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 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.

 

 

The Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. This March cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three-  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country siren’s ears or ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

Plate from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743).