Wednesday, November 12, 2008

LATE TO THE PARTY

Have we all had the feeling of entering a party already started, with people standing and sitting together, conversation flowing, friendships established, laughter and a sense of together with the others in the room---and there we come, wondering where is the host and where to put our coat, and is that maybe Doris from PTA meetings over there by the fireplace? I'm entering this gathering as one of thousands---millions---who hope to set some words onto the page and send them out into the world, just breezing them into far-flung places, carrying thoughts and ideas and happenings all my own, mingling with the days and words of others whose comings and goings and news of their lives have come to mean much to me---like opening a mailbox spilling out a flurry of letters from friends every day.

There are words---myriad. And pictures---thousands, but I’m just getting the know-how of posting things and arranging things and getting those images onto the page. It seems so silly, somehow, for a lady of a certain age to have to call on others for help to traverse this marvel called the Internet, and to need such guidance in getting things from Point A to B.

And this site has been reserved for MONTHS, since I put together a little book for the family for last Christmas. A First Page should be a wonder of lovely images, captivating words, interesting little doings and moments that are all ours. But I just couldn’t get going---the STARTING of a thing is the hardest part, I think, and seemed a Pass-or-Fail moment, hinging on the first-out-of-the-chute impression.

I pored over the every-bell-and-whistle of Pioneer Woman, with the perfect photographs and wonderful way with words; the crisp, funny writing of Derfwad Manor, and the familiar places and accents and happenings of Write Kudzu, as well as the elegant, ethereal pages of Lucy's Kitchen Notebook---longing for a place, a possibility of a niche for these common everyday musings. (And I DO RESOLVE, in coming days, to learn the ins-and-outs of linking to other posts, to other sites, to wonderful things and places I’ve discovered in my Internet travels).

The foreword of my little book was mostly about the reasons for putting together all those family memories, all those little insignificant moments and days that make up our separate, unlike and very similar lives. It came primarily from a letter to a dear editor friend, whose repeated requests for me to write for a food/recipe/restaurant site we both frequent occasioned a letter which went on and on, as my letters are wont to do. But it expressed the trepidation of flinging my words and thoughts into a faceless, uninterested space---that is scary, and there’s no going back once they’re out there.

So, here it is---the opening of the door, and Y'all are all welcome.

HOW IT BEGAN:

Dear Maggie,

Thank you so much for your great compliment, and for the invitation to contribute. When you asked, I was flattered and delightfully overwhelmed. It’s exactly two years since I joined this illustrious group, and the pages and pages of memories and day-to-day kitchen stuff I’ve written have been straight from my own knowing, from a lifetime of being of and from the South.

I have mostly written a similar memories to a high-school friend whose correspondence greets me with my first cup of the morning, and mine to her is opened at whatever time post noon she deigns to leave her four-poster and stroll down to the parlor. We are both night owls, she and I, though I rise when my husband does, to see him through tea, breakfast, and out for the day. Her professor husband grabs his thermos and briefcase on his way out to the campus, leaving her to rise at leisure, to tend her own pursuits of sewing, painting, wandering their quaint little Southern town, and keeping care of their antebellum home. So we have "talked" back and forth for some several years now, each memory-mention serving to kindle a similar memory or a lightbulb moment for the other, with banter and reminiscence and timeworn gossip traveling the ether fast as lightning. We've discussed cooking---lots; she hates it, and cooks a meat, vegetable, salad, serving it up more as stageprop than sustenance, as they discuss their day.

Her refrigerator Post-its for the times her own children are coming to dinner remind me of Lucy’s meticulous, beautifully-scripted schedules for Thanksgiving, a timetable carefully crafted to the minute, to keep the evening moving as it should. When my own group comes here for a meal, we just make a little more of the same; they enter bearing their latest new dish, or an old favorite. We just dish up stuff from the oven, from the stovetop, from the fridge, set them on the buffet, and sit down. It’s usually no big deal, just a nice meal together---I especially like it when high chairs are involved.

I rely on schedules, as well, when there’s a special occasion coming up, especially for other people. Each day is given a list of have-to-do’s, with each item from “chop celery” to “plate and garnish” given its place in the order of events, each scratched off in turn with whatever pen I can grab with wet or floury or gloved hands. But once the guests arrive, I enjoy the reaching into the oven, the refrigerator, the cool pantry, bringing out dish after dish as effortlessly as picking apples into a basket. Then is the time to sip a drink, sit down to dinner, linger long over coffee and conversation.

And that is where my voice is---the South, in the old days and old ways, with visits to older kinfolks, one with his own still, another who ran a gristmill and supplied several counties with meal and grits. Years of Church suppers and smalltown showers and gatherings and preacher poundings and weddings and funeral feasts and looking after the new mothers by supplying their families with three meals a day til they were "back on their feet" have sealed my voice into a time and place that is mostly memory, mostly centered around kitchen and table, and all about Family. I'm the Peas and Cornbread voice, mostly, upholding the plain and the simple, because that's who I am and what I know.

My roots are firmly planted in that good black Mississippi gumbo; the old homeplace is still there, with the pear trees from which I just made a dozen jars of preserves, the pecan orchard planted by my boys with Papa, their Great-Grandfather, when they were young, lining up the checker-board of trees with string in modern mimic of their generations-ago ancestors plotting the surrounding fields.

Southern Cooking IS what it IS, a rich parade of homemade, homegrown, home-canned, home-tested fare, with great steps out into the storebought world in the last few decades. Rattly blue boxes of Lipton soup and cans of Campbell 's Cream-a stand side-by-side with blue ribbon chow-chows and jars of Grandma's spiced canned peaches on the storeroom shelves. Recipes are gleaned from Southern Living, Taste of Home, The Food Network; from little church booklets, word of mouth, and under the hairdryer, and are prepared with the fervor of a priest offering a sacrifice. Recipes have NAMES---Sock-It-To-Me, Sawdust Salad, Nevvah-Fail Poundcake, Miz Prysock's Dressing and Aint Maggie’s Lane Cake written right on the card and proudly passed on to the numerous cookbook committees churning out those little spiral-bound tomes. Ladies who whisper the title, Better than Sex Cake hesitate not at all to write it as the caption on their contribution to the latest edition.

Cookbook and even contest entries are sometimes as simple as, “Squirrel Dumplings: Make like chicken, but use squirrel.” All and sundry are printed up as gracefully and with the same welcome given to the long-sought and finally-parted-with recipe for Mrs. Pund's Peach Brandy, handed over grudgingly and with a blush for the impropriety AND the honor.

And with the life-instilled regard for the tender feelings of their friends and neighbors, editors of those little books often print recipes verbatim, errors and all, whether by oversight or ignorance of times, temperatures, and spelling. One that always comes to mind is a recipe for an old New Orleans favourite, submitted by a wealthy older woman, whose cook had been in her kitchen for all of her married life---she wrote out the recipe in her own lovely script as Birdie Mae dictated, and it was sent to the publisher “as is”---Greeyards and Grits. I’ve always wondered if the editors just didn’t know, or if they were just afraid to contradict her.

There are memories of turkey frying, squirrels I have known, abysmal cooks and absolutely wonderful ones who could bake a cake with the dust from a flourbag, an egg, and the paper off a Parkay stick. There are wedding repasts, kitchen paraphernalia passed down through the years, how I learned to cook several things, and from whom. I'm sure there's an endless flood of other kitchen and food-related stories in there somewhere, but it needs a nudge now and then.

And if this seems all about FOOD, it’s because this has been my venue for such a long time, writing about recipes and cooking and parties and gatherings, because I’ve done so much of it for so long. The places and the people that I write for and of are stove and kitchen and restaurant and home and family-table-centered, and thus much of my writing is of that subject, in all its definitions, uses and meanings.

I can make confit; I can roast and sear and preserve and make tapenade. There’s hardly a wild game I haven’t put on the table at one time or another---venison, squirrel, mallards in every form from gumbo to meatballs to old–fashioned duck ‘n’ dressin’, with the heavy dark meat richening both the color and flavor of the dish. We’ve been given elk and moose roasts by friends who trekked the northwoods. Friends who yearly drove the endless gravelly miles of the Al-Can, with ONE broken windshield a lucky minimum, brought us back shining silver tins of just-caught salmon, sealed safe in a pay-as-you-go cannery within sound of the rushing water they were caught in.

We’ve taken food from seed to table for more years than I can remember, working in that hot Delta sun to hoe the rows, keep the plants safe from predator, bug and errant livestock; we squatted, the children and I, in the beanrows with the heat beating down, picking for as long as the stories of knights and fairies and ogres held out. Hot Summer nights of sitting with busy, shelling hands, the pea-rattle into pan echoing beetle-thump against screen. Then the washing and steam-blanching and cooling, the final reward of filled freezer boxes and bags lined up on the counter in the wee hours of another morning, as the sun waited to blast another day beneath our eyelids.

Canning and preserving and freezing were as much a part of my life as breathing, the steamy kitchen redolent of spicy pickling brine or the rich, fruity aroma of bubbling jam, the tunck of jarlids sounding the ching of money-in-the-bank as our efforts filled the pantry, boxes, all the space beneath beds, the attic stairs. I couldn’t figure how ANYONE could cook straight out of the grocery store.

Our four-acre garden is a thing of the past; we are semi-cityfolks now, our tillage shrunk to the twenty-five-foot circle on which once rested a swimming pool. The blue plastic tuna-can made way for a little sandy spot which yields glorious tomatoes, tender green cucumbers, quite a few quarts of home-canned stringbeans. For our everyday meals, we cook, we laugh, we splash around the kitchen; we make great pots of this and pans of that, with aromas of mapo tofu as likely to waft through the house at breakfast as that of bacon.

I’ve been a member of several food/recipe/restaurant/book review sites for some years now, and most of my writing in the wee hours has been in that venue: the day’s occupation around the stove, the shopping excursions for greens and seasonings and the things that we never dreamt of raising in that good black Delta gumbo. So my writings have been centered on the kitchen and table, since that’s the subject of the sites---lots of opinions and anecdotes and memories.

I seem to be the loudest voice in the Southern topics of the sites, with great long tales of childhood cooking and learning and the experience of long hot garden-gathering days, canning days over the stove, baking and preparing and cooking for our family and countless others over the years. And my memories are long but not too far-reaching---Southern tables and kitchens, with all the preparation and method and customs and the sheer preposterousness of some of the ideas and manners. I have not traveled much, and now live far from those roots, but they seem to stretch all the way to the here and the now of my life and of those in my chain of family and friends.

The title of this little space has complex and numerous meanings---Gatherings are the reaping, the laying by, the assembling of parts and foodstuffs and books and music and friends, and most of all---Family. There are small gatherings and large ones, the acquiring of great stores, and the togetherness of two, with all the permutations of all those bits and pieces and souls brought together.

I had planned the name, thinking that I’d get my husband Chris to print up a picture of a golden flower with a fat bee, drunk with sunshine and nectar, buzzing her afternoon away. But after seeing his picture of a butterfly, not collecting for anyone save her own beautiful being, and her perch on a thistle, flower of my beloved Scotland, with the perfect focus and the shades of green and violet and mauve---I knew that was the one. There’s a flower in bud, a mature one feeding the butterfly, and the wisps of a faded one, beauty spent, with seed blowing to new, fertile ground to renew the cycle.

A bee has a purpose in life, one direction and one grand plan, to bring home the makings of the Winter’s sustenance, for the cold days to come. A butterfly just IS, and that is enough. We need BOTH---the sustaining nourishments for our bodies AND our souls.

As the bees gather their golden harvest, so we gather in for the cold days to come, gathering together to store up the warmth and shine to see us through times apart. We smile and quote Chris’ Mom’s sweet conversations, the grandchildren’s baby stories, our sons’ silly stories and wry wit, my Dad’s old Southernisms, my Mammaw’s recipes and family lore, Chris’ little puns and his deep warm laugh. As we part, we quote GrandDaddy: Pray lots and drive careful.

And I write what I KNOW, what I’ve done for most of the years of my life, and it’s centered around cooking for, caring for, and being with family and friends---gathering them around our table is a time of great joy. The occasions always occasion food and its gathering and preparation, so that is what I write---little moments which are bits of all that are not incidental, but a vital part of all that I have become and all that I want to portray and practice. Family and friends, and gathering in others who may become one or both---that’s what makes me happy.

Making them happy.

moire non,


rachel

PS. This entire first page was meant to be finished, polished, primped and powdered and illustrated with the butterfly picture, before I hit this magic button to send it rocketing away, but I notice that a very nice blogger has already linked this one on her site, and it wouldn't be neighborly not to have the preparations made and the door open when folks drop in.

So, here 'tis. And thank you for visiting. I hope you'll come back.

10 comments:

Kim Shook said...

My dear, dear Rachel! I am so glad that you are doing this! Now I can count on new Rachel missives on a regular basis and don't have to delve into old stuff when I need a fix!

racheld said...

First response---Hooray!!

I'm glad to see you here, Kim.

Anonymous said...

So glad to see you online. As Kim said, now we get regular fixes of Rachel writing, yay!

:)

Ondine

racheld said...

Thank you, Ondine---glad you could join us!!!

Bev said...

Wonderful Rachel..I'm so happy to be reading this blog..glad this day has come!

Kouign Aman said...

Good morning, Rachel. Its good to see your voice!

racheld said...

Welcome, Bev and Kouign Aman!! This is getting to be like a teaparty with old friends.

ghostrider said...

"And that is where my voice is---the South, in the old days and old ways, with visits to older kinfolks, one with his own still, another who ran a gristmill and supplied several counties with meal and grits."

I'm late to the party too.

That sentence above catches a good part of what's always drawn me to what you write. It evokes a lot of echoes of my own childhood in Missouri & trips to my father's home town of Washington, 40 miles or so up the river from St. Louis, places & events which I remember much more dimly than you remember yours but which come back to me when you mention something like gristmills. It wasn't the South but there were some similarities.

Anyway: I'm glad that you have Gatherings started & I look forward to watching it grow.

racheld said...

Ghostrider!!!

I'm so glad you could visit---I'll make a lovely pot in my Hall Aladdin, and you do the same---we'll sip and catch up.

Southern Lady said...

Thank you, dear Rachel, for brightening our days and enriching our lives by sharing with us your God-given talent of putting words to paper in a such a glorious way that never fails to entertain, inspire, and touch our hearts.

How fitting that you would celebrate this milestone with a story about a precious tea party with your little one.

I'm so glad you "made it to the party," Rachel. I truly bless the day I discovered your heartwarming and gracious "gatherings."