Pocahontas Garlic

My friend Buddy lives in Pocahontas, Mississippi. Buddy is the hardest-working person I know; he does drywall, roofs, painting, whatever work he can find to keep his home safe and his family fed. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known, and, like most you–without a smidgen of justification, I hasten to add–thinks I’m a bum.

Buddy’s always bringing me stuff from his garden; tomatoes, okra, and peppers in season, odds and ends like herbs and knotty apples, holly and smilax during the holidays. Some years ago in the late summer, he brought me a bundle of fresh garlic. The bulbs cloves were large and mild, resembling most what I have come to know as elephant garlic.

I’ve since learned, it’s actually a leek, Allium ampeloprassum. You’ll find this onion growing around old home places all over the South. Here in south Hinds County, it’s practically endemic. You can use the fresh stems and bulbs before they divide out for a very strong garlic-y onion flavor. For the bulbs to clove, cut the blossom before it sets seed. Once the foliage has yellowed and the stem stiffened—this is a hardneck garlic—you can dig the buds. They will divide as they dry.

This old allium is a wonderful pass-along; plant toes/cloves after first frost in your strongest sun. Buddy tells me it spreads all over the place, and he has to thin his out twice a year. He also swears that it keeps him and his wife healthy. They’re both pushing 80 now and show no signs of letting up.

Me, I’ve got the prettiest little patch of Pocahontas garlic you’d ever hope to see coming up in the bed next to the driveway.

Mrs. Horrell’s Paperwhites

For many years I walked from my home on Poplar Avenue in Jackson, Mississippi down North Street to the Welty Library.

North Street is broad and level, making for an easy, leisurely walk. Long ago, the way was lined with splendid homes, but in my last year in Jackson, the only private residence on the street, a modest, sturdy, two-story cottage built in 1923, belonged to the Horrells. When last I passed by a “For Sale” sign was planted in the front yard, where long before, Mrs. Horrell had planted masses of narcissus.

Warmed by a broad western sun, her paperwhites were among the earliest in the city to bloom, coaxed out of the ground by the toddling sun of mid-winter. She also had clumps of old daffodils, a  of beautiful swath of blue-and-violet bearded irises, and a row of gnarled, ancient rosemarys that filled the air with scent and the eye with points of cloudy blue in the warming winds. Mrs. Horrell once told me the narcissus lining  front walk came from her grandmother.

The area has been zoned commercial, so once the property is sold, the house might be razed, and the in-place plantings will most likely be lost. Developers’ architects view landscaping as ancillary or incidental, and plantings in-place are expendable. New developments in old neighborhoods obliterate yards that helped define the character and delineate the history a neighborhood.

You can still find old plantings struggling beneath mats of Asian jasmine throughout the city, and one November, many years ago, we freed an old street corner of choking vines, weeds, and rotting wood. In March, clumps of the old daffodil, ‘Butter and Eggs,’ came barreling out of the Yazoo clay.

Place, too, has a memory.

The Sun Rekindles

To confirm that the Charter of Christ embraces the profane cycle of life, the early Church adopted observances of the solar calendar from many different cultures.

The most significant of these are obvious; Easter, on the spring equinox, and Christmas, on the winter solstice. Others include All Saints’ Day, the mid-point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice; Lammas Day, the mid-point between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, while May Day, in between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (Beltane in the Celtic calendar) marks a celebration of the Virgin Mary in Christian culture.

February 1-2 falls between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, marking the middle of solar winter in the northern hemisphere. Called Imbolc in the Celtic calendar, Christians observe the date as Candlemas and the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare (Ireland), who shares her name with the Celtic goddess Brigid, “whom the poets adored.”

It’s also Groundhog Day.

Mural to Brigid of Faugart at Dundalk, Co. Louth

The Filé File

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) wears the crown in the laurel family’s royal culinary heritage, but two of its close American cousins can claim coronets at the very least. The first of these is the red or swamp bay (Persea borbonia) that grows all along the Gulf Coast. Before the advent of imported laurel, swamp bay brought flavor to our regional cuisine, but is largely neglected now. The far more familiar native laurel is sassafras.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is the most widely-known laurel my part of the world, that being the American South. Both older and younger trees have the aromatic oils that are associated with this family, which you can generate by either scratching the bark on the younger trees or cutting the bark of the older trees. When the tree is in leaf, sassafras is one of the easiest trees to identify, as it usually has three different leaf shapes:  a mitten, a glove and a solid leaf, which are spicy and aromatic when crushed.

Filé–powdered sassafras leaves–was used as a thickening/seasoning agent in potages long before gumbo came along. In Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, the authors cite an article in the 1929 edition of The Picayune Carole Cookbook explaining that filé was first manufactured by the Choctaws in Louisiana. “The Indians used sassafras for many medicinal purposes, and the Creoles, quite quick to discover and apply, found the possibilities of the powdered sassafras, or filé, and originated the well-known dish, Gumbo Filé.”

Even after the rest of us got here and cultivated okra, filé remained an essential element of what came to be known as gumbos. Both filé and okra render a liquid thicker by means of strands of gelatinous (if not to say mucilaginous) substances I can’t even begin to describe, and for this very reason, they should be used sparingly together. Okra takes to stewing, but filé does not. If you’re using filé as a primary thickening agent, use a little in the last few minutes, and then offer a small bowl around the table for dusting.

Filé is available in most supermarkets, but look at the label. If it doesn’t say “sassafras”, don’t buy it. A far better option is to make your own, which is easily done by finding a tree and gathering young leaves, preferably under a full moon and in the nude, of course. Dry, crush, and mill through a fine sieve. Store as you would any powdery substance. You know the drill.

Occasional 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 the 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–yes–your yard.

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—grotesquely disproportionally—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 the vine is rarely 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.

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a poison dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in doorways.

Mistletoe vendors on a street in Paris.

A Bit about Spuds

 Opposition preceded the acceptance of the potato into nearly every country of Europe. The resistance of European populations to potatoes can probably best be explained by a concept then prevalent in the intellectual milieu, that being the Doctrine of Signatures.

The Doctrine of Signatures can trace its roots back to a brilliant quack named Paracelsus. Paracelsus (1493?—1541) was a Swiss physician and alchemist. His original name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, so of course he changed it to Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus as soon as he could (wouldn’t you?). He was both popular and controversial. On the plus side, he rejected Galen’s humeral theory of disease; on the negative side, he promulgated the Doctrine of Signatures.

Basic to this doctrine is the notion that “like cures or affects like,” which is the underlying principle of sympathetic magic. This ancient principle enjoyed such a grip on the medieval mind that even someone as astute as Plutarch might say, “Such is the nature and such the temperament (of any given creature) that it draws out and receives the malady which issues, like a stream, through the eyesight.” Plants bearing parts that resembled human body-parts, animals, or other objects were thought to have useful relevance to those parts, animals, or objects.

So if you wanted a good ruddy complexion, you’d eat beets. If you wanted a pale complexion, you’d eat mushrooms. If you wanted big tits or a big dick, you’d eat . . . well, you get the drift.

Unfortunately for the potato, the early varieties cultivated in Europe produced irregularly shaped tubers, often with white nodules and knobby finger-like growths, which to the superstitious minds then rampant recalled the swollen, deformed feet and hands of lepers. Followers of Paracelsus made much of the supposed likeness between a particular plant and the outward manifestations of a disease, but, far from becoming celebrated as a cure for leprosy, the potato became to be condemned as a cause of the disease, the outcome of a popular inversion of the principle.

How ironic that the potato, a plentiful source of starch and rich in ascorbic acid, should find itself spurned by a population that constantly lived on the brink of starvation and suffered from epidemic scurvy.

The potato had a particularly hard time in France, where the Parliament of Besançon banned the cultivation of the potato out of fear of leprosy in 1630. It was not until 1787 that the potato became acceptable, and even then mostly by virtue of its flowers. Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wore the blue blossoms as ornaments in an ill-fated attempt to influence public opinion towards a more favorable attitude of the vegetable, but given the couple’s incredibly poor record in public relations, it probably did more harm than good.

Catherine the Great shocked the Russian court by eating a dish of the tubers in public around the same time, and pronounced them “tres bien”. Catherine was an enlightened monarch, respected in many courts, and due to her blessings upon the potato, it was soon being used as a fermenting base for the making of vodka all over the Russian Empire. Potatoes became a staple in France (and Russia) by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and quickly became accepted throughout Europe.

On a more favorable note, perhaps at least from the vantage of this time of license, potatoes also enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac. This attribute largely came about due to its association with the sweet potato (all potatoes derive their English name from the sweet potato’s name among the Taino, batatas), which played a role in every dish intended to “incite Venus.”

Shakespeare made use of this aspect of potato lore when he wrote of the tuber in two plays written in 1597 and 1602:

FALSTAFF:
My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves,” hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes*. Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here…
The Merry Wives of Windsor, V, v., 18-22

*sea-holly, Eryngium maritium, enjoyed primarily for its roots, candied with sugar and orange-flower water which, as Evelyn noted in his diary, were a specialty of Colchester, and esteemed an aphrodisiac.

THERSITES:
How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together. Fry, lechery, fry!
Troilus and Cressida, V, ii., 54-56

Potatoes were sold in the streets in 1617 when John Fletcher penned this bit:

I have fine potatoes,
Ripe potatoes!
Will your Lordship please to taste a fine potato?
`Twill advance your wither’d state,
Fill your Honour full of noble itches.
The Loyal Subject III, v.