By Karen Dill
The ancient oak tree is bare. It stands majestic in the yard of our old two-story farmhouse. Our house sits on a small knoll and is surrounded by magnolias, dogwoods and mountain laurel, but it is the oak that I see first as I walk up the narrow road from the post office on this cool evening in January. Winter is here and the air is crisp and cold in late afternoon and the sky is grey. I pull my sweater closer and breathe in the clean mountain air.
The mountains are shadowed and silhouetted in shades of charcoal. There’s a hint of snow in the winter air. The old mountain folks watch the birds and listen to the trees when the weather changes. My daddy swore this method of watching and listening was more reliable than the local weatherman with his slicked back hair who came on the six o’clock news. If the crows line the branches of the oak tree like soldiers headed into battle, stoic and silent, and if the surrounding trees appear to huddle together in quiet communion, there is snow on the way.
As I trudge up the hill, I look for signs as I peer down in the small village of Webster, but other than the chill in the air, I’m clueless. I fear that while I may have lost the gift of mountain weather prediction, my respect for the trees and the surrounding landscape of the mountains is neverending. As a native mountain girl, I learned from an early age that our earth is more valuable than progress.
My father was a true mountain man with little formal education, who made it his mission to fight the state highway department in an effort to preserve an old oak tree on the property of my childhood home. It seems a road needed to be built and trees would be sacrificed, but my father, armed with his shotgun, met the offenders on the front porch of our small frame house and proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he was willing to die for the oak tree. I never knew if that was a bluff or not, for the men fled and the oak tree was saved. It had protected the land for generations of mountain dwellers and my father arose and fought for its protection. My father died in 1980, but the oak tree is still there, gnarled and twisted, still protecting the surrounding earth.
The oak tree in our yard is well over 200 hundred old and has protected our family during the 25 years that we have lived in this old farmhouse. It has provided shade for family weddings (my husband and I exchanged vows on a June morning) in our front yard, limbs for tire swings used by our children, and steady companionship during the cold winter months. It stands erect now in the dusk, its long bare limbs reaching for the sky and provides solace in the chill of the evening. I look lovingly at the light from lamps in the windows of our house and long for the warmth of the kitchen and meal ahead.
Winter means a fire burning brightly in the fireplace, heat bellowing from the old furnace in the basement, and the smells of hot food wafting from the kitchen. Tonight I’ve revived an old Southern comfort dish, chicken and dumplings accompanied by winter vegetables and a sweet potato pie. Although the foods are standard fare in the mountains, I try to add distinct flavors to the dishes that I’m preparing.
Chicken and dumplings is a standard mountain dish and tends to warm the body rather than excite the spirit. There’s great debate in the South about the merit of the Civil War, the right to bear arms, and the consistency of the dumpling. Many prefer the soft puffy variety that resembles summer clouds on a warm day; others swear by the flat chewy kind that most resemble flat clouds on a cold and grey winter day. One melts in your mouth, the other requires a bit of work.
My friend and colleague Pat Wishon is most like I imagine a sister could be in my life. We are both only children, were reared in the mountains of North Carolina during the same decades and both had fathers who ran a bit of moonshine in dark moonless nights on dirt mountain roads. We know that we are some sort of soul sisters because we argue about most everything but in the end agree that we are both right, hug, and continue to finish each other’s sentences. We both love to cook, but of course we disagree in the great dumpling debate.
Pat and our mutual friends Ravenna and William will join us tonight for the meal. Pat will bring ingredients for her preferred flat chewy dumplings and I will fix the preferred and better (in my humble opinion) puffy dumplings. We will let our guests decide which they prefer. Pat and I have quietly agreed that this may be the Great Mountain Chicken and Dumpling cook-off. We have also agreed that no matter the outcome, we will all be winners as we will enjoy great food, wine and company.
We decide to make the dumplings together, as the base for the dish contains the pretty much the same ingredients. I’ve stewed a couple of chickens most of the morning with herbs, celery and carrots and have skinned and deboned the bird. These are free-range organic birds purchased from a local grocer (www.greenlifegrocery.com) so all of us animal lovers will hope that prior to our dinner’s demise they led a good life, as much as chickens can have a good life.
Pat and I will prepare our separate dumplings then with separate stock pots containing the same basic broth, we will drop the dumplings in and serve them up separately in the last stage of preparation. I add a couple of extra ingredients to my broth and, in the spirit of sisterly competition, I will not divulge my secrets to Pat. Chicken and dumplings must be served immediately and must be hot. I have prepared some winter turnip greens that continue to grow in our neighbor’s garden year round if they have some protection during freezes. I add turnips stored in our root cellar to the greens as well as some bits of bacon, vinegar and red pepper flakes for warmth.
Greens just can’t be served without a few corn muffins so I mix up batter and pour into the old iron muffin tins. I’ve baked a sweet potato pie with a touch of bourbon for dessert. As a child when money was tight and times were lean in the winters, we would eat some variety of the sweet potato most every day. Sweet potato pancakes, sweet potato biscuits, sweet potato casserole and just the plain old baked or boiled sweet potato with farm fresh butter. It all sounds wonderful now, but trust me, it got old. I learned to avoid them as I grew older as they reminded me of poverty and desperation, but I find now that I enjoy their sweet buttery taste again. A pie with that old winter standby will be a perfect finale for this winter inspired dinner.
We dine comfortably in front of a fire that Tom has built earlier in the evening. We all agree that the dumpling cook-off is a success and because we are all opinionated people, we passionately argue the merits of both the soft and the chewy dumplings. A passerby might think we were discussing politics or religion. But no, it is just the dumpling debate. Our talk turns to mountain tales and I relate the story of the old oak tree still standing in the yard of my childhood home in Bethel. We laugh about the antics of our fathers and other old mountain men who wore pride like armor. We reminisce about the favorite foods of our childhoods: fried chicken, field peas, butter beans, biscuits. I don’t mention the sweet potato. We each recall the favorite trees in the yards of our childhood homes and wonder if they still stand. We also ponder what we might do to protect them from time.
As we sit around the dining room table, watching the dying embers of the fire and enjoying the quiet warmth of good company, I watch the oak tree from the window and feel its protective spirit. Would I arm myself with a weapon (the fire poker perhaps, as we don’t own a shotgun) as my mountain father once did and protect the tree and mountain traditions against the outside demands for growth and development? I most likely would, but tonight I sigh peacefully for the oak tree is safe. Mountain traditions remain and are preserved in the hollows of the hills, in the warmth of our kitchens and in our souls. The food tells the stories of our souls while the trees sway bravely in the cold night with approval, ever protecting us as we will no doubt protect our earth. Ever vigilant.