This post is not about running or hiking, but its subject is all I thought about on today’s run. It is sort of about my own natural history, about a food that shaped me and grew me up.
There was always cornbread in our house growing up, but the first time I remember really relishing it was on an August evening in my parent’s kitchen in Kentucky. We had just returned from our annual trip to St. Augustine, Florida where we would share a beach house with our dear family friends, the Someras. During those weeks, everyone took turns making the most delicious and well-vetted seafood meals adorned by the many vegetables we would haul down there from Moores Creek in our metal Coleman cooler. One week both families shared a one bedroom little bungalow, but no worries because we spent all of our time outside anyway and when inside, we didn't want to be too far from one another. We would play hard in the surf, developing elaborate moves to glide over, through, or under big Atlantic waves. For a family of land locked Kentuckians, we LOVE the ocean, and wanted to be marine biologist surfers. Those trips were full of some of our favorite people, activities, and natural history. The food tasted especially good after playing all day laughing, soaking in salt water and then enjoying it all among friends.
So, upon that particular return to our home in 1995 with peeling noses, seashells, bottled seawater and anxiety for the start of school, mom made a huge garden meal with all of the goodies that had been growing untamed that week. I don’t remember the specifics, though it likely included green beans and potatoes and it absolutely included fresh green onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and freshly made and hot out of the oven cornbread. To this cornbread, I went a little wild and added butter, which I had been scared of for a few years (because I was fifteen and cared deeply about being thin and because it was the era of thinking butter was bad). This meal converted me to loving food in a way I hadn't in years. I specifically remember the melted butter on the cornbread with the still warm from the garden tomato. Heaven.
Similar cornbread graced our table at least once a week growing up. If it wasn’t on the table, it could generally be located in a cast iron skillet kept in the oven, bagged up with the other bread, or residing in the freezer with countless other pones of cornbread. Sometimes we joked that we didn’t know where it all went. There were years when I didn’t eat it, but it remained a prolific staple. Did it just feed the compost slowly making its way back to our dinner table in the form of a tomato? Did this cornucopia of cornbread get thrown in the pond and sunk like a bad guy in a movie and fuel the bluegill and snapping turtles?
It would show up as a toasted version of itself the day after and we would float it in vegetable soup or “poor man’s soup (potato)” like a fancy crouton. We would get a piece with peanut butter as a snack or crumbled up in milk like our Grandma Davis liked it. It was the non-vegetable on our plates much of the time. I think this was true for my mother's childhood supper table too. Grandma cooked mainly from the garden and root cellar with one hog killing a year and the occasional chicken, so there wasn't always meat. Cornbread, for them, was often the non-vegetable treat.
What to eat for health and for the health of the earth is increasingly confusing. One week I will be sure that cutting back on beef is the most important thing I can do for climate change and the next week I hear that some vegetables (lettuce) require just as much water and fossil fuels as bacon (the study is explained and and generally debunked here with the take home being eat more broccoli and less lettuce). In the 80's we ate low fat, in the 90's we ate soy and then there's being on a budget. Grocery shopping quickly became an anxiety-inducing mess. So, I am returning to what Michael Pollan said because it is an easy phrase to remember: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." We have foraged for many an apple and plum, we try to raise gardens, and go to the farmers market, but it is still something I want to get better at. Lately I have thought quite a bit about this study that showed how your thoughts fool your stomach (kindly explained by NPR). I am not sure we can stretch those results to mean that if we think lovingly and mindfully about our food, then it can't hurt us, but it it is a nice thought for now.
Food is a very personal thing, so why not capitalize on that and eat foods that you can feel warm and bubbly about? I always think of Like Water for Chocolate (Allende) where communication and transferral of family history happens through food.
""Something strange was going on. Tita remembered that Nacha had always said that when people argue while preparing tamales, the tamales won’t get cooked. They can be heated day after day and still stay raw, because the tamales are angry. In a case like that, you have to sing to them, which makes them happy, then they’ll cook."
If you have forgotten, Tita ends up having to sing to the tamales to save them. Good stuff.
Cornbread is very dear to my heart and in many of my food memories, so I believe it has special powers that bring me closer to my family, our garden and the idea of living and eating close to the land. Granted, I didn't raise the corn to make the cornmeal here in New York, but I'll glaze over that fact and consider it symbolic of those things I hold dear.
In the south, cornbread recipes between families are as diverse as curries to Indian families. Some people add sugar, some add lard, some make cake-like cornbread, and others make a more hearty version. There is an abundance of information out there on the histories and stories of many a cornbreads. Post-PhD, I got REALLY into reading about and listening to podcasts about southern food. I think I craved story and heart after so much science where the story was tough to chase. I love two shows on PBS: Mind of a Chef (the season with Sean Brock) and A Chef's Life. Sean Brock and Lillian Howard are champions of staying true to the food of their respective people and places and also being aware of the histories of those foods from their seedbank to their African origins. Sean grew up in southwest Virginia and his mom makes a cornbread very similar to my family's, but lard actually goes into the batter. Whoa back yum. I also really enjoy the Gravy podcast done by Southern Foodways Alliance.
So, here is my mother's recipe. She recently made this for us in our new (awesome wedding gift) giant cast iron pan. She exclaimed that it was...."the biggest pone of cornbread this holler has ever seen!" She then said...."wait, what's the name of this holler?" Until that point I didn't even realize that we live in a holler, but we basically do.
Anyway, the recipe (they use each other's phones interchangeably - so while it says "dad," it is actually mom). She had to help me after I made a batch of crumbly cornbread (apparently I was missing an egg).
Pat Wagner Cornbread
*use a well-seasoned cast iron pan
*use full-fat buttermilk
*i've also seen mom use yogurt, which gives it a nice punch of sour
What are some dear-to-your-heart family recipes?
A Thanksgiving walk at Wright-Locke Farm and over through Whipple Hill was a nice way to focus on gratitude. We were able to meander around various ponds and wetlands and even spotted some beautiful Hooded mergansers. I just realized that these ducks nest in cavities in trees like Wood ducks and that they are also known to put their eggs in the nests of other Hooded merganser nests. This nice little chunk of nature sure is an oasis for people seeking glimpses of wild. There were lots of bird nests (many of which had pieces of plastic woven in), a White-throated sparrow practicing a very rusty song, alders, oaks and their various acorns, beeches, beautiful signs of herbivory like lace on oak leaves, and ice chunks reflecting the blue sky. Though, I did take my nice camera to Boston, I forgot it on both walks, so these are just iphone shots.
We spent Black Friday at Castle Island where we found an adorable little flock of Dunlin and I got some sea water mist on my face, which is important to do as often as possible.
Oh, hey there December. You have arrived. I am at home today working on final wedding thank you cards, processing (hopefully) the last of the apples and working on some other projects. I knew it was going to be rainy today, but it has felt like dusk since about 1pm today. I have all the lights on in the living room and it still feels so dark. We knew that we were headed to Ithaca for a year before we actually moved here and everyone warned us about the GRA(E)Y. After so many years west of the 100th meridian and in the blue sky air of the west, I became someone who is very much solar powered. I am slightly worried about this gray experiment. So far so good, but I have a feeling things will change soon. What are some tips for surviving the cold and gray?
Last week I lucked upon a blue sky sunny day at Ringwood Natural area. The forest floor is now covered in fluffy beech leaves, the moss was bright, the fungus abundant and there is was one fern species green and bright that I have yet to identify.
I am feeling a lot of love for this spot. The trails area blazed with red.
Shelf fungus abounds on fallen logs. Then, there is some purple stuff and these golden orbs of fungus.
The confetti-like seeds of the Tuiliptree Lirodendron tulipifera were falling like crazy last week and spinning down to the forest floor. Tuliptrees, which I have generally called Tulip poplars (other names include Yellow-poplar and White-polar) are the only members of their genus in North America with the other being native to Asia. They are one of the largest hardwood trees in North America and grow to be very tall and straight (often 90' with a max of 200'!!!). They are limited to the eastern United States. We are at the northern limit of their range. I have missed these trees!
When I was getting ready to head into my big Kindergarten year, my parents informed the family that we would be moving to the big city of Bloomington, IN for my dad to get a Master's degree in Outdoor Education. It would be one year away from our home in rural Kentucky and we would live in a high rise apartment building named Tuliptree. It sounded like the best treehouse any 5 year old could hope for. I was only slightly dissapointed that the building wasn't ACTUALLY in a tree.
The seed cone below on a bed of Tulip poplar and oak leaves.
Seeds are called samaras, which drop in the winter. Samaras are winged seeds that are distributed by the wind. You are probably familiar with the helicoptering abilities of maple samaras. Good fun.
A samara stabbed into some moss by the wind.
A warm and cozy cocoon.