The Christmas Bramble

The Fairchild household is in an uproar over Dabney’s marriage, but however peculiar the match, the proprieties must be observed, standards maintained, and that includes lavish decorations for rehearsal supper. At one point during the hustle and bustle the matriarch Ellen says, “I thought in the long run . . . we could just cover everything mostly with Southern smilax.”

Most of those who read Welty’s Delta Wedding probably skip over Ellen’s references to smilax without taking the time to find out what smilax is, likely thinking it a type of fabric or paper, but had they bothered to look it up, they’d have found that smilax is a coarse evergreen vine whose many varieties proliferate throughout the South in woods, fields, roadsides and back yards. Evergreen and durable, the vines have long been used for greenery in the home during festive events and holidays, and not just in the South. In the stage version of Harvey, the opening scene describes the home as being “festooned with smilax”.

Members of the enormous lily family, smilaxes are close relatives of asparagus, and they’re just as edible, just not as toothsome. In fact, before the invention of artificial flavorings, one species, Smilax ornata was used as the basis for sarsaparilla and root beer. (S. ornata was also registered in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for syphilis from 1820 to 1910.) Linnaeus named the genus Smilax after a nymph who was by reason of some divine infraction transformed into a brambly vine (her lover Croesus for the same reason was—unfairly, it seems to me—transformed into a crocus).

Indeed most smilaxes are “brambly”, profuse with thorns, a notable exception being Smilax smalii (previously lanceolata), which only has thorns around the base of the stems. Steve Bender says one name for this plant, Jackson vine, comes from ladies in Alabama who would decorate their homes with the evergreen when Stonewall Jackson came to town, but frankly I have a hard time swallowing that. Most people just call it, as Ellen Fairchild did, Southern smilax. People once often trained smilax vines around their porches for evergreen framing, but is no longer cultivated because of an undeserved reputation as invasive.

Smilax takes readily to use in wreaths, swags and garlands. Like any plant cutting, the vines last longer when kept in water, and must be discarded when dry.

 

The Brazilian Branch

Given the vast and unpredictable foibles of human nature, the genetic integrity of any bloodline can be compromised in the blink of an eye by an errant member, giving rise to such comments as, “Well, her great uncle’s hair was sort of red,” or “That’s what comes from smoking marijuana.”

Surnames, however, being legal entities, are more reliable genealogical signposts and much more easily traced. I am a Yancey. For reasons as yet undiscovered, my grandfather Jess, one of ten children, dropped the “e” in the customary spelling of his surname. What’s more perplexing is that his siblings, all nine of them, adopted the spelling, so all my nearest name relatives are Yancy. When I asked a surviving sister of his why Jess, Sr. changed the spelling, she said, “He just did!” and looked at me daring me to say something so I didn’t. because I was raised right.

The Yancey family surname hails by most accounts from Wales and in this country is most often found in the southeast, where many of its most distinguished members have lived. Foremost among these is William Lowndes Yancey, U.S. Senator from Alabama, the most vociferous “fire eater” whom some credit with no less than the War Between the States itself. It just so happens that my great-great grandfather Yancey was from Alabama as well, and while my relation to the Great Secessionist is vague, Yanceys of a closer degree in relation to him joined many others who fled the despoiled post-bellum soil of the defeated Confederacy for the Amazon. Termed “confederados”, these refugees from Yankee rule settled in Brazil where they still pay a distracted homage to the Old South more for the tourist trade than any significant degree of conviction in its ideals.

Nonetheless, one of these days I’m going to hold a Yanc(e)y reunion, and I’m going to invite every damn one of them here. I can’t wait to see what kind of covered dishes they’ll bring.

The Mother of All Christmas Cookies

In search of the ultimate cookie recipe, Wittgenstein and others of his ilk will demand—in various languages—“Just what IS a cookie?” At which point some passionate egghead steeped in negative logic will say, “It is easier to say what a cookie IS NOT than to say what a cookie IS!” and will hurl a plate of biscotti against the back wall of the bar.

In the end, a cookie is a cookie is a cookie, a mixture of flour, sugar and butter usually with a leavening agent and perhaps, for richness, eggs. These ingredients constitute the Ur-cookie, and the following recipe has endless variations: add cocoa for chocolate cookies, oatmeal for oatmeal cookies, pecans for pecan cookies, peanut butter for peanut butter cookies, and so on and so forth.

These can be topped with a sugar frosting, a glaze or sprinkles, or chopped nuts. You can add food coloring to make them magenta, chartreuse or cyan. You can cut them into any shape using traditional cookie cutters or you can use a knife if you’re feeling (or are) artistic. For true inspiration, make them with children at your elbow.

BASIC COOKIE DOUGH

1 c. butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Cream butter with sugars; mix well. Add eggs, vanilla and then flour, sifted with salt and baking soda, a little at a time. Bake at 350 degrees on a flat, heavy baking sheet for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool thoroughly before frosting.

Didion in Dixie

What is the South?

The answer isn’t easy; getting all the facts in one pile is hard enough. Then once you figure in the observer, perspective and perception, you might conclude the South is a fluid, protean phenomenon, a shattered chimerical idea or just a hook to hang a hat on, all of which indeed it is all at any given time.

Even we as Southerners, however much we profess to have an innate, intuitive conception of what the South is, cannot know it root and branch because our conceptions of it change, evolve, even as we think about it; such is the nature of intimate knowledge. The perplexion is compounded by those who theorize on the nature of the South, not only Cash, Woodward, Foote and their ilk, but those from outside the South who come to the region for the specific purpose of writing about it.

Joan Didion, a product of New Journalism, is best known for her introspective writings on culture and politics, though her most acclaimed works are deeply personal; The White Album (1979), including the title essay dealing with a nervous breakdown and The Year of Magical Thinking, (2005), written shortly after the deaths of her daughter and husband. It’s worth noting that her trip to the Gulf South was taken only two years after her critically acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a gritty, myth-busting account of California’s counter-culture during the 1960s, and that the notes eventually becoming South and West were recollected, (and presumably to some degree edited if not rewritten) and published only now, almost fifty years later.

Didion begins her excursion through Darkest Dixie in New Orleans with images of procreation, death and decay:

“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead. One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car.”

One might consider this an inauspicious beginning for a book about the Deep South, but then striking a gothic note isn’t out of order. Then her focus narrows:

“I could never precisely name what impelled me to spend time in the South during the summer of 1970. There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing “happened” anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be; the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I did not much want to talk about this.”

Throughout the work, Didion interacts with locals, usually people of prominence, including Walker Percy and (surprisingly) Stan Torgerson, but not Eudora Welty, stating that she dared not visit Welty in Jackson because she was certain that so near an airport, she’d catch a flight to the west coast.  To me it’s telling that she couldn’t find Faulkner’s grave in that cemetery in Oxford.

The summing-up for this work is her observation of an audience in Mississippi watching an American movie as if it were Czechoslovakian. This is literally the purest form of projection, for it is Didion who is watching a foreign film, driving through Dixie in a daze, and while we might find her unpassionate observations offensive, we should bear ear to them, if only to discover ourselves in other eyes.

The Radish in Winter

All market vegetables suffer abuse, but none more than a radish. It’s a wonder they’re eaten at all, given the quality of supermarket offerings, particularly those two-tone golf balls in perforated plastic bags next to the carrots, celery and collards. Some as yet unsung minimum wage produce genius might even put in a row of radicchios as a political statement; myself, I would use young Irish potatoes massed for a pebbly purple accent next to the Romaine.

Four and three weekends ago a friend planted red-top radishes in the tub beds, and they’re flourishing in this cool, bright November light. Thinning gives nice spicy seedlings, froth for any savory dish. By the turn of the year I’ll have pretty little radishes you can throw into a slow roast or a pot of beans for a little kick. They’re also pretty. Let me know if you want some so I can show you how to pick it.