Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas at the old Langhorne Mill

Christmas morning in the Blue Ridge came with that spectacular fiery glimmer that often lights up the mountains with a ruddy glow -- even on days that will be overcast and short.  But by an hour after dawn it provided a nice, even, flat light at one of the prettiest sites in these mountains -- the remains of the old Langhorne Mill on the upper reaches of the Dan River, a few miles north of Meadows of Dan.

Here's what Leslie Shelor wrote on the Web about the early settlers here:

The earliest recorded settlers in Meadows of Dan reached the area by 1810. Patrick County was formed from Henry County in 1790, and established farms and communities were already in existence in the lower parts of the county. The Langhorne family, one of the few of English descent in the community, held a land grant that contained much of what is now considered Meadows of Dan, but by the time they reached the area, they found many people already settled. The Langhorne patriarch is credited with giving the area the name Meadows of Dan. He settled on the headwaters of the Dan River, and grist mills in the Langhorne name were built along the stream. Another settler, John Shelor, came to the area when he was young, hunting wolves for bounty. His journal, which no longer exists, records that there had been a fire in the area. The new growth, as he described it, had reached the height of the shoulder of a deer.  Thus the "meadows".

 I don't know who took time to put some bright ribbons and swags of greenery on the little bridge on Langhorne Mill Road or on the beautiful old stonework foundation of the mill itself, but they certainly made my day when I saw it on my way back to the farm after picking up some diesel.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best ham you ever ate. Scout's honor.

It had been a miserable day -- soggy, dark, mercury fixing to plunge, inhospitable, mud ugly -- when Barnie and Debbie Day walked in with a big ham, a big pot, a big saw and big hearts. They have taken us under their wings up here in the Blue Ridge and have been making sure we know what to do, especially when it comes to good eating.

Barnie has taught Jim Newlin and me how to skin a deer and where to get the meat butchered and wrapped. He has shown me his favorite early-morning hunting spots, introduced me to people who know how to fix a tractor or rive a shingle or get a small engine running again, and brought me books from his library in the century-old house where he and Debbie live.

On this night Jim and Silvie Granitelli joined us for a session in how to wrap-cook the ham.  We turned it into a party. And it turns out to be fairly easy for an old guy to cook the best ham you ever tasted.It works like a charm. I should mention that all three of us are married to wonderful cooks, so it's a delight to me to discover I can do something in the cooking category that doesn't involve making a pot of chili or firing up the grill or tending the smoker all afternoon.

I wrote about Barnie's instructions for wrap-cooking a ham about a year ago on a  blog I was writing for The Charlotte Observer, and I had tasted a wrap-cooked ham, but hadn't cooked one. Barnie says he got the instructions, by the way, from a fellow named Robert Crumpton Sr. of Roxboro and Oxford, so he always gives credit where it's due.

Detailed instructions follow, but here's the short summary: Get a Clifty Farm ham if you can find it (Barnie gets his at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville) and cut off the hock. Save it, but you won't need it to cook the ham.  Put the ham in the big pot and cover it with a couple of inches of water. Turn it on and bring it to a boil. While you're waiting, drink some Irish whiskey and tell some outrageous stories. It won't help the ham cook but it'll fill the time while you're waiting for the pot to boil.  When the pot boils, immediately take it off the stove, wrap the pot in some heavy insulation such as a sleeping bag, tie it all together, and leave it for about 12 hours. The next morning, pull the ham out of the still-hot water, remove the tough outer rind, score the fat in a cross-hatch or diamond pattern, rub in plain old American sugar, and bake it for two hours in the oven at 275 degrees. When it comes out, the flavor will just about knock you down it's so good.

Here's the longer set of instructions. Print 'em out, cook your ham, and remember where you read it first:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bringing in the tree

It must have been planted upwards of 30 or 40 years ago.  It grows on an eastern-facing slope just above a little creek way up in the headwaters of what eventually becomes the wide waters of the Roanoke River down in eastern North Carolina.  But up here in the Blue Ridge, it's a spring-fed run, just wide enough to have to take a running jump over it.  I think Hal Strickland planted it in the 1970s not long after he bought the 66-acre farm ("66 acres, more or less," as the deed has it) where we now live.

I think it's a blue spruce, though my quick consultation with The Sibley Guide to Trees suggests a couple other possibilities. Some relatives nearby look a little bluer. Thing is, it's magnificent. In an area where we are losing some handsome hemlocks, this tree has a lovely shape, broad and tall with a lush coat. It's just the sort of thing the well-to-do folks on Sunset and Country Club drives decorated with hundreds of large colored bulbs in the 1950s when I was growing up in Greensboro, two hours south of here. It would have taken days to get it right, moving those heavy strings of lights around with long poles and extension ladders so that the red and green and gold and blue lights were positioned just right.  Long after seeing the National Christmas Tree lit in Washington, the rich tapestry of the trees at Rockefeller Center in New York and the dazzling Christmas spectacle of Biltmore House all dressed for the season, the memory of those huge trees in Greensboro still evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

Maybe that's why I began to feel a sense of responsibility in the mid-1950s when my dad first consented to let me find and cut and bring in the family tree. "Bring in a good one," he would say. My buddy Ray Manieri and his dad used to go out to a quarry southeast of town and find a suitable cedar, and for years I tagged along, my dad's old U.S. hatchet in hand, bent on a mission of finding the perfect tree.  Never did, but I brought home a number of scratchy, gooey aromatic cedars that from 200 yards looked magnificent, from 50 yards still looked good and from up close looked presentable -- if we could get enough lights and ornaments and tinsel on the thing to fill in the gaps and make it right. My dad, a kind man, would look it over critically, nod once and pronounce it fit: "Finest of its kind," he would say, as his father used to say before him, and his grandfather long before that.

In the late 1950s or early 1960s our Christmas tree went through what I came to think of as The Small Ice Age.  My mom had seen a picture in Look or Life magazine of a perfectly good green tree that had been spray-painted white and hung with royal blue ornaments and royal blue lights. My dad and I had to paint the tree with a couple of cans of white spray paint a day before bringing it inside. The white branches and blue jewelry presented a bright contrast, a modern look that went nicely, I suppose, with the blue and white decor in our little living room.

It was just godawful.  Among other things, it looked cold and hard and uninviting, like a lot of the so-called modern furniture of that period. It made me shiver. And the predominant aroma was not of a green living tree. It was of the chemicals that came along inside the aerosol can of white paint -- noxious, artificial, possibly sacrilegious, surely unAmerican.  It was embarrassing. I knew that The Unwritten Law of the Season held that trees ought to be green and there ought to be plenty of red and green lights on the tree.  The white and the blue were pretty colors, but it never seemed proper to me -- and I feared that the combination would bring us a critical write-up from The Christmas Decoration Board of Review, if not a fine or a stern upbraiding in the public prints.

But as time passed, the white tree and the spray paint and the blue lights went the way of the sack dress and the pillbox hat and the tail fin and the avocado-colored kitchen appliance, and sanity returned to the annual practice of sprucing up the place.

When The Former Party Doll Strickland and I set up housekeeping in the late 1960s, we got our first tree from Kroger in Burlington. It wasn't a lovely tree, but it was green, and it looked good in that little apartment off Trail Two not far from the Interstate.  In future years the tree would get better, and in our first house in the early 1970s, living in the far western corner of Arlington County just within that original square outline of the District of Columbia, a Christmas tree sales lot opened up near the bottom of Patrick Henry Drive just on the edge of a county park and greenway.  It was perfect. And it snowed like crazy. I got out my dad's old Flexible Flyer sled, which he had gotten for Christmas about 1912, and we hauled our new tree up the four blocks to our little box colonial in Dominion Hills.  That sled was the fastest around when I was a kid, but dragging it uphill with a seven-foot tree and a two-year-old boy aboard was slow, hard work. By the time we got it up to our place, I was ready for a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer.

I thought about that long, hard trudge up the hill in the snow the other day when it came time to bring our new nine-foot (stem to stern) Fraser fir into the house. It had sat in a washtub of water for a week, taking up good Patrick County wellwater after we found it on the lot over at Slaughter's in Floyd.  Our back deck is maybe five feet off the ground. And hauling that sodden tree up the steps and into the house was still as full of anticipation as it had been more than 50 years ago, dragging a scraggly cedar across a mile or more of broomsedge and briar before it could be tied atop the car and brought home.

Once in the house it did, indeed, look magnificent -- pretty darn close, I think, to the finest of its kind.