Archived Stories
from the Road

 


 

Garden Party
San Anselmo, California
Chapter 3



This is a story about the Food of Love.


Shortly after returning to California from the Morris Girls’ Road Trip, I sent my childhood friend, Martha Jean Webster, a roundtrip Rapid Rewards ticket on Southwest Airline to fly from Seattle to Oakland for an in-person reunion over a long weekend at my house in San Anselmo.

From the moment she arrived, we took up where we left off, not as children, but as women, like old friends rediscovering the qualities that bound us together, what we have in common now, and how very much alike we still are, after fifty-five years of separation.

During Martha’s visit, we laughed and cried, and talked and reflected. We inquired into the meaning and purpose of our lives being rejoined at this time.

We both have had unsuccessful marriages. Martha married three times, one union producing two daughters, and she has three grandchildren. Martha’s last marriage of twenty-five years, ended a year ago, and she is now learning to live on her own, independently, for the first time in her life.

I’ve been married and divorced twice. I had one miscarriage at the age of forty, but was never able to have biological children. I told Martha about my Tibetan foster daughter, Namgyal, who died at the age of twenty-two just ten days before coming to the U.S. for the first time. But, I said, “I have a Tibetan family in Lhasa, and I’ve been blessed with two granddaughters by Namgyal’s eldest brother, Tenzin Tsephel.”

And, we have both left the religious traditions of our families. Martha’s family was strict Southern Baptist (no dancing, drinking, playing cards, etc.), and we were Methodist. Yet, we’ve both had a life-long yearning for a connection to the Divine, and have pursued different spiritual paths that have taken us in similar directions. We have an abiding faith in love.

Martha was told as a child that she “talked too much” and still to this day, some of my friends say the same about me. We got a big laugh out of that similarity because we’re storytellers. Everyone has a story to tell, but we also know how to listen. Someone once said, “Gossip is a form of oral history,” and I think there’s a lot to be learned about life from sharing our stories with one other.

There were many mundane things we found that we have in common. We will only eat one brand of peanut butter: Laura Scudder’s Old Fashioned ‘Smooth’ Peanut Butter. We don’t drink coffee, we love roses and wisteria, and bright-colored clothes. We’re like two peas in a pod in many ways.

We’ve come to an awareness, through years of soul searching, that our self-esteem is not predicated on the praise or criticism of others; husbands, lovers, friends or family, employers or acquaintances. It comes from looking into our heart and knowing that our essence is love.

And, most profoundly, felt deeply at the core of our being, is the realization that happiness is not created by external forces or circumstances, but by our own actions and the way in which we walk in the world.

It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the walk is another matter all together. It cannot be done alone. Our conclusion is that Martha Jean and Jane Clair have been reunited to support and encourage each other to continue on the journey to explore and inquire into the true nature of reality, and not to be afraid of the dark.


On a perfect mid-summer Sunday afternoon in Marin County, not too hot, with a soft breeze wafting through the trees, I hosted a Garden Party and House Concert in honor of Martha Jean, to introduce her to my circle of friends and extended family, the community I had created for myself as an adult. During the party, I would introduce Martha as my long lost childhood friend, and at one point she turned to me and said, “We’re so much alike, you should just say that we were fraternal twins separated at birth.” And so I did, to everyone’s amusement.

The party was a potluck Southern Supper. Paula LeDuc brought her famous minted iced tea, Ivan Thatcher made cole slaw and his family’s pulled pork recipe from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Martha made deviled eggs, and there was a variety of summer vegetable salads, heirloom tomatoes that were in season, and corn on the cob. Someone brought triangle slices of cold, juicy sweet watermelon. Jim Kessler, Sr. (who had retired in Leesburg with his wife, Elizabeth, but now lives nearby in California since her death) brought his delicious homemade “Fantasy Fudge” for dessert.

My caterer made fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits from recipes in Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’s book, THE GIFT OF SOUTHERN COOKING. I met Scott at Chez Panisse in January, and we’ve become dear friends. Printed along with the Chez Panisse menu was a previously unpublished essay written by Miss Lewis in June 1992, but not discovered until after her death in 2006 at the age of eighty-nine. Here is the opening paragraph:

WHAT IS SOUTHERN?
Written by Edna Lewis

“How did southern food come into being? The early cooking of southern food was primarily done by blacks, men, and women. In the home, in hotels, in boardinghouses, on boats, on trains, and at the White House. Cooking is hard and demanding. It was then, and it still is now. What began as hard work became creative work. There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white, writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented. It is also interesting to note that the South developed the only cuisine in this country. Living in a rural setting is inspiring: Birds, the quiet, flowers, trees, gardens, fields, music, love, sunshine, rain, and the smells of the earth all play a part in the world of creativity. It has nothing to do with reading or writing. Many of those cooks could not read or write…”

Scott is the Executive Chef and co-owner of Watershed Restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. While Kitty and I were in Atlanta visiting our cousin Kenny Franks, we went to the restaurant and ate our way through the entire lunch menu, sampling every single dish. Scott had the leftovers boxed up for us to eat on the road as we continued our journey through Georgia that afternoon.

As best I can remember, Mother made biscuits almost every day while we lived in Leesburg. She was a good cook, and her fried chicken was to die for. Mother’s recipe was similar to Scott’s and Miss Lewis’s recipe, except that it was only soaked in buttermilk. She also flavored her frying fat (Crisco) by cooking a few pieces of country ham in the cast iron skillet before frying the chicken.

Following is an excerpt written by Scott from THE GIFT OF SOUTHERN COOKING, as well as their recipe:

We have blended our best chicken-frying tips from Virginia (Miss Lewis) and Alabama (Scott) in this recipe: it requires a bit of extra effort, but the results are absolutely outstanding. The chicken gets two long soaks, Alabama-style, first in brine and then in buttermilk. The frying fat is a special mix—Virginia-style—of lard and sweet butter, flavored with a slice of country ham, which makes the chicken extra crispy and rich-tasting. The cornstarch in the dredge adds to the crispness, too. Carefully cooked, fried chicken will absorb a minimal amount of fat. Be sure to pat off all excess dredge; fry evenly at the proper temperature; and drain the chicken well on crumpled-up—not flat—paper towels or a wire rack.

Southern Pan-Fried Chicken

One 3-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces, brined for 8-12 hours (see page 95 of their book)
1 quart buttermilk
1 pound lard
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup country-ham pieces, or 1 thick slice country ham cut into 1/2-inch strips
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

To prepare the chicken for frying: Drain the brined chicken and rise out the bowl it was brined in. Return the chicken to the bowl, and pour the buttermilk over. Cover and refrigerate for 8-12 hours. Drain the chicken on a wire rack, discarding the buttermilk.

Meanwhile, prepare the fat for frying by putting the lard, butter, and country ham into a heavy skillet or frying pan. Cook over low heat for 30-40 minutes, skimming as needed, until the butter ceases to throw off foam and the country ham is browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove the ham carefully from the fat. Just before frying, increase the temperature to medium-high and heat the fat to 335° F.

Prepare the dredge by blending together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl or on wax paper. Dredge the drained chicken pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, then pat well to remove all excess flour.

Slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. (Do not overcrowd the pan, and fry in batches if necessary.) Cook for 8-10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through.

Drain thoroughly on a wire rack or on crumpled paper towels, and serve. Fried chicken is delicious eaten hot, warm, at room temperature, or cold. Makes enough to serve 4.

THE GIFT OF SOUTHERN COOKING
Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks
Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock with David Nussbaum
Photographs by Christopher Hirsheimer
Alfred A. Knopf ­ New York ­ Published 2006


When Jim and I were older and Kitty had started school, Daddy would prepare the breakfast at our house in Lakeland. He was always an early riser, getting up around five o’clock in the morning. Mother was a night owl; I took after Mother. To this day, on the weekend, I like to sleep ‘til the “crack of noon.”

And, I remember in high school when I’d come home late from a dance at the Youth Center, Mother would still be up, puttering around the house, straightening this and that. Many nights she’d say, “Honey, let’s have a midnight snack,” and we would stand side-by-side at the kitchen sink peeling grapefruits that had recently been picked from a tree in our backyard. We’d sprinkle each grapefruit with salt (not sugar), and leaning over the sink, eat the whole thing with our hands. It was one of our special moments together.

Just before dawn was Daddy’s favorite time of day. He had the house to himself and could read the newspaper in peace before starting to make breakfast, which was always bountiful. He’d scrambled eggs and fry bacon and sausage and make toast and coffee, served always with fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Sometimes we’d have fried chicken livers with onions or grits and slices of a home-cured country ham whenever one was brought back from the family farm in North Carolina. We would eat off those hams for weeks, and when there was country ham in the house, Mother would make biscuits for breakfast before rushing off to work at Clifford’s Beauty Salon.

Daddy would complain about my getting up so late and not sitting down at the kitchen table to have breakfast. He’d tell me to “slow down and smell the roses,” but usually, I’d take two pieces of toast, spread them with grape jelly and make a bacon sandwich, or grab a ham and biscuit sandwich, which I’d eat on the way to school, washed down with a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Mother’s recipe for buttermilk biscuits was in her head, and, went with her to the grave, however, the taste and texture of Scott Peacock’s Buttermilk Biscuits in THE GIFT OF SOUTHERN COOKING seems very similar to Mother’s:

Hot Crusty Buttermilk Biscuits

5 cups sifted all-purpose four (measured after sifting)
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1/4 pound) packed lard, chilled
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat over to 500° F. Put the flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl, and whisk well to blend thoroughly. Add the lard, and, working quickly, coat it in flour and rub between your fingertips until approximately half the lard is finely blended and the other half remains in large pieces, about 1/2 inch in size. Pour in the buttermilk, and stir quickly just until the dough is blended and begins to mass.

Turn the dough immediately out onto a floured surface, and with floured hands kneed briskly eight to ten times, until it becomes cohesive.

Gently flatten the dough with your hands into a disk of even thinness; then, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to a uniform thickness of 1/2 inch. With a dinner fork dipped in flour, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2-inch intervals. Lightly flour a 2 1/2- or 3-inch biscuit cutter and stamp out rounds, without twisting the cutter in the dough. Cut the biscuits from the dough as close together as you can, for maximum yield. Transfer them to a parchment-lined baking sheet, placing them so that they just barely kiss. Don’t reroll the scraps. Just arrange them around the edge of the sheet, and bake them—cook’s treat.

Put the baking sheet immediately on the center rack of the preheated oven. Bake 10-12 minutes, checking after 6 minutes or so, and turning the pan if needed for even baking. When the biscuits are golden brown, remove from the over and brush the tops with the melted butter. Makes about fifteen 2 1/2-inch Biscuits.

Over Labor Day weekend this year, Scott came to San Francisco to participate in the Slow Food Nation festival.

Stacy Finz, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper wrote, “Try telling San Franciscans to avoid talking politics at the dinner table, and they’ll laugh in your face. In the Bay Area, politics and food go together like heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. That’s one of the reasons restaurateur Alice Waters and the organization Slow Food USA chose San Francisco for the first-ever Slow Food Nation, an ambitious four-day political food festival.”

“Organizers of the event hope to change the country’s food policy one stomach at a time by promoting foods that are produced using eco-friendly farming and fair labor practices… When it’s over, Waters and the other Slow Food movers and shakers plan to beat down the doors of Congress with a declaration and petition demanding an overhaul of the American food system.”

“The one we have is making us sick,” Waters said, referring to the multitude of health problems in this country that are related to obesity, diabetes, and poor nutrition, “and it’s ruining our planet and hurting us socially.” “But for now, Slow Food Nation and San Francisco are a marriage made in heaven.”

There is growing awareness that we have become a nation where corporate agriculture is destroying the soil and ecosystems with chemicals, and a general public that has been fed by consumer advertising to consume processed and fast food instead of nutritional knowledge.

During World War II, shortly after I was born, 40% of the nation’s produce came from people’s individual Victory Gardens in their own backyards, and not only was it healthier, it was cheaper. The slow food movement is a big step in the direction of raising healthy kids and creating a healthy planet, with the emphasis on sustainable, locally grown, seasonal foods.

Much of my family life as a child centered around food; the growing, preparation, cooking, and eating of it together around the kitchen or dinner table. It was a nourishing experience, both literally and figuratively. Sunday dinner (noon meal) was always a feast, no matter how poor we were. Mother had a vegetable garden in her back yard well into her seventies. Jimmy video taped her weeding her garden one day and sticking the hoe in the ground, she looked directly into the camera and said, “Jane, you and Kitty come see me sometime soon, ya hear?”


The Slow Food Nation events were held at Fort Mason, and at Civic Center Plaza where I went to see Scott. There were dozens of venders cooking and serving a wide variety of foods all around the plaza, as well as a farmers’ market and tours of the Victory Garden, a former stretch of City Hall lawn now planted with vegetables.

As I approached his booth, I saw Scott, assisted by several staffers from Watershed Restaurant, making buttermilk biscuits served with Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham from Tennessee, and some of Scott’s homemade raspberry jam on the side. They were selling like “hot cakes” and there was a long line of patiently waiting customers.

Watching from the sidelines, I observed Scott, wearing a long white apron over his street clothes, kneading the dough with his hands, rolling it with his own wooden rolling pin that he had brought from Georgia, stamping out the biscuits and transferring them to trays to be baked on racks in an upright oven inside the booth. He was totally focused on every step of the process, his hands moving with the precision of a Zen Master writing calligraphy. The thinly sliced smoked ham was being slightly cooked on a flat top grill, and then assembled when the biscuits were golden brown.

Scott didn’t notice I was there for several minutes. I felt like I was in a meditative state and the object of the meditation was the art of making biscuits. Everything going on around me seemed to fall away, and my focus was totally in the realm of the senses, enraptured by the smell of hot biscuits and fried ham. When Scott looked up between kneading batches of dough and saw me, he came outside the booth and gave me a big hug, dusting me from head to toe with flour. It was a delicious moment.

I spent the next hour inside the booth, up close and personal with the dough which Scott let me touch to “feel” the texture. And, fresh out of the oven, I ate half a dozen biscuits with ham that afternoon.


Getting back to the party at my house for Martha Jean, Freddy Clarke strolled around the garden strumming his beautiful guitar. There were children running through the house and garden, playing hide-and-go-seek. The conversation was lively, and the wine flowed freely.

Some guests were sitting outdoors at round tables covered with floral oil cloth tablecloths and centerpieces of bright red miniature roses in little French tin pots, while others sat on the lawn on quilts and blankets with overstuffed pillows along side a flower bed of pink, blue and white hydrangeas in full bloom.

Living under the shade of five ancient oak trees, growing roses has been a labor of love during the twenty-eight years I’ve lived on Medway Road. Yet with the help of Angela and Tom Campbell who tend them, throughout the summer I’m blessed with a healthy assortment of brilliant colored blooms, and have enough roses to fill several vases of cut flowers to enjoy inside the house as well.

Just before the “house concert” began as the late afternoon sun flooded the garden with an amber glow, I read an excerpt from Graham Stuart Thomas’s book, “The Old Shrub Roses,” originally published in London in 1917. It was the first book published about the rediscovery of the ‘lost’ roses from gardens in Europe and in the United States in the early nineteenth century. Going back to Victorian, Medieval and even Roman eras, the shrub roses of those times (as distinct from the modern varieties) have regained popularity today.

The foreword to Mr. Thomas’s book was written by the Vita Sackville-West, the Honorable Lady Nicolson, (1892-1962) who was an English poet, novelist and gardener. She was famous for her exuberant aristocratic life, her strong marriage, and her passionate affairs with women, among them the novelist Virginia Woolfe.


Foreword by V. Sackville-West

“I remember that many years ago, in the bazaars of Constantinople, we used sometimes to spend a fabulous, Arabian-tale of an afternoon, not propped on banks of amaranth and moly, but on divans and cushions in the warehouse of a great carpet merchant, sipping sweet-thick Turkish coffee from cups with filigree containers, while the treasures of his collection were rolled out at our feet by innumerable servitors, picturesque in their blue blouses, broad red sashes, and baggy blue trousers.

Those were the days of extravagant leisure. Looking back on them it seems as though they had occurred centuries ago, instead of merely in 1913, just before the first of two world wars. There was no need to hurry; rush and speed had scarcely entered into man’s conception of the desirable life; flying machines were still something to bring housewives out of their doorsteps to stare at; statesmen and politicians had not yet begun to dart backwards and forwards between America, Europe, and the Far East, descending on Delhi and touching down somewhere in Australia on the way. Expressions such as ‘breaking the sound barrier’ would have been incomprehensible to our ears. How soon we forget!

But what has all this to do, you may ask, with the old roses which are the subject of Mr. Graham Thomas’s book? Perhaps not so very far removed. Mr. Thomas swept me quite unexpectedly back to those dusky mysterious hours in an Oriental storehouse when the rugs and carpets of Isfahan and Bokhara and Samarcand were unrolled in their dim but sumptuous coloring and richness of texture for our slow delight. Rich they were, ripe as a fig broken open, soft as a ripened peach, freckled as an apricot, coral as a pomegranate, bloomy as a bunch of grapes. It is of these that the old roses remind me.

It may be true, as Mr. Thomas with his downright honesty remarks, that some of the old roses demand an acquired taste before they be properly esteemed and appreciated. Not everybody likes oysters. I have myself observed, with some amusement, a look at dismay coming over the faces of visitors to my own garden where I grow many of the roses dear to my heart and to the heart of Mr. Thomas. ‘Surely, surely, that’s not a rose as we understand roses?’ No, perhaps it isn’t. It bears little resemblance to the highly colored Hybrid Teas and Polyanthus and Floribundas or the modern garden. It is a far quieter and more subtle thing, but oh let me say how rewarding a taste it is when once acquired, and how right is Mr. Thomas when he implies that they have all ‘the attraction that sentiment, history, botany, or association can lend them.’

The first essential is to regard them as shrubs, the name which Mr. Thomas boldly gives them. It is a temptation to describe the great foaming bushes, but Mr. Thomas has done it in the following pages. The next need is to discard the idea that roses must be limited to certain accepted and accustomed colors, and to welcome the less familiar purples and lilacs, and the striped, flaked, mottled variations which recall the old Dutch flower-paintings; to approach them, in fact, with open and unprejudiced eyes, and also with a nose that esteems the true scent of a rose warmed by the sun. They have one major fault, and Mr. Thomas does not evade it: their flowering period is limited to one glorious month of midsummer. Personally, I think that they are more than worth it…”


As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on…” Following the reading, Freddy beguiled us with stories of his family and the guitar he was playing that had been made by his father. He played and sang for about half an hour and took a request from Sandra Lovelace to play “Malaguena” which Freddy played with such passion and elegance that she was moved to tears.

I had invited Freddy’s mother, Pearl, a fantastic vocalist and the most sensual, vibrant eighty-year-old woman I’ve ever known, to come to the Garden Party. Pearl joined Freddy for two songs at the conclusion, and they received a standing ovation.

Martha thanked everyone for coming and said, “This is the first time I’ve been the guest of honor at a party, and it’s been one of the happiest days of my life.” I told the story about how as children Martha Jean and Jane Clair would walk around the block in our hometown neighborhood, holding hands and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” We spontaneously broke out in song and everyone joined in the singing. You could say the party ended on a high note. It was a glorious finale to celebrate the reunion of two little girls who had grown up Southern.

Martha and Jane at Garden Party (2008)
Freddy Clarke and Jane

Recently, I remembered the lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding” from his opus FOUR QUARTETS written in 1942, the year after I was born.

With the drawing of this Love
And the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 

 
©2006 Jane Bay - All Rights Reserved