Be smart, and things don’t have to get worse

Let me wish each and every one of you a Happy Thanksgiving. Each year at the Passover celebration, there is a saying: “Next year in Jerusalem.” It’s a way of saying: “next year may we be in a better place.’’ Right now, I bet we can all get behind that.

This must be the place: They’re cutting through the steady wind and landing on the ground

Like every Thanksgiving, I’ll figure something out. 

With my family over 1,000 miles away back up in the North Country, I tend to be an orphan during this holiday feast in Western North Carolina. Luckily, over the last eight years here, I’ve been invited into homes all over Southern Appalachia, where the food is plentiful and there’s always an extra seat at the table for you.

Grocery store is stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey

Mushrooms. I needed mushrooms, and mushrooms were all I needed. It was my night to cook, and I wanted to make spaghetti because we’ve eaten chicken approximately 11 consecutive nights at my house. We’ve done that because the members of my family have developed “dietary restrictions” over the years to the extent that we are down to approximately three dishes that we can agree on, one of those being chicken prepared about a dozen different ways.

Thoughts on Thanksgiving and traditions

Funny how when you’re living in a moment, you don’t realize how truly special the moment is. Only later in life does the full onslaught of gratitude cover you like a warm nostalgic blanket. That’s how I feel when I reflect upon Thanksgiving days of the past. 

Every Thanksgiving morning, my sister and I would wake up and wander into the kitchen bleary-eyed and still wearing pajamas. As the Asheville Christmas Parade played on WLOS, my mom would be sipping coffee and have already cooked cornbread and biscuits, the beginning ingredients for my great-grandmother’s dressing recipe. 

This must be the place: ‘Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on’

I couldn’t believe she gave me a ticket.

Thanksgiving 2001. I was 16 years old. Having just ate a quick meal with my family up on the Canadian Border of Upstate New York, I jumped into my rusty 1989 Toyota Camry and bolted down the road towards Vermontville, a tiny hamlet in the heart of the desolate Adirondack Mountains. 

This must be the place: Pass the gravy, and the memories

It was right around the second beer when I began to settle in.

The warm sunshine and lingering foliage of metropolitan Charlotte was in stark contrast to the chilly air and empty trees of the mountains of Western North Carolina. But, with my aunt and cousin within arm’s reach, and my girlfriend beside me, I immersed myself into the Thanksgiving gathering last week.

A new kind of Thanksgiving

Holidays are all fun and games until death and divorce happen. Then they become an aching headache, if a person lets them. My goal is to ward off that headache by any means possible.

I’ve been throwing around ideas for this column over the past week. Thanksgiving is the obvious choice. It’s impossible to write about this day in the same manner as two or three years ago. I remember writing a column back then titled “Surviving Thanksgiving.” It was a light, humorous piece suggesting activities to entertain kids while the adults cooked, drank wine, watched football and conversed about holiday shopping.

In a season of feasting, finding food for the soul

I’ve always embraced change, perhaps to my detriment. I suspect it has something to do with a youth where we moved to different homes as often as most people buy new sneakers, so it just seems normal — and somewhat cathartic — to do things differently, even to the point of dropping old traditions and embracing new ones.

But some change I can’t accept, and one of those is Thanksgiving without deviled eggs that taste as much like my mom’s as possible. Some things are, after all, sacrosanct.

Thanksgiving and lungwort bread

I have perused Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft many times, but somehow or other had consistently overlooked his entry on lungwort bread (vol. 1, pp. 324-325):

On the bark of maples, and sometimes of beeches and birches, in the northern woods, there grows a green, broad-leaved lichen variously known as lungwort, liverwort, lung-lichen, and lung-moss, which is an excellent substitute for yeast. This is an altogether different growth from the plants commonly called lungwort and liverwort — I believe its scientific name is ‘Sticta pulmonacea.’ This lichen as partly made up of fungus, which does the business of raising dough. Gather a little of it and steep it over night in lukewarm water, set near the embers, but not near enough to get overheated. In the morning, pour off the infusion and mix it with enough flour to make a batter, beating it up with a spoon. Place this “sponge” in a warm can or pail, cover with a cloth, and set it near the fire to work. By evening it will have risen. Leaven your dough with this (saving some of the sponge for a future baking). Let the bread rise before the fire that night, and by morning it will be ready to bake. It takes but little of the original sponge to leaven a large mass of dough (but see that it never freezes), and it can be kept good for months.”

Last week, my wife harvested a patch of lungwort from the trunk of a white oak tree on the ridge above our place. The resulting bread had a pleasant tea-like aroma and flavor that I liked a lot. So, I requested more for the holiday.

Lungwort, presently classified as ‘Lobaria pulmonaria,’ is actually more prevalent on oak. It resembles liverwort but grows in drier conditions. It is bright green under moist conditions but becomes brownish and papery when dry. The leaf-like growth is leathery and lobed. There are patterned ridges and depressions (pits) on the upper surface. The lower surface often displays a fine layers of hairs. The pits and ribs of the upper surface become the lumps and ribs of the under surface.

Various online sources indicate that lungwort was used in beer manufacture as a substitute for hops by monasteries in Europe and Siberia. It was reputed to be both darkly bitter and highly intoxicating. The plant yielded a permanent black dye when mixed with indigo. Because the pitted and sectioned leaf patterns resembled the surface of human lungs, the plant was used in the treatment of pulmonary diseases, wheezings and shortness of breath.  

Now that Kephart’s recipe has whetted my culinary interest in lungwort, it has also refocused my attention on the plant itself. Look for it the next time you’re walking a  woodland trail. The leafy green outreaching lobes form rosettes that glow emerald-like in the gray light of early winter.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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