Days of fireflies, berries, porch swings, and tomatoes.
The other day I was on a the phone with a friend and telling her about how I missed things about the southeast and I was thinking that it probably sounded crazy. I mean I already miss Colorado, I loved every moment with the Rockies, aspen forests, and elk grazing just a short drive away. Not to mention the last camping/hiking trip we took. I was overwhelmed with the possibilities and accessibility out there. I certainly find a lot of fault in the majority of politics and beliefs that radiate from the southeast but I still found myself missing it. Some friends out in Denver explained that they felt claustrophobic when on the east coast because while driving down the road there were trees on either side of the road. Out there the roads are wide open, flat land seamlessly ending into the silhouette of the Rockies. It is surreal, but it isn't home to me. I feel a little sad that the east coast and especially, the southeast, doesn't get enough glory in the natural beauty department when compared to the west. They both deserve admiration in different ways.
The southeast with its sandy beaches, rolling dunes, coasts flecked with small islands and pockets of wild horses, marshy swamps of prehistoric palms, carnivorous plants, and mangroves. There are places deep in the coastal forest filled with the chorus of insects and birds growing so loud at dusk that your imagination is transported to an exotic jungle. Regions of rivers, streams, and lakes form such intricate watershed systems and secret swimming holes bursting with fish, crawdads, alligators, and sea monsters. Bogs and wetlands create undisturbed homes for boar, wild dogs, mosquitos swarms, and secluded humans who, in a way, are inhabiting a frontier too difficult to conquer. Ancient live oaks so gnarled and twisted and drenched in spanish moss, they produce a pattern of sunlight across the surface of the earth that slightly morphs and sways in the wind, like a kaleidoscope. There is evidence left of early Native Americans, their blood flows in most Easterners veins, and the sacred sites they left behind; jewelry, earth mounds, burial sites, arrowheads, shell rings, pottery, tears, stories, and mysteries. A patchwork of plains and farmland with seams of pillowy tree canopy embroidered with cows, horses, sheep, hogs, goats, wildflowers, and bunnies. The farmhouses and barns are so cozy and eternal, even the uninhabitable ones look like a home from a dream. Even the worst of suburbs are engraved with the footprints of deer herds, fox, raccoon, old growth trees, and early american ruins.
The Appalachians are clothed in a happy thicket of trees with too many species to count, some of the most bio-diverse forests in the country. The Appalachian mountains are ancient, among the oldest on earth, being near them makes you feel more wise, makes you explore your own self. Hidden doorways open up from mountain faces and reveal limestone caverns so dark, cold, and deep that even the fish are blind. The caves harbor bats and other creatures of darkness, allowing the mind to run with stories of the imagination. They hide the secrets of Native Americans, war, prisoner escapes, and Tom Sawyer. Giant boulders seem to have both fallen from the clouds and poked up from the punctured crust of the earth, they form homes for curious black bears and their smaller friends. Hidden gorges and rock cities remain barely explored, with steep walls cradling pockets of teal water, fossils, and multicolored salamanders. The lands flecked with the ruins of our ancestors; stone mills, abandoned buildings, graveyards, canals, camps, forts, damns, waterwheels, cobblestone streets, some so overgrown that they are, in their own way, an undiscovered Appalachian Angkor Wat. Thunderstorms instantly turn the empty air into a forest with flashes of light illuminating raindrop trees and cracks of thunder shaking the ground, shaking your home, shaking you to the soul. Soils diverse and fertile produce the much loved okra, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, pecans, tomatoes, and walnuts, and children with berry stained fingertips and jars filled with fireflies.
I could go on. We haven't discussed the architecture, sounds of rain on tin roof, creaking porches, and blue ceilings. The history of our country both good and bad, where the United States first set its roots. Or the dialect, language, culture, religion; a diverse people made up of unique groups such as Lowcountry, Immigrants, Native American, Gullah, Cajun, Creole, snake handlers, and others. I haven't mentioned the food, the gatherings, biscuits, catfish, fried green tomatoes, collards, hoppin' john, pound cakes, cobbler, grits, barbecue, dumplings, gravy, cornbread, gumbo, fried okra, cast iron skillets, and sweet tea. I could write an equally admiring bit about the west, hell, about Colorado alone, but it would be missing a certain amount of history, mystery, and controversy. I can get caught up in my frustration over certain things about the southeast (in history and in modern day) that annoy me, that disappoint and dishearten me. I forget about all the magic and wild that exists in our natural world here, in our history here. It is amazing and inspiring and I wish these things could be figureheads for the southeast rather than politics. I wish a lot of things. I think that if the land could speak, it would wish these things too.
In honor of the beautiful things in our world, in our country, and yes in the southeast, here is a take on southern food from an untraditional southerner.
Recipe (one big ole casserole - I used about a 12" oval dish)
Cherry tomatoes - 16ounces, whole
Summer squash - 2 small/medium (I used one zucchini and one yellow squash) , cut into slivered rounds
Yellow onion - 1 medium, cut into slivers
Corn - 1 ear, fresh, kernels cut off the cob.
Olive oil - 5TB
Dry sherry or basalmic vinegar - 2TB
Garlic - 4 cloves, 2 smashed and 2 minced.
Fresh thyme - 2TB (scant) with the leaves pulled off from the stalk.
Salt/pepper - to taste, fresh cracked pepper works well here
All purpose flour - 1 3/4 cup
Cornmeal - 2/3 cup
Heavy cream - 1 cup
Cold butter - 3/4 a stick
Sugar - large pinch
Preheat your oven up to 450 degrees and cut up all your veggies. Toss the tomatoes (whole), squash, and corn together with 3TB of olive oil, 1TB fresh thyme, smashed garlic, and salt/pepper. Pour into your casserole dish and place into the oven when it is ready and roast for 20 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes. Meanwhile put the last 2TB of olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add in the garlic and slivered onions to the skillet and caramelize for 20 minutes, while the veggies are roasting in the oven. After 20 minutes, take out the veggies in the oven and add in the caramelized onions and 2TB of sherry, toss together and return to the oven for 10 more minutes.
While the veggies are roasting, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, pinch of salt, 1TB fresh thyme, and a good amount of black pepper. Cut the cold butter into pea sized pieces and toss into the flour mixture. Add in the cream and stir into a dough. Add in a little extra cream if needed... you want the dough to be somewhat dry but stick together nicely. Store the dough in the refrigerator until it is ready to use.
After the veggies have roasted for 10 more minutes (a total of 30) take out the dish, stir, and top it with big spoonfuls of the dough. Return to the oven for 14-15 minutes or until the biscuits are cooked and slightly golden. Top with cracked pepper and serve warm.