It’s been said that a mom’s hug lasts long after she lets go.
What I remember most about my own mother, though, is not her many hugs goodbye, but the hug that always welcomed me home. And the knowledge that she was happiest when the house was full of family.
My mother-in-law, Arleigh, was like that too. She spent hours on end preparing for company, making pecan tassies and other family favorites, arranging pretty tablescapes for special meals, and making a welcoming wreath for the front door.
When our boys were little, she knit sweaters for them in winter and planned happy excursions for their summer visits. Childhood rooms were decorated with hand-stitched samplers celebrating their birth and any notable occasion was always marked with a special card and message from Grandma and Pop.
At Arleigh’s funeral on Friday, while leafing through publications featuring her award-winning floral designs and fingering her hand-made quilts, a sweet friend noted that whatever Arleigh did, she did it best.
For those she loved, that included hugs, provided in sugary treats and tiny stitches, the thrill of fishing trips and spotting deer along the farm road at dusk, and many, but not enough, unhurried summer days floating down cold mountain rivers.
It’s a tradition among American Southerners to serve ham, collard greens, and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to bring good luck for the coming year. In my family, that means country ham—a salt cured ham made in rural parts of the region, including Virginia, my home state; North Carolina, where my maternal grandparents were born; South Carolina, where I currently live; and others nearby such as Georgia and Tennessee.
To make these hams, they are salt cured for one to three months and then hardwood smoked, usually over hickory, before being aged. Aging can take from several months to 2 or 3 years, depending on the fat content of the meat. Typically, they are sold unrefrigerated, wrapped in heavy paper, and secured in a cotton bag. Since I travel to Virginia to see family around Christmas, I buy mine at Spivey’s Market in Emporia.
The taste of country ham is salty and smoking makes the meat red. It’s similar to prosciutto, but prosciutto is not smoked, the meat is moister, and usually more thinly cut.
Tim and I are looking forward to hosting a large group of friends on Sunday evening. Along with the ham, we’ll have collard greens, Hoppin’ John (a Southern recipe for black-eye peas), scalloped potatoes, spoon bread, deviled eggs, and a pickle and relish tray. To get a head start, I began soaking the ham on Wednesday and cooked it last night according to my mother’s recipe, ensuring it will be moist and tender.
Here’s what Mom taught me.
A store-bought ham should be soaked for 24 or more hours to partially re-hydrate the meat and relieve it of some of its saltiness. I usually aim for a day and a half, changing the water at least twice. To cook a medium ham (about 12 pounds), preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, put the ham in a roasting pan (fat side up) with 2 cups of water and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Cook at high heat until you can smell the ham (usually 30 to 40 minutes), before lowering the heat to 350 degrees F and cooking for another 2 and a half hours. Then, turn off the oven and let it cool down without opening.
Sounds easy right? Well, here’s the secret trick to make it a snap—you begin cooking the ham at 7 or 8 p.m. and then turn the oven off before going to bed, letting the ham sit in the oven all night. In the morning, take the ham out, remove the foil, let the ham come to room temperature, and then wrap it before refrigerating. The pan drippings are like gold, save them for cooking the collards.
Before serving the ham on Sunday, I’ll trim away the skin and some of the fat. For the best slices of meat, I’ll cut through the thickest part of the ham toward the center bone.
The country ham looked and smelled great this morning when it came out of the oven. Tim and I had a little taste, too, before wrapping it and tucking it away.
What about your New Year’s Day? I would love to hear what you have planned!
I’ve been unplugged for eight days. It’s the longest time in years that I’ve been without a keyboard at my fingertips and though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been busy.
During last Saturday’s ice storm in Washington, DC, Tim and I joined 40,000 other volunteers at Arlington National Cemetery for Wreaths Across America, honoring and remembering those who served our country. It was an amazing, heartfelt effort. Along with others in our group, we met and shared stories with people from across the country—young and old, spry and infirm—savoring unity in a time of division.
We also visited the welcoming home of our older son, relishing a few happy days with him, our daughter-in-law, and our grandchildren, enjoying good meals and good times—reading books, driving through the surrounding countryside, and seeing a new movie. Surprisingly, the best moments with the little ones were enjoyed at the kitchen sink, where we took turns washing dishes. But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? The most mundane things can be, and often are, the ones that provide the most pleasure.
After seeing Tim off but before pointing the car towards home, I also visited my step-father and extended family in the southern-most part of the state. There, we kept Christmas by placing red roses at my mother’s resting place, marking her first birthday since she passed away in May. And we looked to the future, with cheers for an engagement that promises a joyful gathering in October 2017.
My recent return to South Carolina included the happy surprise of paperwhite bulbs blooming in the kitchen window, plus handfuls of holiday cards which arrived while I was away. One, from a sweet gardening friend, included a copy of the poem at the end of this note. It’s a lovely, sentimental complement to the season.
Today’s newspaper column about our native red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the traditional Christmas tree of years past, features a family photo taken on Christmas morning in 1966. I don’t remember the exact moment the picture was made by my father, or even what I found under the tree, but I can tell you with certainty what happened next. With presents unwrapped and breakfast tucked away, my two sisters and I were made presentable for a visit to our grandparent’s farm, where we reveled in food and fun with an untold number of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
It’s been nearly 50 years since that morning, but it doesn’t seem so long ago. Memories, I’ve discovered, whether newly-made or long-cherished, are the consummate reward for the meaningful times we spend together.
And today, finally, I turn on the computer to find my blogging friends sharing holiday greetings with one and all, along with entertaining stories and best recipes. It’s the perfect gift—another full and jubilant refrain added to the song of life.
This Christmas, I hope you, too, are making new memories, and I send my very best wishes for all good things in the year ahead.
What is the thing inside
that follows the earthy smell of morning
out into the day, carries me down the road
in my car to the fabric store, to hover
over remnant tables, finger folds
of blue and green calico—little Dutch
girls and shamrocks, linger over cards
of brightly colored bias tape and silvery
snaps? The thing inside that pulls
me further down the road to wander
through nurseries, yearning
for yardfuls of lilac and peony bushes,
tugs me toward antique stores,
something about a pitcher, clear
glass, and milk so cold it hurts?
The thing inside brings me home,
knows what it is
I am trying to remember.
At home, my girls are needful, weary,
too much wear and tear
in their days. I spoon mellow,
peppery chicken pie into creamy dishes set
on October-blue mats, watch them lift the crust
with their forks to see what’s inside, suspecting
vegetables in there with the chicken. “You know
what my Mamaw used to say
to me?” I tell them, “Eat every carrot
and pea on your plate.”
I tell them about a salt-and-pepper
woman, round faced like me,
in a hairnet and blue cotton duster,
her yard full of cousins, hiding
in flowering bushes
and twilight from parents
already in their cars.
Oh I yearn to live
for the things I love, for the thing I put
inside the food and girls
who eat, for the road
and the thing inside the road that follows
after me and calls me back, to the pitcher
Mamaw trusted me to lift from the refrigerator
and pour, not because I was big enough,
but because I was
so in love with the pitcher
and with her.
by By Diane Gilliam Fisher
A crazy thing happened on the way to the wedding last week. Well, not really “on the way,” but I couldn’t resist using a funny line. It actually happened the day before the wedding when the bride and groom and several family members walked to the beach to see where the ceremony might take place.
So, what happened? In several locations between beach houses, I spied an unknown herbaceous plant, about 30-inches tall with pinky-purple tips, that was literally humming with bees and other insects. With more important things at hand, I stayed focused on the moment but made a mental note to scrutinize and photograph the plant later.
Now that you’ve seen the mystery plant, I hope you’re not laughing at my expense. I have the uncomfortable notion, especially after examining the USDA plant profile showing the extensive range of our native Monarda punctata, that I might be the last gardener in the Carolinas to know this mint, commonly called spotted horsemint or spotted beebalm.
Even worse, after seeing the plant up close, I admit I still couldn’t figure out what it was. At first I believed it was a beebalm, but when I couldn’t find a similar beebalm on the internet, I thought perhaps a phlomis (because of the number of flower whorls). Clearly, I was lost without my plant reference books. Finally, I had the good sense to email Terry, my “go to” friend for plant ID, and she immediately provided the name.
Many areas near the beach, from sun to part shade, were packed with hundreds of these plants, so the native obviously thrives in sandy soil and dry heat, and self-seeds freely. Interestingly, its pale yellow flowers are rather inconspicuous, but each flower head rests upon a showy circle of leafy bracts in an eye-catching shade of pink to lavender. The lance-shaped foliage smells amazingly like oregano, and I’ve since read it can be used as a substitute.
Most amazing of all, however, was the number and variety of insects visiting the flowers. Reliable sources say the plant also attracts butterflies, though I don’t recall seeing any.
As an interesting side note…..we had planned on a florist’s bouquet for the bride, but when the time of the wedding was moved from early evening to daybreak (because of the extreme heat), we realized the flowers wouldn’t arrive in time, so I offered to pinch-hit. Then, I had a fleeting thought of adding some of the “pink blooms” seen at roadside to a home-made bouquet before my brain leaped to “bees at wedding = not good.” You’ll be glad to know, I’m sure, that sanity prevailed and the flowers rustled up at a local grocery store worked out just fine.