Saturday, January 9, 2010

CORNBREAD AND SNOW


We've started this Saturday morning off with a nice flurry. Should it persist long enough to prove meaningful, we'll reclassify it as a genuine snow. But it has to earn that title. New snow to layer atop the older half-inch dusting that fell yesterday morning, which itself covered the six or so inches put down on Thursday.

As I look out the window toward the river, I'm quite pleased to see this nice wintery landscape. I expect January to be cold and snowy. What's an Ohio winter without a few weeks of white?

As much as I like a snow-covered landscape, I like a lively snowfall even more. Nature in flux; visible changing. Which may explain, at least in part, why I like all sorts of "weather," from pouring rain to scudding clouds. A darkening sky preparing for an oncoming storm fills me with energy. Thunderclaps and rolling booms are signals for delight. I love it when the wind stirs through the woods or sweeps across a tallgrass prairie, or sends the big waters of the Great Lakes into rollers and whitecaps that crash upon the shore. I even like it when a blizzard howls and moans like a banshee, or a searching boreal wind sobs around the eaves like a crying child.

It's the difference between active versus static—nature alive, in motion—and is part of the reason why I live by a river instead of a lake.

Of course a lot of these changing weather situations are more pleasantly observed from inside rather than smack in their midst. Though I can't think of any sort of severe weather phenomena of the Great Lakes or Midwest that I haven't been caught out in more than once, including tornados. Still, that delicious feeling of holed-up coziness simply adds to the enjoyment. We all like to feel sheltered and secure, safe—and if we can expand that to include real comfort within our refuge, then it's even better.

One of my favorite books is The Wind in the Willows. And perhaps my favorite part of that charming tale is where Mole gets lost and frightened in the Wild Wood. Ratty comes to his rescue. Then, in the dark and amid a snow storm, the two little animals wind up at Badger's front door—and are welcomed in, warmed, fed, given snug and comfortable beds for the night. It is all a scene of perfect domestic security, of homey warmth and friendly respite. The juxtaposition of the genial and civil, the dangerous and elemental. And it often seems to serve as an unconscious model for my own attitude and actions when weather and situation allow.

As the snow poured down on Thursday, we built a nice hearthfire before breakfast, and laid in wood sufficient for the day. Nothing beyond the riverbank cottage required our presence. It was milady's day off. I'd already shuffled desk work to accommodate, and the only meeting I had in town was duly canceled due to road conditions; errands we'd planned were put off until the weekend. She got out her box of turquoise and silver, onyx, jade, fire coral and carved bone, and began working on a necklace. I settled down with a small stack of books. Snow piled and blew, swirled and fluffed. The feeders did a brisk business.

Midmorning, I cut up a couple pounds of beef and started it slow-cooking. I thought beef and barley soup sounded like the ideal hearty fare for such a day. A couple of hours later I added carrots, celery, onions, garlic, split peas, and seasonings. The barley went in after that—and the pot was set to simmer until everything was done. Thirty minutes before we ate I stirred up my mother's cornbread mix, and when the oven reached 480˚, added buttermilk and poured the thick batter into the old iron skillet that once belonged to my great grandmother. A skillet well over a hundred years old; so old it's a collectible antique.

I sometimes wonder how many cakes of cornbread this old skillet has baked—gold and crisp on the outside, yellow and steamy fragrant inside when you slice it open to slip in a pat of butter. Were Grandpa and Grandma given it when they got married in the late-1800s, and Grandpa began hewing out logs for their one-room cabin in the head of Bear Branch? I know Grandma gave it to my mother upon her wedding (this and a coffee pot being their only cookware) and I know they carried it with them through their years of Dad's school teaching and travel—all the way to a cabin on the high headwaters of the Entiat River near Wenatchee, Washington, where they picked apples in addition to Dad's teaching.

Yep, that old iron skillet has been around…and a lot of those places along the way were places where winter came with a deep mantle of white. I'll just bet my latest round of cornbread wasn't the first one it has turned out onto a plate on a snowy January day.

24 comments:

Gail said...

Hi Grizz-

Oh my, such a beautiful image you have detailed - with all the ingredients of home - the cottage as your haven from the snow storm, a warm fire, plenty of wood, your lady making jewelery, beef barley soup, corn bred - in a time tested recipe and years of travel skillet - I am filled with warmth and joy imaginging you amidst all these blessings. Savor every flavor, sense, nuance, feel, moment.

Love to you
Gail
peace......

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

What a warm, nostalgic post Scribe. I, too, love nothing more than being 'holed up' inside with something wholesome cooking on the stove, a fire roaring, and a good book waiting, while the winds howl outside - love going to sleep to that wild melody too.

Imagine having your GREAT grandmother's cast iron frying pan!! It must bring a special presence to your home, perhaps carrying its own memories of January days with your ancestors.

We are putting away Christmas decorations today, defrosting the garage fridge and freezer, a little artwork on the side for me - and taunting each other with threats sure win at the scrabble board later - our reward for all the grunge work. (I hate defrosting old freezers! Fortunately the one in the kitchen does not require it - but we have kept these wonderful 'never quit specimens' to help with food storage ... and so it goes.)

Funny, I was thinking of making cornbread this evening to go with chili ... your description cinched it!

Wanda said...

I love winter, just for all the feelings, scenes, and memories you mention. I often wonder how my great grandparents made it through winters on their hilltop in Virginia...with no electricity, in a typical board house, with a large front porch and swing. Their iron skillet is a loved possession of mine. I have wonderful memories of eating her buttermilk cornbread and biscuits with her homemade butter. My grandmother lived at the foot of the hill, when we visited from Ohio, first thing I did...was climb that hill!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

This riverside cottage is both home and retreat, and a really fine place to snuggle in come a day of winter weather. Thursday was just a wonderful day to sit by the fire, watch the snow come down and the river slip along, cook and bake, and every so often step outside to feed the birds and listen to the soft whisper of falling snow.

I trust you're having a better day…

Bernie said...

Your day sounds absolutely wonderful and like you I like all kinds of weather that nature provides.....I have a few special plates from my grandmother which I treat with so much love and so respectful of the memories they arouse each time I use them.
I hope January gives you and your wife many more wonderful white days, I love winter especially when I know Spring follows....Hugs

I really like the photo of the river....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

There's something wonderfully atavistic about snugging into a warm, dry place when winter struts its stuff. You don't need a lot to be comfortable; again, the elementals seem sufficient. (For me, a book is elemental.)

I may do a whole post on my old iron skillet one of these days.…

When my mother passed away a few years ago, she had a fairly new refrigerator in the kitchen (which I gave away), two working deep freezes—huge 8-ft. chest type, the biggest models Sears sold, one from the 1950s and the other from the '60s—and her refrigerator from 1947…and everything worked! But, no self-defrosting. It was always an all-day job to unload those freezers and refrigerator, defrost, wash and wipe clean and dry, and replace everything back before stuff started thawing too much. Oh what fun!

Hope your cornbread turned out good.

madcobug said...

Sounds like a cozy day. We had my cornbread today baked in an iron skillet that I got many years ago. Helen

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Wanda…

I've also spent a bit of time visiting kin back in the "hills and hollers," and can tell you they lived rough by out standards, but most of the time they were comfortable and warm, well-fed on home-canned, home-smoked or salted, home-grown, or homemade. Meals were cooked on a woodburing stove, which made the big kitchen toasty. A lot of the old places were drafty, but coal or wood was usually plentiful. Families gathered round the stove or fireplace, they did small tasks or sometimes read or sang, they told stories, they got to know and care for one another in a way that families of today never imagine. I don't think many, even the poorest, had too bad a life. They worked hard and had little money, but they didn't need much hard cash.

I grew up on biscuits, cornbread, hoecakes, johnnycakes, etc. Except for making an occasional slice of toast (which was in addition to biscuits at breakfast; never supplanting them) we didn't eat bakery-made "loaf bread."

Hey, I always use buttermilk for my cornbread, hoecakes, and biscuits—and wish I could get the real stuff. (What's sold in the stores is not at all the same thing as home-churned buttermilk; a different process entirely.) I also wish I could find real, sweet cream butter.

I've had some wonderful breakfasts down in the hills…homemade biscuits and gravy, sausage and bacon from hogs raised and butchered on the farm, eggs from those old Dominicker chickens scratching and clucking in the yard (yolks a deep orange, whites standing three times as high as today's watery commercial eggs), sorghum molasses from cane raised in the field, comb honey from the bees whose hives were on the hill behind the barn—maybe a jar of blackberry or gooseberry jam, or strawberry preserves—and churned butter, along with milk cooled in the springhouse overnight, and milked from one of maybe two or three cows which, while everybody sat down to eat, you might hear bawling because whoever did the morning milking and let her out forgot to open the gate at the head of the pasture where she likes to graze.

Oh, yeah…I know all about those days and times and front porch swings. And like you, the first thing I did when I got to anyone's place—just as soon as Dad would turn me loose—was to go climb the nearest hill. What I wouldn't give to relive a few of those visits and times…and sit on the porch in one of those old cane-bottomed chairs and hear the old folks tell their tales…

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

I have a few old thing like the skillet. Most are too utilitarian to be valuable—not that I would sell them at any price. But I have my one grandfather's double-bit axe; my other grandfather's crosscut saw. I have the coffee grinder from my grandparents on Mom's side. Some dishes that go back 150 or more years to great-great-great grandparents. Stuff I cherish because of the connection back through time.

It is always nice knowing spring is out there beyond winter…but you know what, I'm not near ready for winter to end. I hope we do have more snow, and I really hope we can have the time to enjoy such days. I like winter.

Stay warm! BTW, do you drive that little yellow ragtop around in the winter? Just curious.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Helen…

I'll be making more cornbread for this evening's supper. Sounds like this has been a cornbread week for quite a few folks.

Grace said...

I love being "holed up" inside by the hearth with a good book and good food (time to make some cornbread). I guess that's why I love winter--it's the perfect excuse to indulge in my favorite pastime.

Bernie said...

No Grizz, I drive a Pontiac Sunfire and it is bright yellow as well.....I think it's time I went for a new colour....I do like candy apple red and am looking at Mustangs but I really don't need a new car right now.....:-) hugs

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Grace…

I couldn't agree more. Winter brings out the urge in me to semi-hibernate with a big stack of good books, maybe some nice music, food, fire, a comfortable couch…I practically have to whip myself to get up and out sometimes. Winter is the best excuse I know to just give in and be me.

KGMom said...

OK--here goes again. A bit ago, I tried commenting, but my computer ran out of power, so I tried to re-dock it. Instead it threw a fit, clanging loudly--no kidding (scaring me half to death).
So I have run a registry scan, and am now backing it up. And, also have moved to another computer. Sigh.
Glad that someone else thinks cornbread and soup go together. That is a favorite flavor combo for me.
As for cast iron frying pans, that is the one regret I have--with a new kitchen and a new stove, I can't use cast iron on the smooth top. Whose idea was that? Of course, it would still work in the oven.
Sounds like you and milady have exactly the right approach to a snowy day.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

Huh. That Sunfire isn't exactly a big snow-country vehicle, either. On the other hand, I once drove an MGB (remember those?) as my one and only car for several years, plowing and blasting my way through the best Ohio could manage for winter snows. I occasionally got stuck, but digging out was easier.

Never owned a yellow car. But I like yellow for certain vehicles. I tend toward green (being Irish) and anymore, pickup trucks rather than autos. About three trucks back I had a Ford F150 in dark chocolate which I named Mooseflop. When I sold it it had something over 300,000 miles on it—and the guy who bought it drove it for another three years and sold it to one of his friends who drove it awhile. Ol' Mooseflop may still be out there putting along. I saw a press release on the new Mustangs the other day and they are really neat looking.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

I think cornbread is the perfect accompaniment for a lot of soups and stews (not all, some I like with a nice chewy bread or a heavy grain bread, etc.) and especially things such as chili. Sometimes, with chili, I spice up the cornbread—though I tend to prefer it "straight." With the beef & barley soup, as I often do, I have little cubes of good cheese, chopped green onion tops, and fresh pepper I've just ground with the mortar and pestle (I gave up on pepper mills some time back), for garnishing. I also sometimes make cornbread "croutons" for other soups (not when I'm serving cornbread as the bread) which lots of folks seem to like. I'd hate to go through life without good cornbread.

I cook almost exclusively in cast iron— skillets, griddle, dutch ovens. My wok is steel and I have some cookers and pots that are either layered stainless steel, or some of the fancy materials (with the fancy price!) But I prefer cast iron. I can fry an egg over easy or do an omelet without adding a drop of olive oil or butter because I keep my cast iron seasoned. I prefer stovetop cooking with gas, baking with an electric oven. I simply couldn't have one of those flattop ranges. If I ever bought a house with one in the kitchen, it would be relegated to the sidewalk for pickup before I moved in—and I'd cook on a camp stove until the new stove got delivered and installed. (I don't mind electric stoves, however, the coil-burner types are pretty good.) Nope, me and my cast iron will never part company.

Hope you get your computer problems solved. They just aren't fun—the problems, not the computers.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh Scribe - thank you for such a warming post - and thank you for the photo of your river in the snow!
I too am making a beef casserole for lunch today and must break off after this comment to add the suet dumplings for the last half hour. Nothing like a good warm helping to stave off the cold. Snow is forecast again for us later today and we already have about eighteen inches. But, as you say, a good warm fire, good food, good company and plenty to do is all that one needs. Both of you keep warm - and keep looking out of that window - I do want to know what is going on in that snowy riverside. Are your ducks still around?

Jayne said...

Oh, if that skillet could only talk...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

This morning it is 3˚F, overcast, and all white with a dusting of new snow. We have maybe six inches down if you measured, as some of the earlier snows have compacted.

I'll keep river photos coming, don't worry. I can't much help it, actually, as the river as it is is what I have to photograph—and it is indeed lovely.

You're right in that you don't need much to be comfortable and cozy. And this is the time of year to snuggle in, rest, relax, doze by the fire and dwell in introspection.

I'm sorry to have to tell you that the ducks are gone—the white ones; the mallards are still around in numbers. Just before Christmas, they disappeared, and I've had word recently that the hen was killed by a dog which got into a neighbor's yard downstream. One of three semi-tame ducks the dog killed. I guess he'd been feeding them up in the yard, and since they couldn't fly, could not get away when the dog appeared. The dog warden was called, but all he did was issue a warning citation to the dog's owner to keep the dogs (there were two of them, both pit bulls) on a chain or secured in a fenced enclosure.

I'd debated even saying anything about it here on the blog because I hated to post bad news. I tried not to get too upset when I learned about their fate. The remaining white duck is just hanging around their yard, apparently, waiting and looking and quacking. So sad and so needless.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

Indeed…if it could only talk! That skillet has gone from a time before the automobile, when folks went to town—an all-day affair, done maybe a half-dozen times a year—in wagons or by horse or mule, to men walking on the moon, to the digital age. It has been across the country and back. Had every kind of meat, wild and tame, fixed in it; baked thousands of pones of cornbread. It has been around in portions of three centuries!

Yup, I'd say it would have a few stories…

Kelly said...

....beautiful, beautiful post. You really know how to re-create a mood and make the reader feel the importance of the event. Loved reading about your skillet, the cornbread.....and The Wind in the Willows! One of my all-time favorites--the scene you described is my measure for coziness (and part of the reason I love when a storm blows in...).

Rowan said...

What a lovely post Scribe, I love the story of your old skillet and the family legacy that it carries. Wind in the Willows is a book that I've always loved as well. Enjoy your snowy days, nothing like being inside on a winter day with time to potter about doing only the things you enjoy.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Kelly…

I apparently forgot to check the email yesterday evening, and just got in from what feels like a full day of running around since I began before daylight. Any, that's the excuse for the slow reply…

I always hope the writing is more than just a sort of lifeless report. I try to put the reader there, to share the experience or mood by transporting with words, and to put myself into the piece, too, so that it's like you're here on the riverbank with a friend. I do hope some degree of creative alchemy works occasionally.

That scene from TWITW is my measure of cozy comfort, too. And when the snow comes, as it did the other day, and I can build the fire and have the food and something approaching the chapter's ambiance and mood…it's almost like I'm living that book. (Maybe you just have to have a big slice of kid left in you to get into it and understand…)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

As I said to Kelly (above) I hope you'll accept my apologies for being so slow in replying.

One of these days I'll maybe write another bit about that skillet and post its picture. It's funny how certain objects can tie together so many strands of history and life, afford the such a hinge point for much personal history.

The Wind in the Willows is probably as popular (or even more so) with adults as it is with children. There's something about it which touches lives, perhaps in our earnest desire to know the things and feeling and moods of the book; to be able to live life in this dear and simple manner, so close to what really and truly matters.

We're supposed to have more snow this afternoon. I'm ready and waiting.