Words of Advice for the Budding Mycologist

Mushrooms in the field.

Mushrooms in the wild. Wily suckers.

 

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

IMG_0813[1]

Mushroom hunting can become rapidly addictive, even if you don’t find anything but an occasional rabid bat and a possum in a trash can. I can tell you this about foraging for mushrooms: If your natural environment includes possums in a trash can, then you are probably not going to find many mushrooms, at least not the edible, good for you versions. You may find the slightly edible, hallucinogenic cousin of the edible wild mushroom, but don’t let that deter you too much. Tripping on mushrooms is probably (I wouldn’t know, honestly, but I’ve witnessed it) rather enjoyable with few side effects other than not realizing you are cold, wet, or hungry. If you find yourself in a Nazi prison camp, which is very unlikely, unless some of the new trippy scientific theories mean anything whatsoever, (http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-government-researchers-think-we-may-be-living-in-a-2d-hologram).

Superior race and alternate history theories aside (I never understood the math behind either one of those concepts anyway) mushrooms are good. Excellent, even. After decades of being in the dark, mushrooms are exploding in popularity as never before in the United States. Chef’s will pay extortion level prices for them and not even blink, as they are in turn selling them to their customers and clients for even more outrageous prices.

When I was young, when the concept of a superior race and a flat earth wasn’t really all that new, but still feared in the aftermath of WWII and its associated horrors, foraging for mushrooms was something that the “hill folk” did. More specifically, the act was usually associated with witchcraft, magic, spells, lights of the moon and craziness. Mushroom tea was very popular, as it is now, and believed to cure most anything, much as research is showing now. Mushrooms in supermarkets such as Whole Foods and more discreet specialty shops and Asian markets have become not only popular, but very expensive.

It’s no surprise. Foraging for mushrooms isn’t really all that easy, but it’s not that hard, either. You have to accept before you attempt the endeavor that you may or may not be successful. We are talking about harvesting a very small portion of a giant living organism that never really dies, mates with itself, has the ability to generate alternate states of reality and can kill you on the spot if you make a mistake.

It’s a little overwhelming to sell them, barter with them or give them to anyone you may or may not know. After all, it would be terribly embarrassing to have one of your guy friends hallucinating while sporting the effects of other, ahem, “benefits” of the fabled mushroom.

Some of them are indeed slightly phosphorescent, much like phytoplankton at low tide on unpolluted beaches. Or the sand itself on polluted ones. This probably furthered the myth of witches and ‘shrooms, as it is a little unsettling to find an old lady mumbling to herself on a remote rocky outcrop in the dark of the moon with shiny teeth. Not that I would know, of course. Such a sight would be so rare now that I would have to at least talk to her and probably share her mushrooms. God help me the next thirty hours or so.

My Great Grandmother was famous for her molasses stack cake, her foraging abilities (she grew up in WV, so that was no joke back then), her ability to put up with my Great Grandfather and her uncanny ability to navigate and care for a house after she went completely blind. By all accounts, she was loved by everyone, even though, kidlike, I was a bit afraid of her as a young child watching black and white Tarzan movies on her monstrous T.V. Grandpa White was famous for a whole other set of reasons, one of which is rumored to be the best moonshine in the mountains, often laced with the mushrooms that Grandma would never eat, no matter how blind she was. I can’t imagine what a pint of that kind of ‘shine would go for these days, or what it would do to you. I would no likely live through the experience, but I can’t imagine a better way to skate into death if an asteroid was about to hit earth in an hour or so, or in one of the Nazi Prison camps.

Some hints for foraging:

  1. It’s more fun at night, in the dark of the moon.
  2. A cat, preferably a black Manx cat, is the perfect companion. They can see in the dark and are afraid of witches and hippies.
  3. If you fall in the forest in the dark of the moon, does it make any noise?
  4. Baloo is cool at night. Very scary though.
  5. Tree stumps are fun to sit on and contemplate two-dimensional, black matter inspired, computerized existence.
  6. Keanu Reeves starts to make a little sense, especially with the right mushrooms. Preferably red with white spots.
  7. Mushrooms are more active at night, holding mushroom séances, usually in reverence to the cat.
  8. If you have a sudden urge to go swimming, just close your eyes and hold your breath. The mushrooms will take over.
  9. If you happen to have happy ‘shine, only trust the shrooms the shine recommends.
  10. You will nap very well the next day.

All of this is just for fun, of course. Foraging for any wild plant has the potential to be a deadly experience. It also has the potential to be the most rewarding experience of your life, as you proudly return home bearing the fruits of your wandering about in the woods. It’s great exercise, puts you more in tune with nature and all that most people miss, and being glued to the ground makes you more aware of your surrounds than ever.

There is also the added benefit of trading mushrooms for produce, eggs, pie, and nearly anything else you can think of. Dress strangely during these days, don’t get much sleep and keep dirt under your fingernails. It gives you more credibility.

Happy Foraging!

-RM

mushrooms_0005mushrooms_0004

 

 

Thanks to Georgia Pellegrini, author of “Food Heroes” and specifically her chapter “Seeing the Forest for the Fungus.”

Nightly Wanderings

Stubbs keeping watch.

Stubbs keeping watch.

Evening Mist

Evening Mist

Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

I turn my headlight out and I’m plunged into darkness. My ears, legally deaf, immediately take on that familiar change. It seems that I can hear everything in the familiar surroundings of the mountainside outside my home. My sense of smell gets sharper, all of which are nothing more than phantoms, memories of my childhood, when I used to slide out of our single-wide/shack of a house and fade into the night to be alone.

My eyes don’t adjust to the night as they once did. I wait impatiently, my sight fixated on the darkest point I can find, which is, at this moment in the dark of the moon, the ground. Out of habit, I count of the seconds in my head. “Nine, ten.” I look around and can still see nothing, just the glow of the campfire, built of habit and nostalgia earlier this evening, when the air took on the familiar chill of the oncoming autumn. I wait. In the darkness, I feel around for my log, which no doubt carries my scent like a beacon to the local wildlife. I hardly need to feel, for I have been here many, many times.

Night blindness fades to a dull gray, then to shades of black and white. The sounds of tree frogs and rustlings of small creatures enjoying their nightly freedom from the sun dulls slightly as my eyesight improves. “Nineteen, twenty.” My eyes are definitely getting a bit worse. Years of welders flash, the reflection of the sun off snow in the mountains of the west, coal mining and too much time in front of the computer and in the confined spaces of various office buildings have taken their toll. I could never hear anything to speak of anyway, and I spent most of my youngest years nearly deaf.

My sense of smell doesn’t betray me though. I can smell the leaf rot, the faintest scents of the hickory fire, now some distance from me, the topsoil, the mushrooms, flowering nightshade and the soft Appalachian mist. I wait.

As he always does, my cat Stubbs materializes into thin air beside me. In some ways he’s better than a dog. He’s more dependable, less distracted by unimportant sounds and smells and most importantly, he is an instant beacon of something amiss. If he suddenly vanishes during these nightly meanderings, something is not quite right.

One night it was our old friend the bear, whom I have started calling Baloo. We didn’t exactly chat, despite our familiarity. He knows more about me than I will ever know of him, and I wonder sometimes what will happen to him. Will he live out his days in the peace and solitude that he enjoys now? Something tells me he will not. He’s too big, the perfect trophy bear for something unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. I avert my eyes and wait until he wanders away. Woofing once as if to say, “I saw you first.”

There is no sign of Baloo tonight, not fresh anyway. Stubbs is giving the “All clear, now can we go?” look that only cats can give. Black as ink, he fades away, staying just within sight, following me, relentlessly curious of these occasional outings. I’m not feeling my best, and it’s unseasonably cold. I’m in search of mushrooms tonight, which have exploded out of the moist soil everywhere in response to the late season rains and cool weather. I have to be careful not to step on them, slightly glowing with phosphorescence in the black night. My goal is the top of the ridge, but it is a loose goal. I’m not out for physical exercise, but mental peace.

Not that I don’t have or am not at peace normally. My time in the mountains this past year have rolled years off my life. My mountain stride has returned and while I am by no means silent to the occupants of the forest, who normally give me a wide berth, but I have no doubt that few humans could follow me in the damp leaves and soft soil. I leave as little trace as I can out of habit. One person who could follow me, always, was my brother James.

He is the king of old school, chaffing at the bridle of work and bills, longing in his deepest soul to be free. Not free from family – he is the most family oriented person I ever met. Free in the sense of our ancestors, who poured their soul into the livelihood once available in these mountains, now as unoccupied in places as they have ever been. I feel the same, more often than not. My son wanders these hills with me in the early morning and afternoons, when our trips are much shorter, and more wondrous than I ever imagined. He and Stubbs are constant companions, never complaining, always seeing what I don’t. At a year and a half, every spot of soil, every insect, every rock, every growing thing is something wonderful to be experienced. He can discover more in a square foot than I can in an acre.

My hope is that these early experiences imprint upon his memory. No matter where we go, travel or live; I want him to feel free in these mountains. Am I greedy? Selfish? Perhaps. But I want him to remember the sounds, the feel, the terrain, if not consciously, then emotionally, on a deep level. The splash of mountain streams, still full of trout if you know where to look. Berries and mushrooms and wild apples and found pear trees are our greatest discoveries, which we then lug home to his Mom, who worriedly praises him for his catch. She, naturally enough, worries that he may eat something that could cause him harm. Or that I may fall and leave him alone. I do carry my phone on these outings, but not at night.

This night I only carried my standby – my old knife. It was given to me, as most of my knives were, by my Dad, who recognizes that there is still something unsuitable to modern life within me. My mother feels it most, I think, as she sometimes watches me gazing into the mountains with pure, unadulterated love.

I locate pounds of mushrooms and leave them be. I talk with Stubbs quietly of the magnitude of the night sky, unrestricted by light or particulates still in this part of the world. Before I know it, we have reached the top. I’m still working into my stride, making too much noise. I’m limping a bit, as older men who have cheated death too many times are wont to do. I tell Stubbs I’m sorry about the noise, but he seems to think it’s ok. He rubs his head on me as I flop down to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains, the stars and listen to the river run below. He stands aside though, no begging or attempts to be held. He’s confident in his world here. It’s his. He is more at home in the night than I will ever be. 

Sweeping the day aside, my stride returning, I make my way home. I am not as silent as the cat, but I’m not exactly noisy. I leave no tracks that I can see, although I have no doubt that James could.

I sit for a bit on our swing on the outer edge of the clearing, where the tentative yard meets the forest. Our house looks warm and inviting and the fire is still glowing softly.

As my headlight blinks on, I return with a thud to the present and to reality. I turn to look at the mountains once more, and catch the light from Stubbs eyes briefly as he heads back into the forest, his real home.

Our house seems cramped and too warm. I slide up the steps to Nolan’s room and listen to his soft breathing. All is still and I am once again content. The pain of the day is purged and I will be able to sleep, eventually.

I shed my jacket reluctantly, putting it back in the shed so that less smell will carry from it. I hang my shapeless hat beside it and place the knife on the bench. Just like that, I have shed the night and answered my own call of the wild. Until tomorrow.

-RM    

So, You Think You Should Be A Chef?

ramblinron:

Authors Note: Another one of my favorites, written right after I was hospitalized for overwork :)

The most exhausted I've been in a long time. Three doubles, one day off, five doubles, up at daylight making cookies. Whew.

The most exhausted I’ve been in a long time. Three doubles, one day off, five doubles, up at daylight making cookies. Whew.

Originally posted on Ramblin Ron:

Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.

You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams…

View original 1,248 more words

The Best Canoe Ever

ramblinron:

Well, here we go. I’m going to repost a few favorites as we prepare to journey home tomorrow. Happy travels!

Originally posted on Ramblin Ron:

Once upon a time, back in the olden days when dinosaurs such as the AMC Gremlin, the Chevette, the LUV truck, the original Subaru Brat and other such worthless vehicles populated the earth for a short time, I was married. Shocker, I know. I have since been divorced and remarried, and that original marriage has faded into a distant memory that only once in a great while comes to bear on something that is happening in my life, which, is to say, not very often. My wife often says that it’s as if I was never married before her, as I obviously didn’t learn anything during that ill-fated short marriage, which may be why it was so short and so ill-fated. In actuality, there could not have been two people less suited for one another than she and I. As a matter of fact, I actually even liked her as…

View original 1,264 more words

In the Weeds: Wrapping Up and Moving On

Before

Before – One of my best friends in the world, trying to sober me up. Thanks Nic. I owe you.

After

After: 100 pounds lighter and one year sober. With my greatest blessing in the world.

This has been a strange year, to say the least. The trip through and into sobriety has been sobering, pun intended, to say the least. I asked Laura if this year had been good or bad today. She replied, “A little bad, a little good.” I think that just about sums it up.

We’ve bought a new house in a new place and we’re in the process of moving. Moving is emotionally trying. I have mixed feelings about it. I love the mountains with all my heart, and there is and always will be the nagging realization that I have left so much undone in the area that I call home. I’ll miss the cold mornings and the bear. Besides eating all our peaches and scaring the cat onto the roof of our shed, he never bothered anything. He’d probably be mad to know that little Nolan calls him a “Kitty.” He’s the biggest kitty I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure. I hope whomever purchases our place will just leave him be. We’re lucky to see him once a year, although he takes care of all the termites and deadfall around our place.

I’ll miss the mountains and the river, the sound of people camping and the smell of campfires at night, when zero pollution renders the sky as my ancestors must have seen it, clear and startling in it’s immensity and majestic mystery.

I’ll leave with the fondness of a relationship ending on a good note. I’m looking forward to the future and I’ve stopped worrying about the past. I’m already in love with the Bay, the people, the sense of community and the opportunity to be close to Laura’s family. If luck has it, I’ll buy some land that I’ve been looking at for years near where we live now in Appalachia, build a small cabin on it by hand, and visit during the winter and spring with Laura and Nolan. We’ll pick berries and wild herbs, roast our food in the wood stove and allow Nolan to roam the mountains as I did. He’ll have the best of both worlds.

In the meantime, I hope that this blog has helped someone with their own struggles with whatever may be troubling you. I wish that I had some words of true wisdom, but I’m still finding my own way. Just remember to live for the day, make the best of every single situation, don’t worry about traffic and plan for tomorrow. Don’t be identified by your past. Ignore expectations from other people. Set your own goals and stick by them. You may fall down along the way. If you do, start over. Above all, be honest. With yourself and with others. Speak carefully. You don’t know who you might help, or hurt with an inadvertent judgement call that should be kept to yourself.

Keep eating!!

(Authors Note: This is all that I am going to post in this medium from the nearly completed book “In the Weeds.” I’d like to think that it may be published one day, but that’s a one in a million shot. Who knows? I do know that it is time to put this away and move forward. I’m going to return to writing my normal stuff about travel, people, cooking, kitchens, babies and everything else. Thanks for following along!!! To all of you out there that were praying for me, thank you so much. Thank you, Laura, for being my wife. Thanks to my medical team, a truly wonderful group of women who bonded together to save my life. Thanks to all my family, my Aunt Lois, my Aunt Vickie, my Mom, my Momma Sue, my Dad, my Papa Friedel, the guys at UVA, my brothers James, John and Samuel, my sisters, Jessica and Sarah, the first great loves of my life. They were there every minute with me. Sarah, thanks for the squiggle fingers and berry picking! Jessica, I’m so sorry the road was closed! Keli Ratcliffe, thank you for believing in my sorry ass and helping me keep writing. Last and night by any means least: Chef Michael Rork. Thank you, thank you, thank you for hiring me when no one else would. For giving me the chance to redeem myself in my own eyes. For helping me remember the value of hard work and the love of great food. The day you hired me I could barely walk up the stairs for my interview. By the end I could hold my own on the line, albeit tenaciously. I’ll never forget 97 order in 45 minutes on Thanksgiving Day and your faith that I could do it. Chef Andrew: Thanks for daring to shove me and expect the best, even knowing my condition. Chef Kate, thanks for adopting me and watching after me when I was too sick to do it on my own. Chef Fidel, thanks for never letting up, never letting me quit, daring me to fail, and lighting a fire under my ass utilizing my greatest tool: Pure Rage. You’re good, my friend. Delores, thanks for every minute that you helped me and gave me advice. Rachel, Rihanna, Erica, Heather, Chef MJ and everyone else at Harvest, thank you so much for your faith and allowing me the mistakes I made. Everyone: Thanks.  Sincerely, -RM)

In the Weeds: One Year

Today marks my one year anniversary with sobriety. On this night, one year ago, I drank the last of the alcohol in the house and tried to sober up. That night was a nightmare that I will never again repeat. I don’t remember much of it, but my wife, unfortunately, does. My son was too young to remember, I think, although we will never know how soon the seeds of tangible memories and behaviorism are implanted. I do remember terrible pain, shakes, sweats, hallucinations and violent vomiting and writhing. I do remember being locked in a room, unable to get out. I do remember thinking I was going to die. I remember my wife yelling at me to be quiet, to stop bothering her and saying that I needed help. I tried to call 911 and couldn’t. I just could not physically or mentally bring myself to such an admission of helplessness.

The next morning I was literally dying. My liver had stopped working, my heart rate was off the charts, my abdomen had swollen to the point of bursting and my eyes and skin were the color of a pumpkin. I had aged twenty years overnight. I sweated through clothes, blankets and pillows. As the sun came up the next morning I watched from the ground, hidden in the trees of what used to be a sanctuary of trees in the forest by our home. I couldn’t bear to be seen.

I was bleeding and vomiting profusely and reminded over and over of my Grandmother, my beloved Grandmother, in a similar state. I was reminded of watching a man die in Reno, NV on the sidewalk outside of Circus Circus as traffic roared by, and pediatricians hastened by, as if they would be contaminated by his passing. I remembered finding a young/old man on the sidewalk in Washington D.C., only steps away from the glamor of our world leaders, dead or nearly dead, stained with blood, urine, vomit and feces with a plastic half-gallon of vodka still clutched in his hand.

Staring into the sky, wondering if I myself were alive or dead, I watched the late summer clouds float overhead on the first rays of sunshine as warmth dappled my face. I thought of my wife, the most wonderful, trusting, beautiful woman I have ever met, her hopes and trust and dreams smashed and broken by this illness, this horrible thing that I had become so dependent upon. The bottle that had ruined our dreams, dashed my abilities and stunted my ambition. I could see our small son, only eight months old then, trying to crawl and walk and already bonding to his Dad. I laid up on the smooth earth, breathed the scent of the forest duff, and made a difficult decision. I took my car keys, started the truck and drove to the liquor store.

The store manager would not allow me to purchase any more alcohol. She offered to drive me home, call an ambulance, call my wife, take me to a restaurant, anything but allow me anymore alcohol. I thanked her graciously assured her that I was fine, more than fine and left the store. She watched me drive away with her phone in her hand. I fully expected her to call the police. Apparently, she didn’t.

Undaunted, as alcoholics are, I drove the few short miles over to WV, bought a handle of something that would have undoubtably killed me, spent the rest of my money on toys for Nolan and flowers for Laura and drove back home, in all honesty, to die. I was planning to take a long hike with a big bottle of fine bourbon and be done with it. A cowards way out.

I carried the bottle all the way home in my lap, caressing it, wanting so badly to open it. At that point, between the pink elephants, hobbits and dwarves, it was hard to drive home and even more difficult to open the bottle while driving. I sat at the bottom of our drive, holding the bottle. I got out of the truck, pulled the cork, and poured the whole bottle onto the ground. I drove up our drive, mostly in the ditch and found my wife shaking in tears and anger and above all else, disappointment. She asked where I wanted to go. I talked with my counselor and my PCP and they both recommended rehab. Immediately. Right now.

So, I entered rehab. Almost numb with pain, vomiting every few minutes, I sweated and screamed for two days. No medication, no IV’s for fluids, no surgery to remove ascites. Nothing. A bed with no covers. A shower with no doors. A shitter with no lid. No belts, no shoe laces. No sporks. No alone time. No food save for a three ties a day buffet of microwaved, pre-packaged shit from China.

My third day there, I had managed the worst of the DT’s without dying and it seemed I might make it a little longer. Maybe. If I didn’t drink at all, ever again. Never. I agreed. I went home. Laura came to pick me up. We didn’t have much to say to one another. We were both broken, drained and hopeless. We both felt abandoned, betrayed and our trust was nonexistent.

Day by day, we carefully made our way forward. We were walking hand in hand tonight near our new home, enjoying the unexpected heat and humidity after our years in the mountains. We didn’t say much. We didn’t have too. She holds my hand now. I give her massages. Nolan has become the center of my universe, my reason for living. Support arrived from unexpected directions in the form of a famous Chef who took me in when no one else would. My wife’s aunt made me a prayer blanket. People started to read my blog and kind of cheer me on. I’m too private, stubborn and proud to make much of it, but I was thankful for every day. I was thankful to go to work at 4:00 a.m. to start breakfast. Little things began to matter and I slowly began to find myself.

One year later, is it better? YES!! Has it been easy? NO. Quitting is the easy part. Making amends and rebuilding faith is the hard part. Regaining your trust in yourself is hard, even harder than building trust in your loved ones. You are your own worst enemy sometimes.

Then there are those days: When it seems none of that happened. When your son, a toddler now, is “helping” on every project you are working on, from changing filters to canning to butchering to gardening to eating to everything. My son, Nolan, has become my shadow, my reason for sobriety. My wife, Laura, has become my loving wife once more, still wounded from years of lies and self-doubt and broken promises. My family is recognizing me once more. My wife is startled by my abilities that I though nothing of. I can hand split and hew rails. Shape rocks, mix my own cement, split all our own wood, take care of our son and keep him safe and clean and cared for.

Me? I’m happy. The past is just that, the past. Do I still have nightmares? Sure. Do I still crave alcohol? NO! That just simply does not fit into the new/old Ron’s life anymore.

Plus, while I was in rehab I saw an angel. Not a glowy kind. There were no wings or feathers or swords. But she knew me. My past, my childhood. The forgotten years. She KNEW me. She talked to me for some time. Out of curiosity, I followed her out the door, hoping to see her walk down the hall, stop at the nurses station and say hello. She was not there. I asked if anyone had seen her – my vitals were checked immediately. I was ok. Startling ok. Well enough to release the next day ok.

I returned home broken, barely salvageable. Nolan insisted on being held throughout lunch. I cried into his soft blond hair for things lost, memories gone, time past. I cried for the girl who slashed here wrists my last night there so she could avoid going home. I cried for the beautiful woman beside me, whom I married, the woman who loved me enough to have my child.

It was a long way back, and we’re not there yet. But we’re on a new road, one that is exciting and unpredictable and will undoubtably have potholes and rough patches. But we don’t care. We’re in this together now.

August 19th, 2014. Year One

RM

Biscuits and Heritage

I’ve been obsessing a bit lately over heritage. Where am I from? Who were my ancestors? Most importantly, how did they eat? Family history tells me that we were most likely from the Highlands of Scotland, validated a bit by my rare blood type, shared by two of my three brothers. Leave a family alone long enough, without money to bind them to the past, and they will invariably invent their own history. It is somehow cool to be from Scotland, of course. It is now favorable to be a descendant of one of the many tribes of Native Americans, whose own heritage has been wrenched from them, retooled and made safer for textbooks. The same for Scottish, Italian, African, Indian, Asian or anyone else who wasn’t white enough to qualify, somehow. The land of opportunity was indeed just that, despite the major obstacles facing all these immigrants.

I’m not here to talk about something so political. I don’t have the knowledge, understanding, will or disposition to enter into such volatile territory. Nope. I’m here to talk about Appalachian food, something else that is being irretrievably lost in many mountain families with the proliferation of fast food into the hills and valleys of the so-called “Poverty-Stricken.” Fifty years ago, these people would have not agreed with such a classification, and no doubt would have, and did, take great offense with the notion they were “poor” in the eyes of city folk. They didn’t think they were poor, and honestly, no one really gave a shit about race. Oh, there were a few, as there are everywhere, loud buffoons with enough money and political clout to make themselves a representative of an entire geographical area, which in this instance stretches from Georgia to Main. The great Appalachian Mountains. The oldest mountain range on earth. Home to wildlife most haven’t seen, sustaining communities from Boone, NC to Hurley, VA to Get Lost, VA and further north, through the coal fields and increasingly rugged terrain until it meets the sea.

That is where I grew up. That is where my heritage is. You don’t get to choose as a child who your parents are, or where you are born-n-raised, but you can choose to keep that heritage close and honor it.

You can remember the smell of honeysuckle, fresh cut hay, Virginia Creeper, snow white Trilliums, brilliant Indian Paintbrush, peach blossoms and zucchini blooming, which will quickly be an absolute nuisance. We would can, pickle, eat them raw, eat the blossoms and those damn plants would still have vegetables running out our ears. We proud of our black sorghum, slowly boiled and stirred by the old method, using a donkey on a long pole who would walk endless circles with the patience only a donkey can, giving rides to local kids, knowing full well that his share would be a big bucket of molasses, black as tar

An early morning, just before daybreak breeze, redolent with morning glory, locust blossoms, scarlet paintbrushes, fresh cut hay and clover will make me open my eyes quick. Then you listen for the first birds, while you are still bundled in your blankets against the night, cozy and warm. The owl will bid you a good day, the crows will wake to harass everyone around them, like grumpy old drunks seeking a whiskey barrel. But it was the thump and groaning of an old wood stove and the smell of side meat that would roust me from my bed faster than finding a snake sharing my blankets. That did happen once and that was one unlucky snake. He was between me and the stove.

As humans, we remember extremes the best. Old timers tell of how it used to snow until the eaves were the only thing showing. They had to wallow into the punch mouth mines with their mouths closed to keep from choking on mud. They’d have to send in canaries to make sure they could breath. The working conditions actually were horrendous, but there was the satisfaction of a days wage hard earned. Easily said in retrospect, but working hard for what you had built a kind of pride and sense of heritage that cannot be duplicated.

I remember those early mornings best. Grandma never used a recipe that I ever saw. She would get the fire going with coals left over from the day before, then boil coffee on the eyes closest to the stove. While she sipped her coffee, planned her day, deciding by the moon and stars and other signs which vegetables were ready to pick, which chicken needed to be in a pot and how much wood would be needed for cooking and coal for heating the home. I would take my seat with my back to the old leaded glass window, sagging in age, and anxiously wait for breakfast. My clock was ticking too. Chickens needed to be fed, gardens weeded, berries picked (a big source of my walking around money) yards mowed, ditches dug, and always, always wood to be split.

At the right moment, she would spring into action. Ok, at nearly 80 and wearing slippers, she never really “sprang” anywhere. It was more of a swish of her old night robe and slippers on the uneven floor. She would place fat side meat in one skillet to fry up for “eatin meat” and butter the other with an ungodly amount of butter. She kept lard in the fridgedare (her words) and would cut it into even chunks with her giant razor sharp knife. Nearly as long as her, that knife was basically a razor. Grandpa stropped it every night on his belt.

She would pour flour in an old wooden bowl, then work the lard into the flour using an old rusty pastry cutter. When that started to look like sand, or dirt if there was a bit of residual cookin’ bits left in, she would add heavy cream, stirring with an old wooden spoon until it was right. Out of the bowl, onto the old countertop that doubled as a chopping block, the dough would then be kneaded gently, rolled into a long fat rope twice (more than that and you break the biscuit, she told me). She would then pull the screeching hot cast iron skillet out of the wood oven with a wet rag, never a dry one, despite my attempts to explain thermodynamics to her and drop the gently molded biscuits onto the pan.

The fatback would then come out of the other skillet, flour would go in and coffee would be added at the last second, beaten with a fork until it was smooth. Biscuits smothered with red-eye gravy, fresh runny eggs gathered that morning by my Grandpa, who had already been up and at work for hours, pork side meat and a peach or three, washed down with the strongest coffee I’ve still have yet to encounter, with eggshells floating around the top, was one hell of a breakfast.

Decades later, I was asked at four in the morning, “Can you make biscuits??” We were out of frozen biscuits. A serious emergency to our kitchens claim of “Fresh homemade biscuits every morning!” I dug around in these old memories, and yes, I could still make biscuits.

My Grandmother is proud, I have no doubt. So, I showed Nolan how to make them:

IMG_0104 IMG_0378 IMG_0377 IMG_0384 IMG_0383 IMG_0390 IMG_0129 IMG_0132 IMG_0394 IMG_0404