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Wednesday, 27 May 2009 17:34

A Peacock Came to Dinner: A matter of pride, cooking with herbs and gifts from Percy

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By Karen Dill

Author’s note: This article is dedicated to our dear friend and neighbor, Louise Bedford, who passed away March 26 of this year. She loved Percy unconditionally and he preferred her house to ours.

On a cool mountain morning, mist will hang around our yard, playing tag with the trees and painting a mystical picture for the early riser. It is one such magical morning in late winter, and I look out the window to our back yard and see, of all things, well, a peacock.

The sight is difficult to comprehend, as peacocks are usually not seen in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I think that this must be a hallucination or a result of too much wine from the night before. Yet, there he is, neither turkey nor wood fowl. It is indeed a male peacock, minus his feathers.

I will learn later through reading the remarkable works of the Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, that the peacock in our backyard has molted and his feathers were shed in the fall. Around March, he will sprout magnificent feathers and in May, he will begin the search for a worthy peahen.

I assume that like all magical apparitions, the peacock is a one-time sighting. He has simply lost his compass, I think, and will move on to his real home on a peacock farm. Yet, he reappears that evening and again the following morning and his initial shyness gives way to boldness.

Neighbors gather and discuss “the peacock sighting.” I haven’t lost my mind. He is real. So real, in fact, that a couple who live in our neighborhood name him Sir Perceival, Percy for short. He is so named because of his regal manner, his arrogant strut and his fearless nature. Percy behaves as if he belongs here and we, the mere mortals, are somehow his subjects in a royal kingdom.

Unlike the rather demure finches and robins common to our mountains, Percy has not shred of modesty. My mother, a most humble mountain lady, believed that Pride goeth before the fall (or is it before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall?) so I was reared with a healthy dose of modesty and found Percy’s arrogant pride to be a little disconcerting. He was proud as Lucifer, as my mother might say, and I was a wee bit uncomfortable with his arrogant confidence.

The perils of pride were introduced at an early age in my household. Some of first books that my mother read aloud to me were about a young girl named Elsie Dinsmore. Soon after Elsie’s birth, her mother died but the plucky Elsie grew sweet, cheerful and modest in spite of abundant hardships. When her wicked step-mother scolded her (and she was scolded a lot), Elsie modestly “cast her eyes upon the ground” undoubtedly paving her way to a better life in the here-after.

I was taught to strive for modesty and shun prideful behavior. Humility was a virtue and showing off would surely bring pain. My mother had learned this lesson the hard way. After her own mother died, my mother went to live with an aunt and uncle who had little understanding of young girls’ needs and desires. A natural athlete, my mother longed to play basketball and defying her aunt and uncle, made the high school team in the little hamlet of Walnut.

And she was a star basking in the cheers and applause from the crowds in the gym until disaster struck. One afternoon in practice, she jumped for a pass, fell the wrong way, and broke her arm. There was no more basketball but there was also no confession, no revelation. Fearing punishment from her aunt and uncle, my mother said nothing and the broken arm was never set.

For the rest of her life, that arm caused mother considerable pain, especially when it rained. And pride, she was convinced, created the dismal collapse of her basketball days.

The epitome of pride, Percy is almost magical and works his power on us all. When he chases our cat and runs after the lawnmowers, no passerby can resist a smile.

At times, however, Percy tests our patience when he lit in on our little dog, Sam, in a race for a piece of cornbread. Sam won and even proud Percy now concedes Sam’s space. The truce works, I suspect, because Sam gives Percy a wide berth whether there is cornbread around or not.

Come May evenings, Percy appears on our patio like clockwork and we take to eating alfresco to enjoy his company. Somehow he senses when dinner guests are coming and clocks in early to check out the menu and be introduced.

He expects bites from everybody’s plate and when the conversation doesn’t suit the regal bird, his indignant squawks shatter the night air. One evening our friend Thomas Crowe failed to pass along a nibble of chicken and Percy promptly bit him on the arm when he was ignored. Apparently Thomas did not understand that Percy not only expects to be the center of attention but wants to sample all food served from the patio table.

I’m not saying that I’m so taken with Percy that I’ve started cooking for him, but he does love cornbread. And I confess I now bake a “Peacock Gourmet Cornbread” laced with peanuts and sunflower seeds, a dish Percy adores and isn’t about to share. He has even taken a liking for wild mint and one afternoon he happily snapped a mint spring straight out of my glass of lemonade.

A natural for wild mint is the exotic-sounding Middle Eastern dish tabbouleh. While living in Turkey for two years, I learned to love this dish and found that it is easily replicated here in the mountains. Except for the bulgur, olive oil, and lemon juice, tabbouleh ingredients can be gathered from the herb and vegetable gardens — tomatoes, onions, parsley and, of course, mint. Fine as a main dish, tabbouleh also goes well with almost any meat — especially chicken.

Without consulting Percy’s palette or preferences, I snipped a good handful of tarragon for a lemon and yogurt marinade. I’ll marinade the chicken for about an hour before Tom puts the pieces on the grill. Once the grilling is well underway, the leftover marinade is perfect for basting the chicken.

What better summer salad than the layers of sliced garden tomatoes or grape tomatoes and mozzarella cheese balls topped with just-picked basil leaves. I’ll dress the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, adding a mixture of chopped parsley, ground sea salt and black pepper for a splash of color.

My sturdy rosemary bush and provides the perfect enhancement to a loaf of yeast bread. And when the rosemary aroma wafts out of the kitchen, Percy may appear at the screen demanding to know when we eat! At dinner time, we will scatter bits of this bread on the patio for him and he’ll gobble up every crumb.

Dessert will be an elegant crème brulee with a hint of lavender. The lavender leaves that grow in the herb garden not only emit a wonderful fragrance in the warm sunshine but add a lovely flavor to many dishes when the leaves are crushed. Although the top of this custard dish can be easily browned in the oven for the sugary crust, I will finally have a chance to use my new cooking blowtorch to brown the top of the brulee.

The dishes of this dinner will come together in symphony as all good dinners tend to do. The bright colors and aromas of the herbs used in the meal will fill the senses and as we sit around the patio, Percy will join us and proudly demand his share of the dinner.

Sharing with Percy has been easy for us. Not only has Percy taught us to take notice of the mint in the garden and is the inspiration for this particular dinner, he has also provided other lessons. Each day that Percy strutted around our yard, I would mentally note what might be learned from this strange and exotic bird.

I have learned that modesty may be over-rated — probably is. Watching Percy, I see clearly that it is OK to show off now and again — even to strut. The trick is to strut with delicate grace (think Percy) and with a dose of pride. And casting your eyes to the ground too often may cause you to miss some beautiful sights that are right in front of you.

Percy has taught us that love is not shy. When he flies to his roost and calls for that elusive mate, his cries echo through the valley. It is fine to bellow out your love for your mate and if your mate does not respond, at least no one will doubt that you have the capacity to live and love loudly.

As Percy eagerly samples our food, I am reminded of the importance of curiosity in life. The world is after all, a curious place. By smelling, tasting, and touching the gifts of nature, we learn appreciation for differences. A mountain community can adopt a foreign bird and a mountain girl can learn to serve a Middle Eastern dish for dinner. It seems to begin with curiosity.

Above all, Percy has connected us to so many people. Like the mint that overtakes my herb garden each spring, Percy is best shared with others. Neighbors stop by daily to chat about him. Parents bring their children by as an educational field trip. A delightful young woman brings him leftover walnut wheat bread (his favorite) from Annie’s, the local bakery. Concerned neighbors worry if he is safe and warm on cool nights and offer to take him in, though I’m not sure how one would go about “taking in a peacock.” Percy has taught us that it takes surprisingly little effort to bring people together. All it takes is a big beautiful bird with enormous personality and the ability to believe in just a little bit of magic —and a modest amount of pride.

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