Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Barbacoa Redux

Hog Island Lockhart 2

(Photo courtesy Lockhart Family Farm)

One thing leads to another and so it continues with the Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa. The mutton on the plate that lovely afternoon is now an object of veneration and husbandry. A nomination for the Slow Food Movement’s Ark of taste and the restoration efforts of the Lockhart Family Farm chart a path forward for the sheep. The Lockhart’s write that “The Hog Island Sheep is one of only a handful of feral sheep breeds in North America…having been abandoned on the island, the sheep developed a natural hardiness, and a preference for rough forage rather than lush grass…In 2015 we formed a partnership to help bring back the Hog Island Sheep to the table in Virginia. Working with top local chefs and retailers, we expect this to be a mainstay on the menus in Virginia by Fall 2015.” A chef at the center of this endeavor is Travis Milton in Richmond.

Hog Island Mutton on the Grill

Hog Island Lamb on Matt Ertle’s Grill. (Photo courtesy of Matt Ertle, Island View Farm)

Back on the Eastern Shore, Matt Ertle of Island View Farm is working on building a flock for “the new Eastern Shore Artisan Trail Network: promoting and offering educational opportunities about how important sheep were to the shore historically and hopefully in the future as well.” He continues, “We cooked a leg from one of last year’s ram lambs this weekend. My favorite way is to butterfly it, marinate in a mixture of olive oil, Rosemary from my garden, garlic, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard. Then toss it on my charcoal grill. My family and inlaws that are in town have been working at it for three days now and there still seems to be a little left.” Give me a call, I think to myself. To help in Matt’s, Travis’s, and the Lockharts endeavors (and perhaps reap some future culinary consideration), I put together a brief history of the sheep drawn from a variety of period sources, most notably the online collection of Eastern Shore of Virginia newspapers and periodicals curated by Miles Barnes at the public library. The story, at least for rare breed sheep lovers, is enough to make us realize just how cultivated even the most “natural” landscapes were through the 1800s into the early 20th century.

Hog Island Sheep at Lockhart Family Farm

Hog Island Sheep at Lockhart Family Farm. (Photo courtesy Lockhart Family Farm)

Hog Island Sheep, the remnant flock of a much larger population formally kept on the barrier islands of Virginia from Assateague to the southernmost tip of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The sheep ran free until the end of twentieth-century when the last animals were corralled and removed to the mainland. That action concluded a distinctive sheep husbandry that had flourished on the Eastern Shore since at least the mid 1600s and was the object of curiosity from the late 1800s on. From the outset, the Hog island Sheep and their neighbors were kept for wool that could be shipped to urban markets as recorded in a speculative proposition in 1830: “As the price of wool has advanced very much, I hope you have still my wool on hand.  It is worth from 25 to 30 c. here & in great demand.  We wish you to purchase for us all the wool you can that is fair wool from 15 to 20 c.  We will give 20 c. and should you like to join us in speculation we will divide the profits equally.  I am sure by a little exertion on Hog Island & else where, we might make a pretty speculation.”[1] Wool was kept as well for local use as recorded in early twentieth-century photographs of island homes. One of those uses likely involved the making of wool or felt “moccasins” worn by local watermen for “treading” clams in marshes. Hog Island, one of the largest in the barrier chain, was described in 1911: “The island is about 10 miles long and the inhabited portion about a mile wide. It has a long and wide stretch of sand dunes and beach. Its pine woods, though reduced in extent by the encroachments of the sand, are still beautiful, and these, together with its myrtle groves and cedar thickets form its distinctive features…In the early years of the settlement the big landed proprietors took up these coast islands. Col. Custis owned Smith’s Island and it has descended from him to Miss Mary Custis Lee, the present owner. Proutt’s [Island] and Cobb’s Islands were owned by the Floyd family and formerly pastured hundreds of sheep and cattle, but are now a waste of sand dunes.”[2] The observations of 1911 echo an 1836 account: “We passed near to a large island, called Prout’s, which is uninhabited, except by flocks of sheep. We had not time to call. This bears almost no trees; and wherever visible from the water, seemed to be but little else than sand hills very scantly covered with weeds or grass. It was said, however, that in the interior there is much of good grazing land. The north-western part of the island, which we approached, is losing greatly by the encroachments of the sea.”[3]

Hog Island Lockhart 3

Hog Island Sheep at Lockhart Family Farm. (Photo courtesy Lockhart Family Farm)

The islands held several advantages for tending sheep. Surrounded by extensive marshes, guts, and creeks , they effectively isolated the animals from the depredations of dogs and other threats found on the mainland. A contributor to the Peninula Enterprise outlined the extent of the problem in 1882: “We find from the United States census report of 1880 that Accomac county [sic.] produced 5,379 fleeces from the sheep raised in 1880… This is sheep country…The grazing and climate are all that could be desired. One thing, and one thing only is in the way of sheep raising — the everlasting ‘yaller dog’ is now, has been, and will be an obstacle, until they are thinned out.[4] The situation remained sufficiently out of control twelve years later when ordinances were introduced into public debate. One of the most heartfelt and pointed pleas in favor of a dog law appeared in the local paper: “The sheep industry here is decayed. Few farmers dare attempt sheep raising because Tray, Blanche, Sweetheart, Brindle, Pug and Little Fancy spread themselves over every acre of land fit to graze, and roaming at will with a taste for racing and mutton forbid the attempt. The hundreds and hundreds of worthless dogs, worth nothing to their owners, an annoyance to neighbors, a foe to sheep, all over the Peninsula, destroy all hope, of raising sheep…We are overrun with [dogs], and seem to have the same superstitious awe of them as the Turks in Constantinople — for they increase fabulously with none to make them afraid or kill them…Put the tax on — a good one — whether the owner likes it or not. Too great interests are at stake to be trifled with by ‘yaller dorgs.’ Sheep-raising can be made profitable here without the mousing pointers and crossfield hounds, that run at will over everybody’s field, but not with them…The case is, Dogs vs. Sheep. We give our verdict, duly considered, in favor of mutton. Tax the dogs out — let the sheep in.”[5] That latter often involved wool pulling and sheep riding inflicted by small boys larking about the fields.

Hog Island Matt Ertle & Flock

Matt Ertle and his Island View Farm Flock. (Photo courtesy of Matt Ertle, Island View Farm)

The islands, however, were not entirely safe havens. In addition to the summer torments of heat and biting flies and winter’s biting cold, extreme tides associated with hurricanes and northeasters overwashed the low lying islands with deadly results: “We were visited on Tuesday night last with one of the severest wind storms ever experienced in this section, and unquestionably the highest tide within the knowledge of any one now living, the water reached a point at least 3 feet higher than the great September blow of 1822. . . . On Cedar Island nearly all the stock perished, Capt. O. A. Browne being a heavy loser. His loss there will be fully seventy-five cattle, and as many sheep. . . . No report has reached us from Revel’s [Island] or Hog Island, but on the former, it is feared that Charles M. Dunton, Esq., has lost heavily in stock.[6] A decade later a telegram to Richmond reported: “Intelligence has just reached here from the seaside that seven horses, two hundred sheep, and some cattle, belonging to Powell & Garrison, John A. Brittingham, and others, of Wachapreague, Va., were swept off Parramore’s beach [the island to the immediate north of Hog] during the storm last Saturday night and were drowned.”[7]

Hog Island butchery 1

Travis Milton Dresses Hog Island Mutton. ((Photo courtesy of Travis Milton)

Still, barrier island sheep flourished through a passive husbandry that isolated them on islands where they foraged in the native scrub sometimes tended by the occasional resident shepherd. As for the shepherd and his household, they lived in a small dwelling, for example “a little log-built hut, containing but two small rooms. The lower one, half filled by a gigantic bedstead, is used for kitchen, sitting-room, bedroom, and dining-room all in one; the upper, for some mysterious purpose.” [8] The sheep simply wandered. An observer noted in 1907 the sheep on Parramore’s Island between the south end of Cedar Island and the northern tip of Hog: “these animals run wild, and make their own living from the grass, seeds and young shrubs growing on the island, and drink from small pools of land water scattered here and there among the sand hills…The sheep are not used for mutton, but are kept on account of their wool, which is of a superior grade.”[9] Casual experiments in improving the island sheep, notable for their durability in the face of a challenging environment, involved the introduction of other desirable strains into the wild with the expectation that cross breeding would occur in the natural course of events.

Hog Island sheep running

Hog Island Sheep on the lam. Island View Farm. (Photo courtesy of Matt Ertle, Island View Farm)

Hog Island sheep were rounded up annually for shearing. The most elaborate description of this event appeared in an account penned by Howard Pyle, an artist and occasional local color writer hailing from the Philadelphia area. In 1879, Pyle trekked the length of the Delmarva Peninsula for a three-part travel account that appeared in Harper’s. Pyle’s exploration landed him on Hog Island where he he was hosted by an unreconstructed Confederate veteran: “It was sheep-shearing time, and as we were curious to see not only these island sheep, but the manner of shearing them, we had an excellent opportunity of examining both the one and the other under the pilotage of the owner of one of these islands.” On the day before the shearing, Pyle boarded a “large flatboat, with a leg-of-mutton sail” along with his host, four sheep wranglers, and “a small negro boy” and “the freight of two baskets of ‘grub’, sheep-shears, and a demijohn of water, for rarely any thing but rain-water can be obtained at these islands. The following morning, joined by the shepherd, the crew began their work: “The men started to scour the island over and collect the stray sheep in a flock. They were scattered in all directions, some along the Atlantic surf, some across the marsh, some in the thickets in the southern part of the island. At length the sound of distant bleating was heard, and soon the drove — constantly augmented by the stragglers that joined it from all directions — slowly and reluctantly moved toward the sheep-pen; a moment more and they rushed tumultuously into it.” Pyle elaborated, writing in the idiom of Jim Crow humor, ”The shearing was done on a long table, a carpenter’s work-bench, the small negro being sent into the pen to catch the sheep for the shearers. It was amusing to watch him — the cautious way in which he would approach the frightened drove huddled in a corner, he scarcely less frightened himself. Suddenly he makes a dive, misses his sheep, stumbles, and the whole flock gallops over his prostrate body. Another rush is more fortunate, and he fastens his black little hands in the shaggy wool on the back of some old ram, which drags him, grinning, yelling and with gleaming eyeballs, half around the pen before the animal acknowledges itself conquered. In the afternoon the wind blew up from the northeast and rain set in; the poor denuded sheep, shivering in the cold wind, looked so miserable that B– in very pity stopped the shearing.”[10]

Wrangling Hog Island Sheep at Island View Farm.

Hog Island Sheep Wrangle. Island View Farm. (Photo courtesy of Matt Ertle, Island View Farm)

The sheep shearing scene reprised by Pyle achieved a celebratory status for other island communities in an annual cycle of Eastern Shore of Virginia events. The annual sheep penning on Assateague Island, for example, occurred in the first week of June when young men from neighboring Chincoteague would gather, drive the sheep to Sheep Penning Hill, shear the flock, cull out a few for lamb and mutton, and return the rest to graze at large for another year. By the 1880s, the event had evolved into a holiday and tourist draw: “The sheep penning on Assateague, Wednesday, was attended by a large concourse of people, and everything passed off pleasantly. The great feature of the occasion was the attendance of the ‘Led Astray Club’ of Chincoteague. Early in the morning the organization assembled in front of the Capitol Hotel, elegantly attired in their glittering uniforms, said to have been made expressly for the occasion by Worth of New York. The stirring rhapsodies of the Chincoteague string band, led by Prof. Paddock, rung out on the morning air, and at 9 o’clock a. m. sharp, Brig. Gen. Oliver Logan Wimbrough gave the battalion marching orders. The line of route was as follows: Up Broadway to Chestnut street, up Chestnut to Duncan’s Hotel, where the battalion performed some very remarkable feats of drilling, and a copious supply or refreshments were furnished the club. The order forward, march, was again given, and the battalion moved down Chestnut street to Broadway and up Broadway to the post office, where three cheers were given for Boss Mahone.”[11] The marchers then departed for Assateague where they conducted the roundup and shearing.

Travis Milton's Hog Island Roast Mutton.

Travis Milton’s Hog Island Roast Mutton. ((Photo courtesy of Travis Milton)

The consumption of Hog Island Sheep and their island kin as part of the Eastern Shore diet was limited.Bessie Gunter, an Accomack County native and resident who collected recipes from her friends and family, recorded only two recipes in her 1889 Housekeeper’s Companion – both for lamb: “ROAST LAMB. Choose a hind quarter of lamb, stuff it with fine bread crumbs, pepper, butter and a little sage. Sew the flap firmly to keep it in place, rub the outside with salt, pepper, butter, a little of the stuffing, and roast two hours.—MRS. A.T.G.” and “ROAST LAMB. Take a nice tender quarter of lamb, either hind or fore quarter. Salt and pepper it. Put it in a pan with a little water and cook in a quick oven, basting while cooking. All meats and fowl should be well basted while cooking.—Mrs. J.G.F.”[12] The mutton from Hog Island Sheep that I consumed 125 years later was notable for its sweetness and lack of a strong flavor. Travis Milton of Comfort (a Richmond, Virginia, eatery respected for its no-holds-barred no-apologies-offered engagement with Southern foods, inspired by the sheep and the report of barbacoa, secured one of the sheep this spring. His thoughts, he says, contain visions of charcuterie! And, Matt Ertle offered, “I also have a couple of older ewes that could be donated to the cause should there be interest in recreating the barbacoa that sparked your blog post.” Now, there’s a worthy thought.

The Memorial to Milton Travis's Barbacoa

The Memorial to Travis Milton’s Barbacoa. ((Photo courtesy of Travis Milton)

[1] Thomas U. Teackle, Baltimore, to William B. Upshur, Brownsville, Northampton County, VA (October 6, 1830), Upshur Family Papers William and Mary, Courtesy Miles Barnes, Eastern Shore of Virginia Public Library. [2] Eastern Shore Herald, (October 20, 1911), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/2066 [3] “A Trip to Some of the Sea Islands of Virginia,” Farmers’ Register (1836), 3, http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/2107 [4] Peninsula Enterprise (January 19, 1882), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/4262 [5] “To protect sheep and other stock in Accomac and Northampton.” — Senate Bill,” Peninsula Enterprise (January 13, 1894), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/4058. [6] Eastern Virginian, Onancock Virginia (October 26, 1878) http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/4200 [7] “Stock Swept to Death — A Citizen Drowned,” Telegram Dispatch, Richmond (April 13, 1889), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/4645 [8] Howard Pyle, “A Peninsular Canaan,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, CCCXLVIII (May, 1879), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/1964 [9] “Cedar Island”: The Place for the Tired and Weary, Times-Dispatch, Richmond, Va. (August 25, 1907), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/1939 [10] Pyle (May, 1879), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/1964 [11] Peninsula Enterprise, (June 14, 1883), http://eshore.vcdh.virginia.edu/node/4331 [12] Bessie E. Gunter, Housekeepers Companion (New York: John B. Alden, 1889), 67.

Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa

There are times when it’s hard to discern where something begins and something ends. So it is with Hog Island Carne de Cordero Barbacoa. Still, every story has its start, for example, when David came over to paint the window frames our friend Robert had just crafted and set in the old brick walls of our house. The workmanship was beautiful and the installation was in its closing stages. The draughty winter days when frigid winds hissed through crevices in the rotten sills were banished. A sweltering August afternoon, thunder moaning on the horizon, and I was thinking of glittering ice crystals drifted on the beach in January and how snug we would be. “Hola,” David, sweat trailing on his temples, greeted me. He knows that other than food nouns and some necessary conjunctions he’s exhausted my Spanish vocabulary. I keep thinking to myself that I really need to learn Spanish. Still, I always try to make good use of those food nouns. Segueing to English, David asked, “How is your daughter? She is a hero in our family.”

s Hog Island Sheep at RB's

A Hog Island Sheep surveys its pasture.

Our daughter’s heroic stature arises from the fact that she located David detained in the truly labyrinthine depths of the U. S. immigration system. It seems that David, who has lived on the Eastern Shore for a good many years and learned the building trades from Robert, was driving with an expired inspection sticker. A county deputy pulled him over, found his papers not in order, and hauled him in. Federal jurisdiction took over and David was shipped to a detention facility somewhere in Pennsylvania. His wife, pregnant with twins, could not find him and turned to Robert, a soul defined by an extraordinary generosity of spirit, who turned to our daughter, a law student at the time, to locate and help in securing David’s release. She accomplished her tasks in short order and David and his family now reside secure in our community. This makes our daughter, as Robert says, a “folk hero” in our corner of the world and in the hearts of David, his family, and friends. “Hola,” I replied, “She’s doing great, working now as a public defender across the Bay.” “Remember us to her,” he answered, “she is family.” David paused, “You are family. We are having barbacoa on Sunday. You and your family must come.”

Now, barbacoa happens to be in my Spanish lexicon: “What kind?” David hesitated, looking for the word, “Sheep!” “Sheep! You mean like a grown-up sheep, like mutton?” “Si; yes, sheep, cordero.” Yow and double yikes! Carne de cordero is something I don’t come across too often and here stood David inviting us to a Guatemalan cordero barbacoa. “Where?” I asked. “At my sister’s house. You know, Maiana, I think.” Oh yes I do! (Maiana is my preferred source for homemade tamales and sweet potato empanadas. I’ve stood at her side in her kitchen and maveled as she wrapped the seasoned pollo or puerco in the masa harina laid on softened cornhusks and then stuffed the hundred or so I ordered into a steamer the size of a Florida sinkhole. What we don’t eat on arrival gets stockpiled in the freezer for culinary emergencies to which I seem unusually prone.) “I’ll be there,” abandoning any pretense to polite refusal, “but my family cannot come with me.” “You come,” David concluded, “you are family.” And, I went.

Hog Island Sheep barbacoa on the fire.

Hog Island Sheep barbacoa on the fire.

Maiana checks the barbacoa.

Maiana checks the barbacoa.

The barbacoa apparently began the night before when the cooks killed and butchered the sheep, dressing the meat behind the house. When I arrived, the only non-Spanish speaker on the premises, David greeted me along with his niece Jessica and sister Maiana. I was, as David reminded me “family,” introduced as such, and quickly absorbed into the manic chaos of overheated children racing around on a summer Sunday afternoon, the calm of older folks chatting in the shade, and the focussed energy of women cooking in the kitchen and the yard behind the house. A twenty-gallon pot of mutton-based sopa filled with vegetables bubbled adjacent to the picnic table that served for staging and serving. Out in the yard, another pot gurgled on a homemade grill of concrete block and old scorched metal over a wood fire stoked with chunks of scrap and windfalls. Jessica came over, offered to let me take a peek, and lifted the lid. “A taste?” “Oh, yes, please.” Wonderful! “Gracias.” “De nada, it is nothing.” Not where I come from.

Jessica then provided a tour of Maiana’s garden. David and Maiana come from Guatemala and Maiana takes great pains to keep her family’s culinary identity alive and vibrant. An arbor of chayote shaded the smallest children playing on the grass. Epazote flourished next to the hen house. Fruit trees including a fig or higo grew in an archipelago of scattered beds around the house. Jessica smiled, identifying the plants by name and their origins. Maiana, it turned out, is a seed saver known in local Spanish speaking circles as a memory-keeper for ingredients that evoke histories of distant origins and difficult passages.

s Hog Island Sheep Barbacoa Garcia Family Accomac VA (13)

Maiana organizes the servings.

Barbacoa, arroz, frijoles, tortillas, salsa, sopa - all words we need to know!

Barbacoa, arroz, frijoles, tortillas, salsa, sopa – all words we need to know!

The time for carne de cordera barbacoa arrived. I took a seat next to David at one of the half dozen church hall tables set up in the shade of carport. There is no serving line, rather the women organize and distribute the plates, bringing each diner a selection of sopa, frijoles, spiced arroz, and barbacoa. A sharp salsa and stack of homemade tortillas graces every table – and we go for it. David shows me the art of using a tortilla as a utensil – and, more importantly, the transformative power of a salsa. We eat with gusto. Across the table, the twins, not yet two, go at their portions with equal enthusiasm. No children’s table here; no child helpings. Replete, David and I settle back and talk about family and friends. His pastor joins us and asks if I attend church. He’s thoughtful and listens. We exchange perspectives and share slices of cold watermelon. And then it hits me, “David,” I ask, “where did you get a full grown sheep?” “Robert,” he says. “Robert?” “Robert.” “Is this a Hog Island sheep?” “It is a sheep from Robert.”

Laura, one of the twins.

Laura, one of the twins.

Now, I happen to know that Robert and his wife Jen up until that moment were the keepers of Hog Island sheep, a rare breed relocated in the 1970s from one of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s offshore barrier islands. The flock from which those sheep descended were left to wander and forage the island after the last of the human residents fled the aftermath of hugely destructive hurricanes in 1933 and 1936. The island refugees took their possessions and even their houses to the mainland, resettling in fishing villages: Willis Wharf, Oyster, Quinby, Wachapreague. Some, Randolph Higby for instance, dug up treasured figs and grapes, transplanting them to new gardens where they still flourish. The sheep, though, they left behind.

Following the acquisition of a significant portion of the island by the Nature Conservancy, the decision came down that the island should be conserved as a largely untouched natural habitat. Bad news for the sheep who had resided there for generation upon generation. Sheep roundups followed and in time the Hog Island sheep were relocated to the mainland. Rare breed keepers acquired ewes and rams with the intent of preserving the breed and as a result substantial flocks gambol at Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. Robert and Jen, however, possessed among the very last flocks of Hog Island sheep on the Eastern Shore – and as far as I knew this was all the sheep they husbanded. “This sheep is from Robert?” I asked. “It is from Robert,” David said, and he continued, “This is the second time Robert has given us a sheep, but the first time when we went to get it, he was sitting on the ground by the fence with water on his cheeks. He was looking at the sheep – maybe it was Bertha.” I lean closer and David elaborated, “Robert, he said to me, ‘I can’t let the sheep go. I’ll pay you to leave her here.’ ‘Robert, she is already your sheep. You cannot pay me for a sheep that is yours.’” I imagine the scene. Robert having second thoughts; David arguing the illogic of the moment. In the end, reprieve was granted. In fact, I had seen the sheep grazing in their pen just a day or so ago. But then things changed: Robert gifted David the sheep and here we were eating Hog Island Rare Breed Sheep Guatemalan Barbacoa.

Dining under the carport.

Dining under the carport.

As I made my farewells and thanks to David and his family, I asked for a bit of leftover barbacoa. Two thoughts were on my mind. First, the source of the sheep needed to be verified with Robert; second, the barbacoa demanded sharing with my beloved friend David Shields who was deeply immersed in the search for the heritage foods of the American South and overseeing their listing on the passenger manifest of the Slow Food Movement’s Ark of Taste. One of the questions the Ark of Taste nomination form poses, sensibly enough, is how do things taste. When it comes to Hog Island rare breed sheep, this presentss something of an issue. But, then I had the answer in the cooler in the back of the car. My first stop, though, was Robert’s house. Verification was on the evidential menu.

Turning off of Church Neck Road into Robert and Jen’s drive that led to the back door and Robert’s woodwright’s shop, I came to a stop under the big tree that they festoon each Christmas with gigantic illuminated ornaments fashioned from mashed crab pots. Robert, accompanied by his rambunctious dogs Bear and Blue – both rescues, stepped from the porch into the shade. “How’s it going?” Aflame with curiosity, I skip the pleasantries, and get to the point, “Robert, did you give David one of those Hog Island sheep?” “I did. I gave him three, two six year olds and an eight year old.” “Did you know he was going to have a barbacoa?” “I did,” Robert answered, “but I forgot…and I don’t think I would have gone.” “The rest of sheep, the little ones, are all down at Capeville,” Robert quickly added, assuring me that there were Hog Island sheep still living near their ancestral home. “Do you want a taste of barbacoa?” I offered in reply. “Sure,” Robert took a pinch out of the freezer bag I held out. Chewing thoughtfully, “This is really good! I thought it would be stronger.” “Do you want some for you and Jen?” “No thanks, I think I’ve had enough.” Later I learned that when Robert told Jen that he had sampled the barbacoa from their former sheep, she looked into his eyes, giving him that gaze of heart-heavy sadness trimmed with a soft sigh of disgust, and asked simply, “How could you?”

I called David Shields, my epicurean comrade in arms, that evening, “Dave, guess what? I’ve just come back from a barbacoa up the road where we dined on Hog Island sheep Guatemalan style!” There are not too many folks I can cold call with this sort of news and get an informed response, “What?” “I ate Hog Island sheep barbacoa – and I have some for you to sample and answer that taste question on the Ark of Taste nomination.” “That’s a rare breed sheep,” followed by, “Well, what did it taste like?” “It was very tender and not at all strong in the way that I associate with mutton – and the salsa added to the shredded meat gave it some zing.” “Bernie,” Dave responded, “when the fellow who ate the last passenger pigeon was asked about its flavor, he responded, ‘fatty and herbaceous.’” Dave can’t sucker me with that kind of leading comment, “Neither,” I said, “more like delicate and rich – not like chicken.” I paused, “Do you want me to save some for you?” “Absolutely! How will it get here?” “You have to come to it.” “What can I bring to complement the barbacoa?” This was the question I’d been waiting for, knowing that Dave was deeply committed to the restoration of Carolina Gold Rice that grew in fields favored by rice birds or bobolinks. Small birds, they once swarmed the fields, ravaging the crop. Now they’re protected. I paused before answering, then said, “How about a lovely rice-fed bobolink pie?” “Could be a problem,” he answered, “but it’s possible.” “How possible?” “It won’t be a big pie.”

On Wild Oyster Mushrooms

s Westerhouse bog

The bog where oyster mushrooms thrive in winter and peepers cry out their summer passion.

s Westerhouse mushrooms

Wild oyster mushrooms lurking in the underbrush.

Collecting wild mushrooms offers an opportunity at once appetizing and infused with the frisson of culinary danger. Winter rains flood the bog that borders the shell lane winding past the hickory grove. The bent trunks of old swamp willows, oaks blown flat in gale and hurricane, tangles of briar, honeysuckle, and ivy crisscross water filmed with the thinnest lattice of ice. Silent save for sough of wind, ruffle of hidden wings, rattle of vines in winter’s depths, the bog sings in warmer months when downpours breed frogs and peepers in astonishing numbers. Their collective song screeches in a cacophony of worn bedsprings and musical saws. The raucous chorus of midsummer haunts midwinter’s frozen passage with the memory and promise of longer, warmer, more fecund days. Mushrooms, breeding silently in layered shelves of forest tan and ghostly white on the wounded bark of fallen trees, do not break the stillness of this place.

s Westerhouse mushrooms Lania

Harvesting oyster mushrooms.

Bright shafts of December sun illuminate oyster mushrooms across the bog. The water’s dark surface reflects a contorted tracery of branches – willow, white oak, gum, pine – overhead. And, it is deceptively shallow with a firm bottom of fallen matted leaves and saturated roots that yield only slightly underfoot. The wet chill penetrates our boots, but the sun warms our backs as we bend, serrated knives in hand, and saw the mushrooms from their footings. It doesn’t take long to harvest a basketful. Beautiful objects with rounded edges and symmetrically gilled underbellies, their flesh is frozen solid to the touch. Malcolm and Carol Russ (friends who revel in the realm of fungi) assure me that this is not a problem – and it isn’t.

s Westerhouse mushroom harvest

Wild oyster mushrooms for supper.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are among the most common and easily identified of the mushrooms in our native woods. They emerge in numbers after heavy rains and a spell of warm late autumn and winter weather. Information on their culinary history is readily found in any number of sources on mycology for beginners http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/oyster__mushroom.htm or  http://www.mssf.org/cookbook/oyster.html.Cultivated oyster mushrooms appear in grocery stores, but the wild ones captivate my forager’s imagination. So closely bound to place and weather, the oyster mushrooms in our bog exist in a world of collateral entrées defined by chance and circumstance. To find and cut them from their clumped moorings is a moment of connection with place discovered in the rich sensorium of swampy woodland. The delicate dripping of melting rings of ice necklaced around the throats of old stumps, the thawing touch of breeze, the muddy scent of leaf mold stirred up by our boots – it is a terroir discovered not on the tongue but in the core of being alive in a singular place in a singular moment.

s Westerhouse mushrooms in garlic

Oyster mushrooms and garlic!

When it comes to cooking wild oyster mushrooms, the culinary world abounds with suggestions. In what seems to me to be an appropriate pairing, I add them to oyster stew. They are best, though, left largely unadorned. Malcolm and Carol suggested slicing them into meaty strips to be sautéed in a smear of olive oil or butter with thin slices of garlic and a bit of salt. Lightly browned on both sides and served on toast or tortilla, they compel me to wish for winter rains chased by a warming trend. I’ve arrayed my boots, basket, and knife by the door. Soon enough the din of frogs will return, but for now my thoughts are on oyster mushrooms blooming over black water.

On the perils and parables of gluttony

Thunder and lightning ratcheted on the horizon last evening – and then rain broke loose in torrents, flooding the air with drops so large and thick that the trees along the creek bank vanished behind a silver curtain. As hard as it poured down, it didn’t rain very long and then the clouds lowered away to the east and a rainbow ignited with sunset’s fire.

Westerhouse Creek after the storm.

Westerhouse Creek after the storm.

At water’s edge, wind-driven shoals of dead fish washed into shoreline banks of reeds. A few flipped weakly further out, clearly in their fading moments. “Bunker,” I thought, “what killed them?” Just yesterday menhaden trawlers directed by a spotter plane dragged the deeper waters off the sandbars along the Chesapeake. Hardly sporting, but then it’s not that kind of fishery. Maybe these bunker were casualties of clumsy seining and rent nets. Or, maybe the storm killed them.

Drowned bunker washed into the reeds the morning after.

Drowned bunker washed into the reeds the morning after.

I write to my friend P.G. at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in the seaside village of Wachapeague (also home to the famous Cake Wheel – but that’s another topic altogether), reporting, Following the storm tonight, I went down to look out over the creek and discovered a significant fish kill. I have no idea what would have happened, but they weren’t there before the storms. They looked like bunker, but I’m not sure. The storm here didn’t last long, but it rained so hard you couldn’t see the creek from the kitchen window. No lightning strikes.

P.G. replied, If it was indeed bunker then it was likely a temporary dissolved oxygen issue.  The scenario you describe is actually fairly common this time of year, although it happens in different creeks from year to year. As you know bunker are schooling fish and will often enter small creeks in high numbers.  Sometimes they can consume all the oxygen before the school can re-orient and hit open water. However, this seems more prevalent during/just after storms. A small creek like Westerhouse can actual ‘turn over’ like a pond when a deluge of colder rainwater is introduced. These waters will create a boundary that doesn’t mix for awhile which cuts off the bottom half from being oxygenated at the surface. A school will quickly deplete the available oxygen. You will still likely see dead fish, but let me know if you see numbers of sick but alive fish.  You may see some lethargic near the surface trying to ‘gulp’ air…again indicative of ongoing dissolved oxygen issue.” This is one of the traits I most admire in P.G., an ability to cut to the chase on the topic of dead fish, explain things clearly, and remain accessible.

P.G.’s note set me to thinking. I replied with more observations and questions, The kill was quick and I’ve seen not seen any more dead fish this morning. Will this kill the other animals in the creek: crabs, shellfish, silversides, etc.? Do you want me to save and freeze a couple of the dead fish for the lab? P.G. diplomatically declined the offer of dead fish (and by now the crabs and other scavengers had been after the bobbing buffet): Typically the other living resources are not damaged.  The dissolved oxygen issue is usually quite temporary…long enough to kill the fish with high metabolism, but short enough that any benthic critter including bivalves hardly notice it.  The low dissolved oxygen ‘cloud’ is often highly associated with the water in and adjacent to the fish school.  Smaller fish seem to be able to move to areas a short distance away and ‘chill out.’  Crabs can sometimes get caught in the mix…they are quite sensitive to low dissolved oygen, but again only those basically in the vicinity of the fish.  I also think menhaden behavior probably plays into it as well as they seem to act quite agitated and probably increase their oxygen demand right at the time it would be well served to limit it by inactivity.  Nature of that species, I believe.”

I’ve seen these fish in action on late afternoons when high tide deepens the water around the dock. They flash and flip, bolts of bright and animate light pursuing plankton. Bunker with their wide mouths are voracious. I suspect they chase smaller fish, but P.G. gently corrects me, “Looks like bunker…if you look into that large mouth you should be able to see combs on the gill arches…even though the gaps look big, as a unit they do effectively filter out the large zooplankton and the large mouth funnels loads of water through.  Also, there will be an absence of teeth.” Driven and blinded by gluttony, the bunker (apparently thinking very small thoughts) let this stormy evening lead to the occasion of their own undoing. The unrestrained pursuit of appetite exists as its own kind of damning pride. Now, I don’t think of these fish as sinful in the sense of spiritual failure. It is conceivable that the only remorse a bunker might entertain is that it had eaten all the plankton and no more were to be had – but I doubt it. A bunker’s gluttony it seems is of the unthinking variety. They school into the creeks, ravage their micro-snack-size brethren, and move on. And, then this evening it rains in rivers, the creek layered salt-water oxygen-rich and rain-water oxygen-bereft inverts. In frantic flight bunker burn through the remaining oxygen and, en masse, drown. It’s too late, the tide rains bunker from the bottom up. “The wages of sin,” I’ve heard, “is death.” Looks as if the dead bunker are a case in point.

Wondering what to do with the bounty of dead bunker on my doorstep, I discern black clouds in the gentle arc of the horizon and hear thunder foreshadowing rain.  Could be another bad day for bunker – but an instructive one for folks inclined to parables on sin and salvation.

Rainbow over Westerhouse Creek with drowned bunker bobbing in the tide. Raindrops dab the photograph.

Rainbow over Westerhouse Creek with drowned bunker bobbing in the tide. Raindrops dab the photograph.

Southern Things

A group of us working together in a course on Writing Material Culture developed a collaborative project on Southern Things. Our challenge: to reflect on iconic objects that we seldom consider in canonical constructions of the American South. Some of these objects are so commonplace and shopworn in the world of ideas that it seemed at first they had nothing left to offer up, but the meditations on a Mason jar and a cast-iron skillet render those objects visible in new and poetic ways. You would think as well that the Mason Dixon Line was a done deal: except that we tend to forget that it is a line drawn on paper and that as a line it is a mark of division just as it is an armature around which ideas and values are wound. Mammy’s Kitchen Cupboard in Mississippi and Pedro looming over South of the Border alongside the South Carolina interstate speak to the monumental in ways that resonate with rice dikes in the Carolina Low County and Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakkers’ recently demolished King’s Castle. Experience, lived and imagined, address the potent Hurricane served in a New Orleans bar and the green dress fabricated for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Representations of self and society emanate from a pair of cotillion gloves and a fancy Lane cake. And, then there is challenge of the exotic mixed with the local in a glass of rose-infused sweet tea served in a Mediterranean delicatessen. http://southernthings.web.unc.edu

Max Huang’s Last Bao

A Max Huang's Chinese Pork Bun

A Max Huang’ Pork Bun

“There are two times in the course of his life when a Southern man cries,” my friend Dave Shields pronounced some years past as we walked the grounds of the Citadel listening to the howls of upperclassmen humbling first year cadets on the opening night of a new academic year. A hint of autumn infused the evening breeze. “And,” I asked, “they are?” Dave stopped, turned, and pronounced, “When his dog dies and his team loses.” Now, I know this isn’t true. The third occasion arises when his favorite Chinese bun and dumpling stand closes its doors and the big steel and woven bamboo steamers are stored away. Max Huang is shuttering the Li Ming Dumpling Theater and I am bereft if not inconsolable.  Sure, his thriving bun business in distant Charlotte will continue and flourish – but a grim culinary darkness shadows Durham and Chapel Hill.

Max Huang gave me the bitter news a couple of weeks back, gesturing unceremoniously to a chalkboard announcement, “We will close at the end of February.” “This year?” I asked; “This month,” he replied. “No!” “Yes.” Sigh. We changed topics: “I need some shrimp dumplings and few Chinese barbecue pork buns to keep me alive on a drive to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. And, maybe a red bean bun just to be on the safe side.” “What takes you there?” he queried. “Oysters,” I responded, “I grow oysters and it’s time to go fluff them up a bit, check on their general welfare, and eat a few to give a sense of meaning and panic to their rock-like lives.” “Oysters,” Max brightened, “I love oysters.” “I’ll bring you some,” I promised and headed for the door. I inhaled the first bun before the car made it out of the parking lot. The others, huddled in their Styrofoam box, weren’t far behind. I was really glad that red bean bun was in reserve.

Max Huang at li Ming's

Max Huang at li Ming’s

Three days later and true to my word, I phoned Max from the road on the way back home and told him that I had his oysters. We met in the Li Ming parking lot and I handed him a sack of fifty that I’d gotten out of the icy creek that morning.  A great deal of oyster gangstering goes on in parking lots – but then that’s another story that involves state troopers, shotguns, pouring rain, traffic stalled on a rural highway, and a school bus full of horrified vacation-bound students. In exchange, he offered a selection of buns on my next foray to the market. I was not slow to accept.

Max Huang's Roast Oysters

Max Huang’s Roast Oysters

When I visited the market on Saturday, Max was there and provided us with a lovely array of Chinese barbecue pork buns, Vietnamese buns, shrimp dumplings, and shao mai. He then showed us a photograph of the pan-roasted Chinese oysters he’d made. I asked, “How did you become a bun maker?” And, the outline of a story emerged that placed the buns neatly arrayed in the bamboo steamers in a greater tide of twentieth-century events. Max Huang learned his art from his father, a master bun maker in Taiwan where the family settled in the wake of the Chinese out migrations associated with the communist rise to power. Max’s father acquired his skills from his father who hailed from the Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China across from the Koreas and who, prior to Chairman Mao’s Long March and the communist seizure of private industry, ran a family pharmaceutical concern. The family business forcibly forfeited to the state left Max Huang’s grandfather on his mother’s side in search of a new livelihood – and buns, a traditional and popular Shandong delicacy, offered the family, dispossessed and desperate, an option. In time, the family fled to Taiwan and then in the 1990s resettled in the United States, establishing themselves in North Carolina. Three generations on, Max Huang sculpts the descendants of those first buns at his take-away counter in Li Ming’s Global Mart. The buns, Max observes, are not those his grandfather and father made. They are fancier now, stuffed with sweet and savory fillings.

Max Huang's Business Card (detail)

Max Huang’s Business Card (detail)

Max Huang’s narrative offers a genealogy in which each bun in the big bamboo steamers refers back to its ancestors in a lineage forged through repetition, terroir, and communion. Max rolls out the fine white dough, pressing it into uniform rounds. He places the filling in the center, folds in the perimeter, and then, with a deft turn of his hand, pinches and seals the top. The buns rise. Then, packed together, they steam, their fragrance luring shoppers to Max’s stand for a fresh barbecue pork, bean, or taro bun. But, now that I know something of their history, the buns make me think differently about the things I eat and what I think I know. Each of the buns that Max skillfully fashions remembers all the buns he has made and all the buns his father and grandfather have made in their long journey. The repetitive actions of mixing, kneading, rolling, stuffing, folding, twirling, rising, and steaming operate in an sequence that always refers back to origins and simultaneously looks forward to prospects. Terroir, the taste of place, maps a different territory in my appreciation of Max Huang’s bun bakery – historical time. Max Huang’s steamed buns and dumplings don’t taste of place in the classic sense of wine or cheese or oysters. They taste of great events experienced at the most personal level and that is their communion. When I eat one of those dumplings, I consume some small and intimate part of Max’s history and it becomes a part of me and I of it. I am reminded, indeed I am, in some measure, made a part of Max Huang’s family history. Huang’s buns recall deeper narratives of Southern loss and redemption, of awareness and reconciliation sometimes achieved too late, of how this place welcomes the displaced and makes them its own. Max Huang takes his last bao; tears drool down my cheeks. Maybe Charlotte is not so distant.

On Irony and Thornton Dial’s “Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City”

Irony is a marvelous thing, especially when it appears in unintended situations. One online dictionary defines irony as “The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” That would be intended irony. But, then, there’s the irony of accident that tells us much more about ourselves than we might want to know. I’m thinking of situations that reveal values and beliefs so deeply rooted that they go unremarked and in that silence mold how we experience and understand the world around us. Sometimes we say exactly what we mean in ways so subtle that we fail to sense the irony in our actions. So it is with the installation of Thornton Dial’s sculpture Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at Atlanta’s High Museum, the last stop of the travelling Hard Truths exhibition.

Peckerwood City 01 s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – paneled side. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Peckerwood City 02 s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – weathered wood side. Courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.










Completed in 2005, Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City presents a two-sided (truly janiform) sculpture that offers a powerful commentary on the paradox of social identities that prejudice and convention have simultaneously kept separate and conjoined. Dial’s sculpture stands almost eight feet tall and is composed of a “front” and a “back” – and this where our trouble begins. One side of the work consists of a paneled wall with a centrally placed door framed by columns capped with the suggestion of a pediment. A painted doormat placed in front of the closed opening (significantly without hinges, bell, latch, or knob) bears the single word, “Welcome.”  That would be part of Dial’s intended irony. The opposite side of the sculpture is composed of weathered and distressed boards, wire, and rusted tin. There is no door here, but two woodpeckers (known in the African-American South as peckerwoods, a word that shoulders its own perjorative burden) flutter against the raw wood ensnared in twisted metal fencing. We can imagine the staccato hammering of their bills against wood, futilely banging their heads against a wall without portal.

So, here it is. The two sides of Peckerwood City – one stiffly formal and uninviting, the other rough and patched together with found materials: a door denying access backed with a wall without a door. There is no front or back to this sculpture – just two sides that speak to connections marked by lack of access. If institutional, economic, and political power defines the “front”, then the paneled side of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is indeed the forward face. But, if the struggle for admittance, freedom, and equal opportunity are the primary power, then the face with the ensnared peckerwoods is the “front.” Dial forces us to consider where we locate agency and power through the juxtaposition of two historical social realities. The irony of who and what is welcome is obvious, but the conflicted depths to which that irony marks us all requires a good deal of reflection.

Peckerwood City High s

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – installation at the High Museum,

Context may not be everything, but it sure accounts for a lot. We arrive at the unintended irony of the installation of Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City at the High Museum. Dial’s sculpture is positioned on the second level of a three-story installation that overall provides viewers ample room to stand back, contemplate, and absorb the art Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City is placed in the gallery in such a way that the visitor can see the paneled, the white, the formal, the powerful “front” elevation in its entirety. To see the opposite “back” black side, it’s up to the viewer to find their way around the work without label or instruction. There’s no opportunity here to stand back and comprehend the rough, brown, worn, weathered, patched together elevation straight on and in its entirety. Instead, the view of the peckerwood face is hemmed in, fragmentary, oblique, and, by physical constraint, intimate – and it emphasizes this face of Dial’s sculpture as the “back.” The installation presents a stunning amplification of the work’s message – and, based on a lack of wall text, delivered seemingly without critical consideration.

Everybody's Welcome in Peckerwood City - installation at the Mint Museum.

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City – installation at the Mint Museum.

Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City could have been positioned in other ways as it was at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. For example, if the work were rotated 180º, it would foreground the struggle and in doing so reveal the insistent voices that test the limits of power, the sound of fists on a non-existent door knocking for entry. Or, if the work were rotated 90º in the same space, we could engage our troubled past and present from a perspective that cements two Southern histories in one creative gesture and one narrative where we can never back off enough to see the entirety of it all. But, in this installation there is a white front and a black back—and no matter how innocent that decision may have been, it speaks quietly and unequivocally to tensions in our unresolved national histories, provoking us to consider who holds power and who doesn’t. Now, that’s an unintended irony that instructs us all.

Sweet Potato Pie

Quail Cove Sweet Potato Farm near Machipongo, Virginia (2012)

Quail Cove Sweet Potato Farm near Machipongo, Virginia (2012)

The news item remains poignant and strange. On May 25, 1882, the Peninsula Enterprise reported, “At the Alms House on last Saturday night thieves entered the smoke-house on the premises, by undermining the foundation, and carried off all the meat, four pies in number, deposited there for the use of the poor of that institution.” Tunneling under a foundation to purloin pies and bacon seems like a lot of effort to devote to culinary skullduggery. But, there you have it. The impoverished poorhouse residents deprived of pies provided by a caring community. I’d like to think that sweet potato pies were the object of such villainy.

Hayman Sweet Potatoes curing

Hayman Sweet Potatoes curing

Laura Dennis recalled the family pie business in the town of Cape Charles during the Great Depression: “Mother was most famous for her pies. She had the best recipe for piecrust, and it was just as flaky, never soggy. She made lemon and coconut pie. Butterscotch, cherry, apple, mincemeat, pumpkin, sweet potato.” As a little girl of nine or ten, it was Laura’s job to deliver those pies to customers in the community, “They would order the cakes and the pies and the rolls. She would take orders during the week. And, we would deliver the goods, and we had a little wagon that my uncle fixed. It had a little cage on it with two shelves and we put the pies in there and pulled the wagon around and deliver. And that’s how she made her living.” The one pie Laura Dennis never made, though, was a Hayman sweet potato pie, inscribed in a recipe in her collection with the caution “Will be slightly greenish in color, and very, very rich.” I’ve baked and eaten  this sweet potato pie and it is both slightly green and exceedingly rich.

Hayman Swet Potatoes for sale. Nassawadox, VIrginia (2012).

Hayman Swet Potatoes for sale. Nassawadox, VIrginia (2012).

“White Hayman Sweet Potato Pie”

 3 cups cooked white Hayman sweet potatoes

1 stick butter

1 pinch nutmeg

1 1/3 cup sugar

4 eggs beaten

1 tsp vanilla

1 (13 oz) can evaporated milk

1 unbaked pie shell, large, or 2 small

Combine potatoes, butter, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Combine beaten eggs and milk; mix with potato mixture until blended. Pour into pie shell or shells. Bake at 350º for 1 hour or until knife inserted comes out clean. May take 20 minutes longer in large pie.

Gloria Harmon, married to William Harmon whose family has cultivated Hayman sweets for generations, makes a different sweet potato pie, a confection that draws its accent from the lemon juice she adds.

William Harmon with his harvested sweet potatoes. Franktown, Virginia 2010

William Harmon with his harvested sweet potatoes. Franktown, Virginia 2010

“Sweet Potato Pie”

2 X-large eggs

2 Cup sugar

1 Stick butter

3 Cup cook[ed] potatoes

½ Cup whole milk

1 Cup canned milk

2 Tbsp vanilla

2 Tbsp lemon

½ Tsp salt

Mix ingredients together. Bake at 375º. Use unbaked pie shell.

Ms. Harmon’s instructions are simple enough. Collect the ingredients, blend them thoroughly, pour the filling mixture into the piecrust, and bake and until the pie is done. There are no steps but these; there are no intervals but those defined by practice. I’ve made this pie according to these exact specifications and in doing so discovered the pie as the craft produced from a deeply naturalized and unstated reservoir of knowledge achieved through practice and the most literal acts of consumption. At heart, the sweet potato pie is an idea encountered on a plate.

Planting Sweet Potato "Slips" near Eastville, Virginia (2008).

Planting Sweet Potato “Slips” near Eastville, Virginia (2008).

“Cook” Sara Ross of Accomac kept her recipes in a blue cookie tin that held two small file boxes and a handful of loose papers. Her handwritten recipe consists only of a list of ingredients with no instructions for a crust and no directions for mixing and baking the filling. Cook Ross presumed that if you were going to make something as familiar as a sweet potato pie you shared the common knowledge (the lingua franca of pie) central to the enterprise. The enumeration of ingredients told the experienced baker of sweet potato pies all they needed to know. Her ingredients, consistent with those listed for other sweet potato pie recipes, vary in proportion from those of Gloria Harmon and Laura Dennis, but the alchemy of evaporated milk, sweet potatoes, butter, eggs, spice, and sugar is much the same.

Pie Auction poster featuring a sweet potato pie on right. Exmore, Virginia (2011).

Pie Auction poster featuring a sweet potato pie on right. Exmore, Virginia (2011).

“Sweet Potato Pie”

2 cups potato

1 large can milk

1 ½ cup sugar

1 stick melted butter

pinch salt

4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cook Ross also collected recipes, some sent by friends, others shared by neighbors, and many clipped from newspapers, magazines, and promotional literature exemplified by the trade brochure “Nema Gold Sweet Potatoes from Virginia’s Eastern Shore” prepared by the Accomack and Northampton County Farm Bureaus (n.d.). The sweet potato pie recipe was surely the product of a rural affairs test kitchen.

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes. Franktown vicinity, Virginia (2011).

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes. Franktown vicinity, Virginia (2011).

“Nema Gold Sweet Potato Pie”

1 ½ cups boiled sweet potatoes (mashed)

1 cup milk

1 ½ cups sugar

3 eggs (separate)

4 tablespoons butter

Pinch of salt,  1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice and  few drops of vanilla

Put sweet potatoes through sieve. Add butter, sugar, egg yolks, salt and flavoring. Add milk and mix. Fold in egg whites. Bake about 20 minutes at 425º. Reduce temperature to 300º and finish baking. About 45 to 50 minutes total baking time is required. Makes 1 large pie.

The contrast between the collected recipe and the handwritten list of ingredients is dramatic. The published recipe is “busy,” requiring the separation of the eggs and the temperature adjustments. It’s a program for prescribed action. More to the point, this recipe takes pains to communicate the fact that the sweet potatoes should be boiled before making the pie. I never boil the potatoes, but roast them instead. Roasting concentrates and preserves flavor; boiling diminishes the sweet potato, robbing it of its distinctive richness. Becky taught me this – and she possesses a lifetime of sweet potato pie expertise.

Carrying Sweet Potato "Slips" to the field. Eastville vicinity, Virginia (2009).

Carrying Sweet Potato “Slips” to the field. Eastville vicinity, Virginia (2009).

All of these pie recipes (and there are many, many more in my field notes) set me to thinking about their origins. After all, evaporated milk, central to many recipes, is a comparatively recent invention that did not begin to gain market traction until the canning process was perfected in the 1890s. The rest of it, though, is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t require a eureka revelation to realize that the sweet potato pie is essentially a pudding – and that it can be baked without a crust and served in slices. A “Sweet Potato Pudding” recipe from Marion Cabell Tyree’s 1879 Housekeeping in Old Virginia foretells Gloria Harmon’s recipe: “Boil one and a half pounds potatoes very tender. Add half a pound of butter, and rub both together through a sieve. Then add a small cupful of milk, six eggs, one and a half cupful sugar. Beat all together and add a little salt, the juice and rind of a lemon. Then beat again, and prepare pastry. Bake twenty minutes. It may be baked without pastry. Irish potato pudding may be made by the same recipe.”

My friend Dave Shields freely shares his thoughts on sweet potato history, varieties, and recipes, tapping into the rich agricultural and culinary histories of the 1800s. Sweet potatoes (not to be confused with true yams) are native to the Americas and were quickly adapted into New World European and African cuisines. The pudding was a European notion that covered a centuries old universe of thoroughly blended dishes, sweet and savory. Think blood sausage; think liver pudding! The nutmeg that commonly flavors sweet potato pies, Dave adds, firmly establishes that Old World pudding genealogy. There are other sweet potato confections, some, the pone and the soufflé for instance, cousins to the sweet potato pie. Then there are biscuits, breads, and sweet potatoes baked in the skin.

William Baines's Sweet Potatoes For Sale near Eastville, Virginia (2009)

William Baines’s Sweet Potatoes For Sale near Eastville, Virginia (2009)

Sweet potatoes in the land of Gloria and William Harmon, Laura Dennis, Cook Ross, and just about everyone else I know are a staple. When I go to the Exmore Diner for spot, toads, or drum, I always order greens and a baked sweet potato on the side. When I chat with folks about Eastern Shore of Virginia dishes like salted black duck, oyster cakes, and clam fritters, they invariably sigh with longing and then rhetorically fortify the plates of recollection and imagination with sweet potatoes. Brick-lined pits under the floorboards in front of the hearth in old houses were sweet potato drop-ins. And, then there were the specialized sweet potato houses (wonderfully documented by Judi Quinn) designed for storage, curing, and propagation. Sweet potatoes, where I come from, are iconic and the sweet potato pie is their perfection and my redemption.

I just know those pies pilfered from the poor of Accomack County so long ago were sweet potato pies – a conclusion that renders their theft understandable and unpardonable. In a truly just America, everybody gets a slice of the sweet potato pie.

Reconnoitering Thanksgiving

Reconnoitering offers one of the most joyful aspects of Thanksgiving – second only to the excitement of lighting off the burn pile and then realizing that the wind picked up and the flames are kissing the top of a nearby pine. Everybody runs around looking for a garden hose to cool the tree. My 86-year-old mother, Lucy, and I simply watch as a branch ignites and then flares out. I never liked that tree much – and out of stubbornness, it survives the threatening inferno. You have to engage potential disaster to sweeten the day, I guess.

Josh Nottingham with sweet potatoes at Pickett’s Harbor.

The loop that runs from one end of the county to the other begins on a brilliant blue-sky morning with a stop at Pickett’s Harbor Farm where Josh Nottingham meets me with a selection of sweet potatoes, featuring the locally favored Hayman. The field crew pulls up in a farm-tagged pickup loaded with broccoli, cauliflower, and red and green cabbages. Josh, his mother Tammy, and I talk of crops, markets, family, and books recently read.

Friends at A&J’s Meat Market in Cheriton.

Next stop: A&J’s meat market out by the main highway leading into the village of Cheriton. James Elliot produces some of the best old school sage sausage to be found anywhere on the planet. Browned, crumbled, and mixed with whole hominy (yellow and white), James’s sausage is the cornerstone of the stuffing that goes into the fresh turkey he also provides. His manifest knowledge of pork provides tangible proof that art resides in the soul of everyday life.

Dinner rolls in progress at Kate’s Kupboard.

Onward to Bellehaven and Kate’s Kupboard for sweet potato biscuits. Sweet potato biscuits are the subject of much partisan debate. Some gourmands advocate for Tangier’s with little bits of sweet potato visible in the biscuit; others argue passionately for Charles Thain’s served with a bit of salt ham and jam. The Yellow Duck coffee shop in Exmore offers home-baked sweet potato biscuits that exert a real presence at the table – and they are good. But it’s Kate’s for Thanksgiving. Her biscuits are perfectly sized, orangey yellow, not too sweet, and the perfect vehicle for fried oysters and bacon. When I arrive midday, Kate’s is in full swing with Kate and her assistants kneading dinner rolls and racks of just-from-the-oven breads cooling on rolling racks. The scent of baking bread always raises the questions of why there isn’t a perfume – say, Eau d’Boule – the engenders pure delight.

Tom and Ann Gallivan shucking Shooting Point Salts at Chatham Winery.

Down to Bayford Oyster House where I hand H.M. Arnold an array of smoked eel and fatbacks packed in oil, freshly smoked eel rolled on parsley and garlic, and a jar of fig chutney. Late last summer, H.M. and I fished together for the fatbacks in Nassawadox Creek, and he set aside a dozen fat eels from his catch in September. The promise of his meeting them again all smoked and preserved was my bond – and it’s a bargain happily met. Up the hill, Tom and Ann Gallivan’s crew is noisily culling oysters for the holiday trade. Tom, off fishing, left us two bags of Hog Island Bay clams and a few dozen Shooting Point Salts oysters in the walk-in cooler. Fig chutney, a jar of smoked eels, and a freshly smoked bluefish replace the shellfish.

Wines of Chatham Vineyard at the early November wine and oyster tasting.

One the road again: past Chatham Winery where just two weeks earlier we participated in a wine and oyster tasting for 200 folks. Several bottles of Mills and Jon Wehner’s excellent 2009 steel chardonnay chill in our smokehouse fridge. The thought of those bottles drives me onward where we’ll savor all the things collected and toast the people and place who define our corner of the world. The vineyard, gone dormant in the early days of winter, marches its skeletal ranks of November vines forward to the promise of a warmer season. I drive on, spurred on with no small excitement by the fact that Maiana and Jessyca G. are delivering homemade tamales (pork and chicken) along with sweet potato empanadas. Their voyage to this corner of the South has not been the easiest – but they are here as a family and looking to the future. “What are you having for Thanksgiving?” I ask Maiana. “Turkey and tamales,” Jessyca translates. We are on the same page! They drive into the settling darkness and I head back indoors to get after a sweet potato empanada – the new sweet potato biscuits that brings us all together.

Maiana and Jessica with tamales and sweet potato emapanadas.

Storm Pairings

Hurricane Sandy on the move

The thing about storms is the weirdness they occasion. A hurricane approaches with assured ferocity, the mid-Atlantic coast shudders in a frisson of near-erotic anticipation, and the rush is on for the holy trinity of disaster commodities: milk, bread, and toilet tissue. Now, of course, schismatic voices advocate for other trinities like bottled water, generators, and gas – or some other more radical constellation of necessities that might include duct tape, shotgun shells, and a chainsaw. It’s a sectarian/partisan world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hurricane, blizzard, or severe cold front breeding a tornadic frenzy that threatens, the first stop is shopping for survival goods – milk, bread, toilet tissue. Clearly, the weather is not only the world’s greatest unpaid actor, it is also the compelling infomercial shill inciting the purchase of extraordinary quantities of croutons-waiting-to-happen.

Our list veers storm-like in another direction.

Number one: wine. I’m sure others have written on this topic, but the dilemma of wine pairings for potential disasters receives too little attention. For a late October storm, part hurricane/part northeaster, I look for well-structured reds with rustic, yet delicate notes of windblown leaf mold, fallen apples and pomegranates, and tide-churned marsh mud. A powerful bouquet with the architecture of an armageddon; the kind of wine that went with the demolition of the Tower of Babel; old world wines that speak to millennia of unresolved conflict – and definitely not one of those new world, new age, over-extracted West Coast or Oz wines. You can find great vintages to accompany the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it on the apocalypse preparedness shelf of any respectable wine shop.

Number two: roasted chickens. Almost every grocery store with a working U.S. military surplus rotisserie markets roast chickens. Confronting the potential devastation of sustained twenty-five mile an hour winds, we lay in a supply of two and, if it looks like the End of Days, three roast chickens. The last thing we want to do, having delved into the cataclysmic cellar and uncorked a good bottle of disaster wine, is cook. Glass in hand, this is the moment to survey the mayhem of downed leaves and twigs (unless something really bad has happened and it’s trees snapped and uprooted, cars smooshed, and roofs torn off, in which instance we go out with a bottle and two straws). Knowing that a roast chicken along with some pre-roasted potatoes with baby bella mushrooms (talk about a marketing scam) sprinkled with rosemary, black pepper, and sea salt awaits us at home base offers the greatest consolation.

Number three: a plan for capitalizing on frozen goods that thaw in the wake of power loss. Admittedly, power fails in the wake of really, really, really bad atmospheric and geologic events, for example a rain sodden crow landing on a transformer – and sometimes the lights go out for more than 24 hours. To deal with the potential power outage induced tsunami of delectables that include eels, soft crabs, blackberries, pre-cooked sweet potatoes, and more, we maintain a collection of recipes suitable for the grill and smoker – and a guest list of fellow survivalists who are likely to bring a good bottle as a contribution in their hour of greatest need.