The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Winter Reading: From Scuppernongs to Switchel

When it gets cold outside, there's nothing I like more than curling up somewhere with a hot beverage, a cat, and a book. I come from a long line of bookworms, librarians, word-lovers, readers, writers, and other nerd-types. Book-loving is in my blood.

If the book contains recipes, food history, and stories about food, all the better as far as I am concerned. One of my all-time favorites is 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, by a hero of mine, seed saver and historian William Woys Weaver.

So I can't tell you how excited I was to be introduced last night to this book: Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine by Joseph E. Dabney. We were having dinner with our good friends Bud and MF. After a highly satisfying meal of stuffed butternut squash, cream of broccoli soup made from broccoli from their garden, and a creamy custard for dessert, we retired to the living room to talk about James Bond movies (!), Noam Chomsky, and traditional mountain "stack cakes." This last topic lead to MF whipping out the aforementioned book.

We found several very fine stack cake recipes within, but that was just the beginning. This book is a treasure trove of Southern Appalachian food lore, food histories, food traditions, and recipes. It's one part oral history, one part cookbook, and one part hymn to the people and traditions of the Southern Appalachians. It is meticulously researched and written with the reverence and relish of a person who has cultivated a long-lasting and deep love of food and food traditions.

I quickly became completely absorbed -- a whole chapter on sweet potatoes, another on persimmons, and a veritable profusion of information about old-time food-preserving techniques. Very old Cherokee recipes, wild foods traditions, and chapters on moonshine, wine, and beer. Recipes calling for everything from "several squirrels" to "Tennessee truffles," otherwise known as ramps. A section on "The Art of Growing" in the southern mountains. And lots of amazing old photographs of places all around where I grew up and where I live now. This is so far up my alley it's out the other side.

In the 12 or so hours since MF kindly lent me her copy (seeing the pain it would cause me if she didn't), I have spent most of my waking hours falling in love with this book. I stayed up late reading Christopher snippets about the history of wild grapes in North Carolina, and opened it up first thing this morning to read about possum hunting.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As I try out recipes, I will post some of them, and I'll write more about Dabney's exhaustive survey of mountain food culture as I read and re-read it, I am sure.

On a related note (food traditions, books I love, recommended reading for cold days and nights), I was re-united last night with my copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I had apparently lent it out to MF long ago and forgotten. Christopher has had to hear me lament its absence many times in recent months, only to discover that it was safe and sound in West Asheville all along. I was very excited when MF whipped out my copy last night.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is only 187 pages from cover to cover, but it is highly concentrated. Like a thick mole or miso paste, it provides more flavor, substance, and hours of enjoyment than you might imagine. Wild Fermentation is chock full of recipes, food histories, stories from the modern food underground, philosophy, politics, and food lore from many traditions.

Wild Fermentation is the book that I used as a guide when I first began making krauts and brine pickles, ginger brews, kombucha, and other fermented foods. It is the single indispensable resource for people embarking on fermentation adventures, in my opinion, and an invaluable cache of fabulous food facts and folk traditions.

So there are two recommendations for winter reading. Though I am a big fan of libraries, these are books that I think it is worth owning. My copy of Wild Fermentation is well-worn already -- it has the creases and stains to prove that it's a book I pull off the shelf and use in the kitchen all the time. I am going to purchase Smokehouse post haste, and have a feeling it will assume a similarly revered and beloved status in my kitchen.

Happy winter, happy eating, and happy reading!


A note on the title of this post: Scuppernongs and Muscadines are wild grapes that grew rampantly in North Carolina before and at the time of European settlement. According to Joseph Dabney, they were still to be found in abundance growing wild in these parts as recently as the 1940s, and were used for wine-making, desserts, and an amazing-sounding ferment made from wild grapes and molasses, apparently based on a Cherokee tradition. Switchel is a delicious home-made soft drink with molasses and ginger, a fine recipe for which can be found in Wild Fermentation.


jack-of-all-thumbs said...

I love your blog and ordered "Wild Fermentation" based on your recommendation.

Milkweed said...

Jack, thank you for the affirmation! I have no doubt that you will enjoy Wild Fermentation - let me know what you think of it!

Dana D, I love that you love Ted Williams! Did you know he used to live in Madison County? I refrained from making my family listen to the ENTIRE thanksgiving address on TG day, but couldn't help uttering a "3x3x3" before we dug in to the feast.

el said...

Hey Milkweed, that Smokehouse book is way up my alley, too, even if I am more than a holler away from the Smokeys. Did you ever read any of the Foxfire series? Talk about making do! I absolutely enjoyed the unfrilly utility and history found in all 6 of those books. I absolutely adore something that details how a certain food came into being, so your stack cake sure fits that bill. (It looks delicious too.) I hope you are able to find some sorghum molasses. It does taste a bit different than cane, and there's a whole lot of history around cane sorghum too. Anyway, thanks for the book recommendation!