts in it.
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons soda
? teaspoon salt
2 cups of grated unpeeled zucchini
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
3 cups unbleached plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup chopped walnuts
Beat the eggs, gradually beat in sugar and oil. Combine flour, soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, zucchini, walnuts and vanilla. Pour in a bread or tube pan. Bake 350 degrees for 50 minutes.
Zach takes a Boston Butt pork shoulder — the cheaper cut of meat the better. He marinates the pork overnight in a salt water and molasses mix. The next morning he removes the pork from the marinate and applies a rub of salt, pepper, paprika, chili powder, a little cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder. Zach cannot tell the exact amounts of the spices as he just adds them to taste. He smokes the pork over a charcoal and soaked hickory wood fire (keeping it at about 225 degrees) for about 10 hours in a domed smoker. Throughout the 10-hour process, he moistens the pork with an apple cider vinegar based (eastern Carolina style) sauce — if this is vague, so is Zach concerning his secret ingredients. When the pork is done, he removes the shoulder from the smoker and the pork is pulled apart with forks. More of the sauce can be added to taste.
6 strips of thick cut bacon
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno, more or less to your taste, coarsely chopped
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed with cold water
1 can (15 ounces) red kidney beans, drained and rinsed with cold water
1 can (16 ounces) Bush’s Original Baked Beans
1/2 cup of barbecue sauce
1/2 cup of catsup
? cup bourbon
4 tablespoons molasses
2 teaspoons dry mustard
? teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
Cook bacon strips. Remove from heat and slice into small pieces. Using the leftover bacon grease, saute the onion and peppers until wilted. Add the bacon pieces, onions, and peppers to the rest of the other ingredients in a baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. You can taste the bourbon in this dish!
I like to use a variety of fresh vegetables: yellow and green squash, green, yellow and red bell peppers, onions, asparagus, sliced beets, eggplant. After slicing the vegetables, I cover them with a thin layer of olive oil and Italian salad dressing. I also sprinkle some Italian seasoning over the vegetables as they cook over medium coals. This does not take very long—just long enough to make nice grill marks and produce tender vegetables. You want them a little crunchy.
Mix 1/2 cup oil (I like canola), 1/2 cup malt vinegar and 2/3 cup white sugar. I mix this in a jar and shake frequently.
Brown 1 package Ramen noodles (do not use the seasoning mix), 2/3 cup sunflouwer seeds, ? cup broken pecans with ? stick of butter over medium high heat for about 5-7 minutes. Butter burns easily so keep stirring.
Mix the browned noodle mixture with a large bag of coleslaw mix and 5 chopped green onions. Add the dressing and stir to toss. This is easy and delicious.
1 cup of butter, softened
? cup shortening
3 cups sugar
3 cups of unsifted plain flour
? teaspoon baking powder
? teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract.
Beat the butter and shortening at medium speed of electric mixer until fluffy. Add sugar, beat well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt; add alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour. Add extracts. Grease and flour a 13 X 9-inch sheet pan.. Bake for 1 hour. Let cool and frost with white icing.
1 ? cups of sugar
2 egg whites
5 tablespoons cold water
? teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In top of double boiler, place sugar, egg whites, water, and cream of tartar. Beat until thoroughly blended. Place over rapidly boiling water; beat with electric hand mixer for seven minutes. Remove from heat,; add vanilla. Continue beating until icing is of spreading consistency. Frost cake and decorate with fruit. For the 4th of July, strawberries and blueberries can be used to design a peace sign, an American flag—well, you get the idea!
By Karen Dill • Guest Writer
July brings warm and often muggy weather to the usually cool mountain glens. It brings hot sultry afternoons with thunderstorms and the smell of snakes in the damp air. July brings the occasional mosquito and, worse, relatives from far-off places who are longing for a cooler (and free) vacation for a week or two.
Although no one that I knew in Bethel had air conditioning in the late 50’s (and wouldn’t for a couple of more decades), our beautiful mountains became the mecca for savvy tourists who discovered that green trees and cool mountain streams provided relief from the hot city streets. It was cheap relief, especially if you had relatives who would willingly put you up without complaint. And though entertainment was limited, the visitors to our mountains seemed to find contentment in our evening rituals.
Most summer evenings were spent sitting in the front yard after supper watching lightning bugs dot first the ground and then the night sky. This marvelous form of entertainment was satisfying for both adults and children. Some families even allowed their children to capture the bugs in Mason jars as an extension of this entertainment. The holes punched in the tops of the metal lids might assure their existence until the wee hours of the next morning.
My mother did not approve of the capturing of the bugs and their ultimate demise. “It just seems mean,” she’d say and I passed on her disapproval of the practice to my own children. Lightning bugs are meant to enjoy in the wild and to remain free, I’d tell my children. They are living creatures, after all and deserved our respect. My daughter carried this noble principle into neighborhood squabbles over the imprisonment of lightening bugs in our own small town of Webster and the catch and release practice became part of the July tradition of growing up in the mountains.
When July rolled around, the summer seemed almost perfect. The days were warm and long; the nights cool and clear. School was out. The summer air permeated with the smells of outdoor cooking, newly mowed grass and sweet honeysuckle is a memory that is forever etched in my mind.
But alas, the bucolic mood did not last for long. For during the week of July 4, the relatives came and tranquility was suspended.
The relatives came from New Jersey. My father’s older brother who had grown up in Bethel had relocated up North after World War II when he married a Northern woman and proceeded to sire two children who were New Jersey northern-bred through and through. It was during these annual visits that I came to understand the origins of the Civil War. Northerners were just different (strange actually) and certainly did not understand our Southern ways.
When Uncle Charlie came for the annual visit, he did not come alone. He brought his two children and his wife, Aunt Margaret. I suspect that Aunt Margaret quickly tired of these visits as her sister-in-laws were as different as night from day from her. Aunt Margaret was a razor-sharp, quick, outspoken businesswoman who had little in common with my sweet, docile aunts. I loved her brazen remarks, but I suspect she was content to stay in New Jersey and work (free of husband and children) for a couple weeks rather than make the pilgrimage south. I missed her.
The cousins, however, were a different story. They were quickly bored with our “hillbilly” ways. My family had neither television nor telephone, so my entertainment consisted of reading books borrowed from the Canton Library.
The cousins laughed at our mountain accents, ridiculed our neighbors who used an outdoor toilet — we called it their “Johnny house” — and were generally disdainful of our food, our outdated clothing, and our lack of any real entertainment. But worse, they thought that lightning bugs should be captured and imprisoned (without trial) in glass jar jails. They just didn’t understand our mountain ways.
And so, while the first weeks of July were spent accompanying the relatives on mountain hikes, picnics, and fishing trips that my Uncle Charlie organized, I was also secretly freeing lightning bugs. By the end of visit, we were all ready for the grand finale — the family reunion cookout. The uncles would gather early on a Saturday afternoon to light charcoal for the grilling. All manners of meat would be cooked over the hot coals — pork roasts, chickens, hamburgers, hot dogs and freshly caught mountain trout or catfish. The aunts would supply endless bowls of potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs, banana pudding and more vegetables and desserts than I could name.
Conversation would start and stop as it does with families who have the past in common while the present is filled with jobs, children’s activities and friends. The joys of aging are many (wisdom, experience, self-confidence), but few rival the joy of entertaining people that you truly enjoy spending time with in your own backyard. “Family” becomes a redefined term. It not only encompasses the blood relatives but close friends of our own choosing.
At this year’s July 4 cookout, we had both.
Our son, Zach was here for a short visit from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he was in charge of grilling the main dish — pork roast — and making fresh mozzarella cheese. Unlike the relatives of my childhood, Zach grew up here in Webster and respects our rules and our mountain ways. He is also a spectacular cook who understands the chemistry of beer and cheese making and prepares pork with skills that his parents have yet to master.
Zach begins the evening before the cookout. He labors throughout the evening and into the next evening to bring the wonderful smoked pork to our table. I prepare bourbon baked beans, slaw, grilled vegetables, fresh tomatoes with the mozzarella cheese that Zach has prepared and in honor of the 4th of July, a simple sheet cake decorated with fresh fruit. I decide to dub it the “peace cake” after constructing a red and blue peace sign with blueberries and strawberries over white icing on the cake. It does take on a patriotic flair when I place candles that sparkle when lit. These candles (along with the lightening bugs) will be our fireworks.
The meal comes together through a communal effort. Everyone pitches in and shreds the pork under Zach’s careful watch. The vegetables are guarded around the grill by a revolving staff of guests. Everyone carries a dish to the patio as we prepare to dig in and enjoy the meal.
As our family and friends cookout winds down, we grin across the messy meal at each other in a familiar way. With family (both chosen and blood kin), it is acceptable to eat heartily and make a mess without apology. Silence is not uncomfortable and a quiet belch is blessing for the good food shared.
The peace cake is delivered to the patio amid cheers and I light the candles that sparkle like fireworks. It is not a pretty cake, but we make an optimistic toast nevertheless to the prospect of future world peace. For when family and friends can join together for a cookout, chat comfortably around a fire and share in the preparation of good food on an ordinary neighborhood patio, then maybe peace is possible. The seeds of hope seem to flourish in the quiet warmth of a July evening when simple acceptance of family (warts and all) is honored. The mosquitoes as well as annoying relatives have stayed away. Even the lightning bugs (free from the confines of a glass jar) blink their approval.
By Karen Dill
Sunburst. The word evokes a magical image. Yet, in my childhood community of Bethel, Sunburst was simply a place visited on lazy Sunday afternoons in June. It was a mere section of land beyond Lake Logan, but in my childhood memory the place seemed both mystical and wonderful — a fantasy land.
As I drive the road from my old elementary school in Bethel to the Sunburst Trout Company this month, I watch the patterns of light from the sun dapple the road and play among the trees that line the two-lane road. I remember the trips taken up this rural road as a child and the stories told by my father of his own childhood in Bethel.
When my father was 13, his father died. His family was destitute, as were many other Appalachian families in those days. At the end of seventh grade, he left the small one-room schoolhouse that he dearly loved to work at Sunburst Logging Company.
The loggers stripped the mountains above Lake Logan of trees and sent them floating down the Pigeon River’s West Fork for several miles to the Champion Fiber Company in Canton for the production of paper. It was hard work with little pay for an adolescent boy, but it meant staying in his childhood community for a while longer and avoiding starvation.
When my father turned 16, he would join the Army and fight in Europe for his country in the conflict that was to become World War II. Becoming a man at 13, working at Sunburst, and being shot in the war would forever change his life.
Despite the injuries that he sustained, my father would come home to the mountains of Western North Carolina and attempt to live a normal life. He would recall the days growing up in a valley with a few humble houses and the river running with trout. He would recall working at Sunburst Logging Company. He would recall better times with a body that was not ravished by war wounds and nightmares.
Sunburst represented a small and simple escape from Bethel. It was a place to visit on summer afternoons when my father needed to remember a time of his youth when life (despite its hardships) was simpler.
Change, it seems, is inevitable in the mountains. Sunburst Logging Company closed in 1935. The area became national forest land. It is still mostly unpopulated and the trees have grown back on the mountains. Champion Papers hit hard times a few years ago and no longer used the trees from our beautiful mountains to make their paper. Following a couple of fires in the 1940’s, the trees grew back and the area is now known as the Shining Rock Wilderness Area
The quiet mountain area of Sunburst has little to offer to tourists seeking excitement. The private lake is beautiful but restricted. The trails are steep and the camping rustic. With the establishment of the Sunburst Trout Company (www.sunbursttrout.com), this rough mountainous area is now famous for another business. Almost every restaurant in the area — from the local Jukebox Junction diner in Bethel to the nationally renowned Bistro at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville — has a version of Sunburst trout on their menu.
I do not need an excuse to visit my beloved childhood community and reminisce. And so I once again travel the road to Sunburst to remember the past and to buy the trout for the main feature in a summer dinner.
The dinner, I’ve decided, should be served on our patio at dusk. I’ve convinced my husband, Tom, to string small white Christmas lights around the patio so that the magical rippling of sparkling light can be viewed as we dine. The evening is perfect — cool and clear. Stars sparkle in burst of white light. The patio table is set with linens, fresh flowers and candles.
We begin the evening on our front porch with mint lemonade and the heavy sweet scent of the magnolia trees. Our resident peacock, Percy, has welcomed our guests with his usual flurry of beautiful feathers and male posturing in case we have forgotten that he is the alpha male of the lot.
We sip a delightful mint lemonade drink as we sit in the wicker chairs on the front porch of our old farmhouse. The mint has been freshly picked from the tender crop in our back yard. Like Percy, mint tends to be invasive and difficult to ignore, and before we can protest, he has taken a bite of mint right from the glass. We also enjoy a taste of smoked trout dip that I purchased from Sunburst. It is delicious with crackers.
The rainbow trout has been skinned and grilled over charcoals. It cooks quickly over the grill and is basted with melted butter and fresh chopped herbs from my garden. I serve the trout with a lemon caper sauce that is optional for those who aren’t crazy about capers.
I have roasted fresh asparagus spears in olive oil and lemon zest. As they are removed from the oven, I sprinkled freshly shaved parmesan cheese over the spears. The risotto is cooked with heavy cream and herbs and is topped with grilled mushrooms and a few shards of parmesan cheese. Because this is a rich (in taste and calories) dish, I serve it sparingly.
Although the trout, risotto and asparagus are easily a full meal, I want to try an interesting recipe that calls for roasted beets and spicy pepitos (I soon discover that these are roasted and spiced pumpkin seeds). We have just harvested a spring crop of beets. These will be roasted in the oven with olive oil, then tossed in a salad of mixed baby greens, goat cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds and dressed with light vinaigrette. This makes a colorful and healthy addition to this twilight meal.
For dessert, I have utilized fresh peaches that are in season from the local farmer’s market as well as blueberries picked from our local blueberry farm. I’ve combined the two to make a fruit crisp topped with a crunchy topping made from flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and crushed pecans. After baking, it is topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and served still warm. I put on a pot of coffee and the smells of berry crisp and coffee permeate the cool evening air. We carry the dessert trays to the patio. As we slowly eat the dessert while we sip hot coffee, our little group breathes a collective sigh of contentment.
From our post at the patio table, we watch the stars compete with the sparkle from the strings of lights and the flickering candles. The stars win. The night is cool and my husband, always the gracious Southern gentleman, passes out sweaters to our guests. Percy bellows his goodnights from his perch in a nearby oak tree while a whippoorwill cries softly from the woods.
Nan, one of our guests, remarks that this evening is indeed magical. I think of my father’s childhood and the struggles he endured. Could he have imagined that the Sunburst of his memory would contribute to a meal on an evening such as this? While I honor the memories with a mixture of pride and poignancy, I know that joy and sadness, fantasy and reality, are simply shades of the contrasts and contradictions of life in the Appalachian Mountains.
Change is inevitable, even in our beautiful slow-moving mountain communities. A young boy’s father dies and his life is forever changed. A harsh logging camp gives way to a trout farm; trees are cut to build houses that line the ridge tops; we dine on simple patios with an exotic bird nearby. Life moves on and fantasy is intertwined with reality through a ribbon of brilliant color. Sunburst.