Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Are You Ready for the Country?

It's only my second post, and already I'm betraying my nom de silicon: the place where I foraged for cobbler last weekend does not in any way qualify as urban. In fact, the scene there is so quaintly bucolic that the whole county resembles that ideal pastoral landscape, the golf course (which, by the way, is an excellent place to look for berries). The pastoral impulse, the desire to escape briefly from the flow of time, is probably why my friends Kellie and Pete, passionate devotees of “old-time music,” chose to live there.

On the fourth-of-July weekend, Kellie and Pete hosted a multi-day old-time-music event that can, I think, legitimately be characterized as a hootenanny. About a hundred musicians came from locales ranging from New England to Texas to indulge (some might say to excess) their taste for playing folk music, mostly of Appalachian origin, written before 1925. At these events, all traces of the sonic present are rigorously excluded. Rarely does a style as newfangled as bluegrass get a hearing, although the occasional dissident will risk it.

I'm not much of an old-time musician, so while they played antique tunes with names like “Cluck, Old Hen,” “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat This Morning” and “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy All the Time,” I listened and cooked appropriately old-timey hillbilly food. I smoked two pork shoulders (and a beef brisket) over hickory for Tennessee-style vinegary pulled-pork barbecue, and I chopped up the pepper slaw, really more of a relish, that traditionally accompanies it. I cooked what Granny used to call a “big mess of greens” – piquant turnip and mustard, and collard to mellow the mixture – with a ham hock, for a good, long time. I made buttermilk biscuits each morning I was there and a couple of batches of golden cornbread.

I was appalled to learn, beforehand, that my hosts' kitchen lacked the seasoned cast-iron skillet required for baking cornbread. “How you gonna call yourselves old-timey when you don't even have a skillet to keep good and greasy all the time?” I demanded. So I brought mine with me – and my food processor (not very old-timey, but powerful handy) and a cooler full of beer. And I forgot about all of that stuff when I left, which is why I had to go back last weekend.

On my first trip, as I traveled down from the city, I had seen flash after enticing flash of scarlet in the underbrush at the roadside and especially in the median of the four-lane highway. But you can't just pull your car over in a situation like that, on a carefully patrolled stretch of road where stopping is prohibited except in case of emergency. My understanding of “emergency” embraces catching sight of a profusion of delicious wild berries with a distressingly short bearing season, but I'm guessing the state cops construe the word more narrowly. I pondered those berries all weekend, but I didn't figure out how to get at them until I was back in Philadelphia: Kellie could drive me out to the highway and drop me off. After a couple of hours, she'd come back and retrieve me, along with gallons and gallons of the very best forage there is.

Alas, the redberry season (actually, the variety of wild raspberry I pick is properly termed “wineberry,” but I am not using that name, for reasons I hope to explain in a later post) was pretty much over by the time I was able to make it back. By then I had convinced myself that at least some of the flashes of red I had seen in the median were not redberries at all, but unripe blackberries that would just about now be coming into season. Kellie told me that blackberries were bearing on their property, so it was not unlikely that those a few miles away would have reached a similar state, right?

But I couldn't tell, as I repeated the drive, whether there were any ripe blackberries to be had – blackberries don't catch the eye the way red ones do, and details are easily missed at 60 miles an hour. Finally, the ominous sky convinced me to abandon my plan: not that I'm above getting a little wet for the sake of berries, but I've heard it said that the middle of a highway without a car is not a good place to be during a thunderstorm. So I limited myself to the berries on their property. Fortified by a breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs enlivened by fresh chives from their garden, and toast with redberry jam that I contributed, I sleeved myself up and started the hunt while Kellie did a little lawyering and Pete reviewed his e-mail and the latest posts to the old-timey forums.

The sleeving up, though unpleasant in the weather typical of berry season, offers some protection for the arms. You need that because the fact is that blackberry canes, unlike redberries, just aren't all that genial. Where the redberry makes me feel as if it has been waiting breathlessly for me to discover it and is eager to share its precious fruit, the blackberry's wait seems more in the nature of an ambush. The redberry practically jumps into your hand, but it takes some tugging to get blackberries off the plant – I've learned not to bother with very small blackberries because I'll often crush the whole fruit in the effort to harvest it. The redberry cane is covered by purplish hairs, and its delicate little spines are barely more than larger versions of these hairs, easily avoided and not very punishing. But if the redberry's defense is merely coy, no means no for the blackberry. Its thorns are hard and unyielding and viciously sharp, and they are often cunningly concealed in places like the undersides of the leaves. Once a blackberry thorn has gotten hold of you, it does not like to turn you loose, either, until it has torn a little bit of what it has grabbed – better cotton than flesh, I figure.

So I wore a long-sleeved shirt of light denim out into a veritable sauna of a day, the sort of day when you feel pretty much like a poaching salmon and suspect that you might do better with gills. I sweated out about a pint, I think, and gathered my share of minor injuries while I scouted the perimeter of the property, picking blackberries and the occasional remaining redberry. I hunkered down low at each thicket: as in so many situations, the view from beneath is generally more illuminating than that from above. I liberally seasoned the acoustic environment with some good old-timey salty language, and by the time I returned to the air-conditioned kitchen, I resented the hell out of those hard-won blackberries.

I got about three cups – not much of a haul for the effort, I thought. And it was going to make a pretty shallow cobbler, so I decided to extend it with some peaches. Just down the road was a farm stand operated by Anabaptists (Amish? Mennonites? Hutterites? I tend to get them confused). A shopping foray led to extravagant overpurchasing of beautiful local produce: I returned with not only peaches, but also apricots, cherries, tomatoes and sweet corn. And when I drove up to the stand, I spied a sign that said, “PIG ROAST TODAY.” The roasting was being done over wood, weaving a smoky, aromatic net of the sort most likely to capture me. I bought a pound of pork, too.

I made the cobbler dough, which is just biscuit dough with a little sugar in it, with buttermilk, because I think it makes for a tenderer pastry, and then I set it in the refrigerator while I prepared the fruit. I had decided to make a diminutive cobbler of each fruit and then a large one of the mixture (this was an easy choice to make because Kellie was following me around washing the dishes as I dirtied them, so there wasn't any downside, from my perspective). I dipped five peaches in boiling water for about 30 seconds each to loosen the skins, and then I peeled, seeded and chopped them. I ate some of the skins because I actually love their fuzziness and sort of regret the peeling. After rinsing and draining the blackberries, I added sugar, cornstarch and a bit of lemon juice to each bowl of fruit. That's all -- ripe summer fruit needs little dressing up! It's always a pleasure to pat out biscuit dough on Kellie and Pete's counter, because it's made of pure, polished granite.

The cobblers were still in the oven when Kellie and Pete left for a gig; they had contracted to entertain the patrons of a local dairy farm's ice creamery. When the cobblers emerged, I loaded them onto a baking sheet, covered them with wax paper and hied me to the creamery, where the crowd had been reduced by a burst of rain (or maybe it had been thin to start with because of the oppressive humidity – I can't say for sure). Kellie and Pete were with the fiddlers Walt and Clare, who are their bandmates in the Orpheus Supertones, and a banjo-playing lawyer named Shel and a fledgling fiddler named Jessica. They were playing, I learned, for ice-cream chits. On previous occasions, they had neglected to collect their chits at the end of the day (because really, they were just playing for the joy of it), but I prodded them to take their due. After all, what complements cobbler better than ice cream? And I had a cooler in my car.

From the creamery, we repaired to Walt and Clare's, where old-time musicians gather regularly for tunes of a Saturday night. As I have said, I am not much of an old-time musician, nor can I claim the encyclopedic knowledge of folk tunes that also confers status among this crowd, but a woman bearing a fresh cobbler can transgress all sorts of boundaries with impunity. Clare marinated and Walt grilled wonderful shrimp kebabs redolent of the freshly harvested garlic that was stacked like cordwood on their front porch – piles and heaps and buckets of it. They keep a pair of gas burners out there, and Walt boiled the corn on one of them, so as not to heat up the house.

When we broke into the cobbler, eyes rolled into the back of heads and little moans issued from everyone present. We tested all three cobblers, and all were good, but I must admit that straight blackberry was the best. The raw fruit is not quite as tart as the redberry, but its flavor is deeper – it is, ironically in light of the redberry's proper name, winier and more complex. All right, so it's not an amiable fruit, but nothing makes a better cobbler. And before I left the house, Walt and Clare, who are so doctrinaire about the authentic old-timiness of their music, who have transcribed and catalogued thousands of traditional fiddle tunes, played fiddle parts for a tune I wrote! Let me clarify here: I wrote it long after 1925. That's the kind of indulgence a fresh cobbler can earn you. As the storm that had brewed all day finally broke against the windows and I heard my song transformed by the magic of their brilliant musicianship, I forgave the blackberries. I could hardly wait to get back to the city and all the ones that were ripening there.

Full disclosure: by the time we ate the cobbler, the sun was pretty much gone and I couldn't get a photo, so I reproduced the cobblers at home the next day, and the second batch is what you see pictured here. In the spirit of conscientious bloggery, I of course tested each of the cobblers photographed.


the dough:
1 ¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons butter, diced and briefly frozen
1 cup buttermilk (yogurt mixed with milk or cream will do)

the filling:
3 cups of blackberries
5 good-sized peaches
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Put all the dry ingredients for the dough in a large bowl and whisk them (or you can sift them together, but this way's easier. Cut the butter into the flour until the texture of the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal (if you want flaky topping, the bits of butter should be a little larger, like very small peas, but for this purpose, I think fluffy is better, and that requires more butter manipulation – I found it necessary to finish the job with my fingers). Put it in the fridge.

Mix all of the filling ingredients.

Take the flour mixture out of the fridge. Make a well in the center of it and pour in the buttermilk, all at once. Stir the mixture until it holds together; then turn it out onto a surface and pat it out to a thickness of half an inch or so, handling it as little as possible.

Pour the fruit mixture into a baking dish. Tear off pieces of the dough and fit them together, jigsaw-puzzle style, on top. Brush a little bit of cream or butter on the dough and sprinkle sugar on the surface. Bake for about half an hour.

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Anonymous lxn said...

A bit of that leftover cobbler made its way to me on Monday and, after a berry-picking adventure with the UF where I came away with more skeeter bites and scratches than berries, the perfect perfecness of the cobbler reminded me why it was worth it. Although I think I'm a better tester than gatherer.

And I have a black chicken currently. Olive. She likes to inspect things and she likes strawberrries.

Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 9:33:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Darx said...

Oh, my, heavens, was the song they sang none other than Little Dog?!?

You put me to shame-- we got blackberries at the Roanoke Farmer's Market last weekend and I just added some sugar and shoved them in a ready-made Pillsbury crust. In my defense, my dad and stepmom don't keep flour or actual butter in the house, let alone buttermilk! We also got peaches. God, those were good. Just ate them, though, because like you, I can't stand to waste the skin when peeling them for pie.

Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 10:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

The song was a new one, "The Ballad of Lucy's Lover," a.k.a. "The Ballad of the Homosectual." Although it has hilbilly subject matter, it isn't really all that old-timey. The fiddles made it soooo heart-wrenching.

Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 10:18:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Philadelphile said...

OK, UF. It is SOOO cruel of you to list the feastings over the 4th of July . . . with my Ozark granny long gone, and me having gone many long years sans Hoppin' John or any other luscious greens concoction . . . not to mention that tangy Tennessee bbq . . . and all this before we even get to the cobbler of the gods! I don't know if I'm going to survive your blog, actually. I am the proud owner of several seasoned cast iron skillets, and I made me a nice batch of cornbread t'other day. I was raised quite strictly to believe that cornbread is NOT a sweet comestible. NO sugar. You? Perhaps this is merely due to the lack of sweetness of any kind in the Ozark culture from which my people hail . . .

Friday, July 28, 2006 at 11:28:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

I am with you all the way on the corbread issue -- No sugar, and no wheat flour, either. In my family, that sweet stuff was called "Yankee cornbread." It has its place, I suppose, but my skillet ain't it! The recipe my mom used was labeled "Aunt Alma's Egg Bread." It's like this:

1 c. cornmeal
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 egg
1 c. buttermilk
bacon grease

That's it! You heat a little bacon grease in the skillet and then poour the batter into it so that it makes a nice crispy crust, then you bake it in a hot oven for half an hour. It is so fine when it comes out of the oven! It doesn't keep very well, though, and gets pretty leaden when cold, so I've taken to adding some double-acting baking powder.

Friday, July 28, 2006 at 12:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Philadelphile said...

Yes! Yes! The same, the same! We are one! The bacon grease heated up first for that crispy bottom -- oh, ye gods! Makes me want to break out in a chorus of my granny's favorite hymn: "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from God's celestial shore and I can't feel at home in this world anymore." I'm sure she only agreed to touch foot on that that celestial shore if there are celestial pigs and celestial corn and celestial cast iron skillets . . . if not, I am certain she lit out for the territories and found some other after-life to kick back in.

Friday, July 28, 2006 at 1:39:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As UF's daddy,a naturalized southerner, I must remind her that her mama and granny refered to aunt Alma as "Ain't Alma."

Friday, July 28, 2006 at 3:44:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous JMS said...

what fun. my mouth is drooling and my soul is nourished. thanks for the delectable post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Lindsay said...

delectable indeed...i think i gained weight just reading your posts....jealous of the eye for images as well... you tease with only two posts. prioritize woman prioritize

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 at 9:46:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, UT, what's ripe in the city in October? My Mamma used to forage greens in the ruburbs where I grew up in MO, and I'm pretty sure she got them in the fall as well as the spring. You know, Tennessee and Missouri and Georgia (Mamma's home) are pretty damned close, judging by the cornbread rules, the cobbler, and and the correct pronuciation of the parent's sister. We used to think sweet cornbread was a Northern thing, too, until I found some of it in Maryland and even North Carolina. What are those people thinking?

Thursday, October 5, 2006 at 2:38:00 PM EDT  

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