Ramblings: Dog days of summer arrive with football, fresh figs and… optimism?

Ahhh, so it is August 1 and the proverbial dog days of summer have arrived here in the Lowcountry. Like clockwork, I opened the door this morning to be greeted by what my Dear Hubby describes as, “an all-enveloping blanket of humidity and heat”. Like a burning, slow motion tidal wave, it affects pretty much everything and everyone in its path from now until mid-September.

Add to this the low-slung haze and the oppressive daily heat index, and people around these parts either high-tail it for cooler temps, say in the elevations of  western North Carolina or Virginia for a week or two, or they simply learn to appreciate the annual scorch-fest known as August.

Now, it’s been hot here pretty much all summer – we did have a few days in the 80’s during June – but most days were measured in the high 90’s and last week the thermometer called in sick after registering 110 degrees for three days in a row. Lots of places around the country have been h-o-t and you’d think us Southerners would be “used” to it. Well, this Southerner is not.

This is not my favorite time of the year. In fact, to me there are only 3 good things about August:

  • Knowing that in about 6 weeks, it will be over for another year
  • College football season begins
  • Local figs are finally ripe

Well, if one can find figs, they should be in-season in my area in August. I am in an all-out hunt for local figs now, so “God willing and the creek don’t rise”, in the next 2 weeks or so I’ll have some figgy recipes to share.

In my parents yard, there were three fig trees – well, until my good-intentioned father pruned one to death, then we had two. They produced abundant crops of figs, if we could keep the birds (and the neighbors) out of them. My mother always made whole fig preserves, which like chow-chow and other oddly old-fashioned and quirky preserves, was not a favorite of mine until I got older and grew into my taste buds.

The common fig (Ficus carica) is native of the Middle East and was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. It was a common food source for the Romans and used to fatten geese for the production of a precursor of foie gras.

Fresh figs are one of nature’s most wonderfully tasting foods – if you’ve never had them – or rather, never had sweet, ripe ones – that is a real shame. Obviously running out the screen door and picking them at will off your mama’s tree is preferred, but I have bought decent figs at the farmer’s market since my mama’s yard is not in close proximity. I have also purchased mediocre ones from the grocery store, when my craving for fresh figs was high, my willpower was low, and no fig trees in northern Alabama.

Preserved figs are now one of my favorites and next to homemade apple butter, the thing I desire most on my breakfast biscuit. Pureed preserves also make a wonderfully moist addition to spice cake batter and a tasty morsel on the cheese board.

Another detail about fig trees is that they go completely bare during the winter. All the leaves drop and the stark and naked tree is left to over-winter. If one does not realize that it is a fig tree, and have the faith that it will bloom anew in the spring and bear fruit after a long (hot) summer, you would think it’s all she-wrote for that tree. But then, spring arrives and the leaves sprout, buds bloom and if the pruning shears have been left alone, all is well again with that fig tree. Take a bite of a fresh picked, ripe fig and you’ll understand what I mean.

It takes all kinds – all types of people, events and things to make the world go round, I suppose – even the dog days of summer.

“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes

or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there

must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

– Epictetus

 

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Ramblings: Straight to the heart with a reluctant southerner

I’ve been thinking about writing a short post about Southern culture here on southbyse.com. But before I begin, let me state the obvious; that what is written in this is my take on some aspects of Southern culture. If you would like an academic breakdown, I refer you to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture or the multi-volumes of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, all published by The University of NC Press. Another great resource is The Southern Foodways Alliance.

Personally I am happy about the recent surge in popularity of Southernism. Sure enough it seems to be fashionable now to cook Southern, write Southern and dare I say, talk and sound Southern. In the past, I think many Southerners, myself included, would often hide our upbringing especially under professional circumstances, specifically among “mixed company”, i.e. northerners, mid-westerners, Californians and the like.

It’s something I call the ‘reluctant Southerner” syndrome. While I adore most of what the South has to offer – food, art, music, architecture, literature and the like, I still feel somehow compelled to be just a little uncomfortable when confronted with my Southern roots, in certain situations. If I never see another episode of the “Beverly Hillbillies” it would be fine by me. Or hear Paula Deen say for the umpteenth time, “just add a stick of butter, ya’ll”,  for that matter. Believe me, I will be okay with it.

However, my hesitation in owning up to my upbringing has improved over the years and I no longer feel like I must bear the disgrace for all the rednecks, hypocrites and/or bigots, that have stereotyped my beloved South.

I feel pride when I’m asked about where I’m from, my family history and tell the story of my 3-time great-grandfather, Captain Tristram Thomas (later made General), who led a small band of patriots at the battle of Hunt’s Bluff, seizing a British flotilla in 1780 during the American Revolution. I feel pride discussing my late dad’s technique for whole hog barbeque (Williamsburg County style) with a certified BBQ judge and seeing him hang on my every word. I feel pride seeing my own daughter take an interest in growing a garden and witness the beginnings of a true love of the land take hold in her.

One of my great grandfathers was a real American Revolutionary War hero. I probably would have bragged more if I’d known when I was younger. But he was a hero not me, so I’m not sure if this means that much. Makes a nice story though… we Southerners do love stories.

Living for almost 20-years in a town that was (and is) mostly inhabited by non-Southerners, yet is located squarely in the South, gives one a unique viewpoint. Twenty years ago I was made fun of (occasionally) for my accent, but I will admit that a few men I dated along the way (the non-Southern ones) mentioned they found my accent alluring. Of course this could have been a load of bull.

I also know a good many non-Southerners (some who married into my family) who, I believe, truly wish they were born Southerners. To their credit they try very hard to fit in and do a pretty good job on the outside, at least. They will eat grits and cornbread and enjoy them. They’ll drink canned beer or sip bourbon drinks on occasion, learn about local flora and fauna and some will even take on a Southern-inspired hobby – like bass fishing, duck hunting, or NASCAR. But you know what? While all those things are great (well, I’m still deciding about NASCAR) – they aren’t what being Southern is really all about.

And I have no clear-cut answer to that effect, ya’ll. I’ve read that being Southern “is all about tradition” and being Southern “is about strong family ties – keeping in touch with your kin… whether you like them, or not.” Other humorous definitions include these gems:

  • You can correctly use “fix” as a verb.  As in, “I’m fixing to go to the store.”
  • You say “yes ma’am” or “no sir” to anyone 5 years older than you
  • You measure distance in time, not miles
  • All soft drinks are referred to as “coke”, no matter the brand
  • You use the term “bless her heart” to mean both pity and insult, usually at the same time
  • Southern babies are named after a family member, even those long gone (but not forgotten!)

I have read detractors state that Southerners are inexorably fake and “they’ll show you all kinds of friendliness to your face, but then turn around and talk about you behind your back.” I’ve certainly had that happen, but no wait, that was one of my college roommates from New England…Ha!

Still, I think the following quote from author Jan Norris sums it up quite nicely:

“Being Southern isn’t talking with an accent…or rocking on a porch while drinking sweet tea, or knowing how to tell a good story. It’s how you’re brought up — with Southerners, family (blood kin or not) is sacred; you respect others and are polite nearly to a fault; you always know your place but are fierce about your beliefs. And food along with college football — is darn near a religion.”

So true. I’ll add, that to me, being Southern is about being genuine, true to yourself and your family, and taking enough out of history to either learn to never repeat it if it was horrible, or remember and honor it, if it was wonderfully good. Whether you are Southern, or not, what does “Southern” mean to you?

Things I’ve learned from my dog Jackson.

Our dog Jackson.

For over a year now I have been trying (eh… sort of) to get this project called “South by Southeast” started. I’ve told friends and family all about my big plans for a digital ride across the Southern food and culture landscape through the eyes of a native, albeit not a redneck hick, i.e.…. me.

I have tested recipes, taken pictures, designed header artwork, made numerous outlines, and done a lot of thinking. But for some reason, that apparently only a procrastinator would love, I just could not ‘start’. I thought about all the reasons why I could not ‘start’. The biggest hurdle being, what do I write in my first post? It must be creative, it must clever, and it must be perfect.

Then I took my dog Jackson out for a walk. It started as just a regular walk in our neighborhood. We walked down to get the mail, avoiding the shrubbery in front of the antique shop where all lifted doggie legs are met with a furrowed brow of disdain from the owner. We got the mail and quickly made it up through the main drag pee-free, only stopping after we reached the green clover under the biggest oak tree. The ground is a little soft and cool here under the shade of all that swaying Spanish moss. Clearly this is a popular spot and Jackson makes a beeline for it every time we are within leash length.

Usually he sniffs (Jackson sniffs a lot) and that’s it. But today, he plopped down and rolled over onto his back, paws up, gyrating in a sort of snow angel motion. I guess it was a clover angel. He did this once, snorted with happiness, got up and started walking. I thought, “Oh what has he just rolled in!” Then I did my own sniff. I perused the clover angel making area and discovered nothing discernibly smelly or otherwise.

Jackson then ambled on ahead to the next clover patch, plopped down and did his clover angel move again. I checked for any putridity and nothing. As we walked ahead to the big open, sunny area in front of our home, the breeze picked up some and I then I did smell something good, something sweet. Honeysuckle? No, maybe it was Carolina jessamine, I thought. Love that smell.

Jackson plopped down again and did his clover angel routine. But this time when he stopped he took a moment to just lay there sprawled out, staring up at the blue sky. Then he looked over at me with his (literally) puppy-dog eyes and scruffy face, all fluffed up from his angel making. He gave me, what can only be described as an exasperated and prolonged look, as if to say, “What are you waiting for woman, roll around in the clover. Life doesn’t get much better than this!”

No, I did not roll in the grass, but I did sit and give Jackson a tummy rub and breathed in that spring air for a bit. I watched some tiny ants scurry to and fro with a blade of grass for a bit, oblivious to everything around them. Then we both got up and headed back to the house where I sat down and started writing this post.

There is nothing to wait for. Today is as good as any day to ‘start’.