Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve with Big Ray

For several years, every Christmas Eve, my mother and I would make the long, winding drive up to Big Ray’s house.  Big Ray was Ray Hicks – the famous storyteller, recipient of the National Heritage award, subject of several books and a Smithsonian exhibit – the teller of the Jack Tales.  To us though, Ray and his family were like our family and going up to Ray’s was as much a part of our Christmas tradition as presents under the tree.
Orville (pronounced Arville) Hicks (a famous story teller in his own right) introduced us to Ray, his wife Rosa (pronounced Rosie) and their son, Ted.  Arville was (and continues to be) a close family friend.  Over the years, we accompanied Arville to Merlefest and Jonesboro, and through him, met many famous folks, Doc Watson, Ora Watson, Emmylou Harris, Mac Wiseman, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Etta Baker, Roy Bookbinder, Guy Clark, Frank Profit Jr. and so many others, but none meant more to us than Ray and Rosie Hicks and their family.
The first time we met Ray and Rosie was at the Cove Creek School.  Ray had a sister who shared my mother’s name.  She died early.  When Ray met my mother, he repeated her name over and over.  From then on, we were like family. 
We would drive up from Foscoe, usually in the snow, down what was then miles of unpaved road.  We would park on the hill above Ray’s and holler out “hello”.  To my many readers whose origin  is beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, let me give you this piece of advice:  If you ever visit an old cabin miles down an unpaved mountain road, always holler “hello” before you approach the house; it could save you a few ounces of painful buckshot in your person.
The first to greet us would always be the dogs – Ted’s beagle and Ray’s little black dog that had a mohawk shock of white hair running down the center of his head.  Then Ted would yell out, “You’uns come on in.”  Ray, who was almost always sitting in a chair before the wood stove, poking a stick into the fire would reply to our greeting of “Merry Christmas”, “Gaw, is it Chirstmas, gaw… it snuck up on me this year.” 
I guess that statement needs a paragraph of explanation.  Ray and his family lived in a cabin built by Ray’s father.  Their only electricity was one light.  There was an outhouse outback.  Rosie cooked on a wood burning stove/oven.  Ray had no way of knowing the date, nor any reason to keep up with such things.  Ray’s way of life was timeless – as old as the mountain.  Time was marked by plowing, planting, growing, harvest, hunting, winter, spring, summer and fall.
Rosie would rush into the sitting room/bedroom and hug my mother.  We would visit for a while, and then Rosie and my mother would disappear into the kitchen to talk.  We learned volumes of herbal remedies from Rosie, whose hair grew long and black well into old age due to her partial Cherokee heritage.  Her aunt was a famous “witch woman” to whom local folks went for cures and to have their fortunes told. 
Rosie didn’t approve of drinking as a rule, but she didn’t mind on Christmas.  We would bring eggnog and brandy.  Rosie and my mother would emerge from the kitchen with glasses of brandied eggnog.  Soon, the celebration would be in full swing.  I’d either bring my guitar or play a 6 string banjo (tuned like a guitar) that belonged to Ted.  Arville was usually there, and he would join me on guitar or banjo.  Ray would play his harmonica. 
We would play all of our favorites – songs by the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe.  Ray’s favorite songs were the mournful “Precious Jewel” by Roy Acuff and good old “John Henry”.  I knew four or five versions of John Henry, so I would play them all as Ray sang and played harmonica in his absolutely devoid of rhythm style – if you could accompany Ray, playing with Willie Nelson would be a piece of cake!  Rosie would sing the old mountain ballads, in the old shape note style – all those beautiful songs about murder, dying lovers, etc. 
We would also sing a few hymns, which was always risky.  Ray had a unique understanding of the Christian doctrine and theology.  As Arville put it, “A preacher came up here once and he and Ray got into it over the Bible.  Ray ran that preacher off, and you never seen a preacher cuss so much!”
Hours would pass but time would stand still.  We would exchange gifts, which always included Ray’s favorite old fashioned candy and a pouch of tobacco.  Ray rolled his own cigarettes, and they were the worst looking cigarettes you’ve ever seen.  Burning bits of tobacco would fall everywhere as he smoked and told unending variations on stories like “Wicked John and the Devil”.  Arville would tell a story, punctuating it with his deep chuckle.  Then would come my turn and I’d do my best in my own awkward manner.  Ray would always cheer me on afterward, encouraging me to take up the tradition, “Gaw, that was pretty good!  You could almost pass for a Hicks as tall as you are.  There are two kinds of Hicks, the crane neck Hicks and the Bull neck Hicks.  Arville’s a bullneck!  Gaw”  I stand 6’4”, and even in his late 70s, Ray was a good three or four inched taller than me!
Ray and Rosie would both invite us to stay the night and would get a little choked up when it was time for us to leave.  Ted would walk us up to our car.  It was always so cold up on Beech Mountain on Christmas Eve.  The wind would blow the snow around.  But, usually, the sky was clear and the moon would reflect on the snow so brightly that it was never really dark.  You could see city lights in Tennessee in the distance.  The silence and cold was such a contrast to the warmth and celebration inside the house.  I’ve never experienced anything else like it and I doubt I ever will.
Ray passed away a few years ago.  We went to the funeral in Boone.  Ted and his older brother Leonard met us at the funeral home.  “I knew you would come,” Ted said.  “You’uns are just like family,” Leonard told us.  My mother went to talk with Rosie.  I sat with Ted and Leonard, reminiscing.  I’ve always had a knack for mimicry, often imitating people’ voices without being aware of it.  “Daddy would have appreciated you’uns coming,” Leonard said.  I know just what he’d say, I replied, “Gaw, it’s Beeeecky and her boy, gaw!”  Ted and Leonard both laughed and remarked how I sounded just like him.  We all got choked up about then and stepped outside.  “I never did like crowds of people; I guess I’m just used to being up on the mountain.” Ted explained. 
Someone’s rooster had gotten loose and was strutting around the parking lot of the funeral home – an odd sight in the center of bustling Boone.  At Ray Hick’s funeral though, it didn’t seem at all out of place.  The New York Times and National Public Radio ran obituaries on Ray; somehow though, that colorful, strutting, crowing rooster seemed a more appropriate tribute.  We talked about the rooster until our throats loosened. 
This Christmas Eve, I’ll remember those nights at Ray’s; I reckon I always will.  If y’all have children or grandchildren, here is a gift idea for this Christmas:  buy them a recording of Ray or Arville Hicks telling stories, or buy a copy of The Jack Tales, collected by Richard Chase, and learn to tell the stories.  There will never be another Ray Hicks, but the Jack Tale tradition can live on through generations to come.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Stew Basics

My friend, Tim Roper (a.k.a. The Meat Trapper) just emailed, asking if I had a stew recipe.... actually, I don't.  Stew, as he pointed out about chili, is more of a style of cooking than a recipe and can be made with a variety of ingredients.  It may be surprising to some that where I come from, beef stew isn't the norm.  On the coast, we have traditional salt water caught fish stews that have origins in the British Isles.  Around the rivers and swamps, we have catfish stews and even catfish stew festivals.  Further inland, venison stew or bear meat stew is a meal for special family gatherings.  Somewhere in between those regions, we have North Carolina style Brunswick Stew.... named for either Brunswicktown (an abandoned colonial fort), Brunswick County or a British royal... which does not get the respect it deserves. 

NC Brunswick Stew may be older than Virginia Brunswick stew, and is certainly older than Georgia Brunswick Stew.  Unlike VA and GA, NC Brunswick Stew is not solely pork based.  It is usually a mix of at least three meats, two of which are usually wild game.  The recipes depend on one's personal taste and the meat on hand - any combination of pork, chicken, venison, squirrel, coon, rabbit, possum or turtle would not surprise a NC Brunswick Stew connoisseur.  Added to the meats are usually tomatoes, corn and lima beans.  Truly, this is a mix of a British stew tradition with American ingredients from an era long before when America became a nation or even when British immigrants had access to more English style ingredients in true colonial times.

So, what is stew?.... well, it isn't soup.  Soup is a thinner, usually broth or stock based liquid dish.  It isn't chowder.  Chowder is usually milk based, not counting Manhattan Clam Chowder (btw, did you know that the residents of Manhattan rioted in support of the South's God-given right to secede and that Lincoln essentially had to invade New York before he invaded the South? ...I bet that wasn't in your US history book in school... or that Union officers were allowed to keep their slaves... just "food for thought").  Stew isn't chili.  Stew isn't gumbo.   

To add a little more confusion, "stewing" is a cooking technique that does not necessarily result in the dish we know as stew.  Stewing is to cook meat, vegetables, etc. low and slow in liquid until soft, purely for the purpose of making them soft.  So, a can of stewed chicken doesn't taste like chicken stew.... it is just soft, bland... unappetizing canned chicken.

Stew is usually made from a tough, flavorful cut of meat (but can be made from fish, chicken, etc).  Stew is usually thick - thicker than soup but thinner than gravy.  Stew usually contains vegetables.  Stew is usually mildly seasoned - it isn't spicy.  Stew is comfort food and especially good on a cold day.  

Meat:  These days, folks probably associate stew with beef, so lets take that as an example.  Any of your tougher, more coarsely grained cuts of beef would do.  You want meat that will stand up to long hours of stewing and still have some chew between the teeth.  Chuck would be a good choice, as would bottom round... or anything labeled "stew meat".  In many countries, their stew meat is a cow's foot... and their stews are all the better for it... but, we'll stick with what you can buy at your local Piggly Wiggly (you do shop at Piggly Wiggly.... the southern chain that is America's first modern grocery store... don't you?).  Stew meat is not ground.  Cut your meat into cubes or chunks about an inch... maybe a little larger, in size.  Dry well, salt and brown well in a cast iron dutch oven or pot (cast iron is better), in a little fat - beef suet is best, but oil will work; butter would burn on its own, but if clarified or added to cooking oil, it will work fine.  My preference is to fry some bacon along with the beef, so that the beef browns in the bacon fat.

Vegetables part 1:  After the meat browns, add plenty of chopped onions and chopped mushrooms (any type you like) and brown them. 

Thickening: Stews can be thickened with several ingredients - flour, potatoes, corn starch, arrow root, masa and even blood.  Yes, blood.  In fact, blood is the most traditional means of thickening stews.  If you use blood, you add it at the end, with the stew not boiling and off the heat but still hot.  Just stir it in slowly and let it thicken.  If you use blood, more power to you.... it is very healthy, but it is not my choice.  Potatoes would be most people's choice, but not mine.  If you use potatoes, you can either cut them into chunks a bit smaller than the meat and add them to the stew after other liquid has been added, so that the potato starch will thicken the soup as they cook in the stew.  Or, you can stir in some mashed potatoes, or even dried potato flakes.  My choice is flour.  After the meat and onions have browned, I push them to the side, add a little more fat and brown two spoons full of plain, all purpose flour, just like I would for gravy..... which is basically the brother to stew.... so is pot roast, btw.

Liquid:  After the flour browns (or before adding an other thickener) you need to add some liquid to make your stew a member of the soup family as opposed to just beef and onions in a thick gravy.  Here, you have 5 choices: 1) Water, 2) Stock or Broth, 3) Wine, 4) Beer or 5) the liquid from shellfish like Oyster Liquor or Clam Juice.  I use wine or dark beer and broth or stock.  Water has no flavor.  Why use water?  In this recipe, I would add about a pint of good, rich stock or bone broth (bones with a little meat on them and vegetable trimmings browned before slow boiling for 24 hours+).  I would also add about 8 oz of a rich red wine that is not too tanic or brightly acidic - red zinfandel or shiraz would be my choice.

Vegetables part 2: Add your favorite vegetables.  I would add celery, carrots, maybe a little crushed garlic, green peas or baby limas... definitely some kind of green bean or pea.... maybe some whole kernel corn... maybe.... tomatoes, turnip root, parsnip, celery root, asparagus cut into one inch pieces, chopped spinach, mild green peppers like bells, squash, pumpkin, leaks.... whatever you like that will not over power the stew, but not too many so that the vegetables over power the stew.  Those that would not work well would be those that would over power the stew, like okra due to its mucilaginous properties, strong greens like turnip or collard or starchy legumes like black eyed peas... unless you particularly like that combination.

Seasonings:  Black pepper - I wouldn't use red/hot peppers in a traditional stew.  Salt to taste.  Thyme - meat loves thyme and its use in a stew is very traditional.  That is all that is essential.  Other good additions could be bay leaf, rosemary or parsley.  I would not use any spices other than pepper, but a tiny pinch of allspice or nutmeg is traditional... so is one or two whole cloves.  I like cloves with onion, so I might go that route... the decision would be made by sniffing stew and the cloves a few times, taking a sip of wine and getting an idea of how the combination would taste.  Lavender is another traditional herb... but I hate lavender and it may lower testosterone, so that is a definite "no" for me.

So, depending on which thickener you chose, and when it should be added, that is it.  Cook it low and slow, "stew" it for a while - the longer the better - uncovered so it will cook down and thicken.  Taste from time to time.  When it is thick enough, salt to taste.  If you salt to taste before the water evaporates, it will end up too salty. 

Comfort:  Serve in a big bowl, grab a freshly baked, buttered yeast roll, pour some more wine or beer and dig in.... stew is simply satisfying.

End Notes:
1) Be sure to check out Tim Roper's YouTube channel - he's a damn good cook:
2) Two very cool, short documentaries on Brunswick Stew.... which conveniently leave out the king of Brunswick stews, NC style, but is good anyway:,336 and,333
3) Catfish Stew Festival:
4) History of Piggly Wiggly:
5) The photo is just one I found online - I'll switch it out the next time I make a good pot of stew.
6) Frogmore Stew is not a stew.  It is just a regional name for a Low Country Boil... it is absolutely fantastic though.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Free Meat

I was just talking with a guy who owns a deer processing center. It is the rare processor, that has facilities for aging the meat and makes really good sausage. Of course, we got to talking about what is done with the odd cuts and the deer skin. He sells the hides when he can for less than $5, to a tannery. This would be a huge opportunity for anyone wanting to make leather goods, btw - just go to your local deer processor and buy the hides. Your state will likely require... a paper trail, but you could make anything from fine upholstery and jackets to decorative items. But, what really bothered me was the waste of the meat. Most folks field dress their deer (gut) and few take the heart, liver and kidneys home. To not do so is wanton waste of good food. Sometimes a deer comes into his place not gutted..... by then, he has to throw away the spoiled organs. That is such a shame. Of course, the tripe and lights should also be utilized, but convincing folks to eat such things is harder than putting sense in a fool's brain. But it gets worse. People are not using the head meat, often including some of that excellent neck meat that is so good ground for sausage.. The tongue is a delicacy. Boil the tongue, then skin it and let it cook low and slow with lots of onions and whatever else you like. But, the cheek meat is so obviously good meat, just being wasted. Not everyone likes eyes, I get that... but the meat around the eye is very good. The brain is a bit more controversial ... there are a handful of viruses that can infect the brain, but it is very rare for them to present in the brain only, so that the liver, etc shows no other signs... but, if you have a healthy animal, the brain is very good. Breaded and deep fried, or slow braised in cream and mustard...WOW! Thorough cooking should ensure safe eating. The tails can be used in soups and stocks. But, all those bones that are just thrown away -they often have to pay someone to dispose of them! Look up "bone broth", or check out Clint Locklear's video, on the Wolfer Nation channel on youtube. Even the hooves could be turned into gelatin and the intestines used for sausage casings or chitins... but I won't insist on that point. This waste is shameful. There is free food available, and far better than in many restaurants. I urge everyone who reads this, whether they hunt or not, to contact a local deer processor or to talk with deer hunters and to ask for these things.... deer liver or kidneys, grilled or braised, are among of the finest meals to grace any table. If nothing else, use it for dog food. Your dog will be healthy and happy!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Perspective Of A Meat Hunter and Angler - LIFE IS NOT CATCH AND RELEASE

One thing that I will not discuss much on this blog is "catch and release." fishing.  I do not believe in catch and release fishing and I do not practice it.  Sure, if the fish is too small or cannot be legally kept, I will throw it back.  I hunt, fish and trap for meat.  I am not a "sport fisherman."

I realize that catch and release fishing has played a roll in restocking waters that were over fished or polluted in the past, and for introducing new species of fish in areas where they are not native.  This has especially been true for trout fishing in mountain streams.  However, I think it has been over done.  Too often, catch and release fishing is portrayed as the only ethical style of fishing and those who take fish for eating are looked down on, and even prohibited from certain waters.  This really hit home for me when I was reading a cookbook published by one of America's largest fishing tackle companies.  It had some good recipes and some interesting stories, but its tone was off-putting.  I finally realized what was bothering me about the book when I came to the chapter in which the family is described as fishing with foreign guests, spending all day and evening fishing a stream with the most expensive gear and elegant accouterments and, "of course" releasing all of the fish and dining on grilled beef..... the doneness of which could only be measured accurately by the digital thermometer the company was marketing at the time... which sold for around $80.00 in the 1980s.

Well, to each his own.  I have no problem with another person who chooses to fish merely for sport.  I have no problem with a company marketing its tackle exclusively to the wealthy or upwardly mobile.  In the 'yuppie" culture of the 80s and 90s, that company did remarkably well and brought many to fly fishing who otherwise may not have become anglers.  What bothers me, though is really twofold: 1)  the misguided notion that wildlife can be stockpiled; and,  2) the elitist attitude that those who practice catch and release fishing are somehow morally superior and more responsible stewards of nature than those who eat the fish they catch.

Fish are not immortal.  The average fish lives less than a year before falling prey to natural predators (additionally, predation of fish eggs and minnows by other fish is extremely heavy).  Fish can live several years and become very large, but those are more the exception than the rule.  I once caught a mountain lake trout that was close to being a state record.  That was a nice, big fish and a thrill to catch.  I am glad it lived as long as it did.  But, I ate it with a clear conscience... and it was delicious!  That would certainly shock the catch and release fisherman who assumes a released fish will live another year and grow larger for the next angler who will eventually land a record.  I spent most of my summers in the mountains, where the trout streams and rivers are crowded with catch and release fly fisherman.  Some streams are designated catch and release only.  Countless times I have seen raccoons, hawks and other critters destroying the dreams of the noble dry fly fisherman by chowing down on said potential trophy.

Assuming fish had no natural predators, even man, would that be a good thing?  Would the waters be filled will trophy fish?  No.  Wildlife cannot be stockpiled.  All wildlife populations, whether fish, game or predator, must be managed.  Even the highly esteemed wild rainbow trout, were it to become too populous in a stream would quickly exhaust available food resources leading to undersized, weak fish and eventually mass starvation.  Overpopulation also creates favorable conditions for the spread of disease.  It is the job of state wildlife/fish and game organizations to monitor populations of fish and game.  They set low limits on those species whose populations are too low and higher or no limits on those whose populations are too high or at sustainable levels under current fishing or hunting pressure.  When they set a creel limit on fish, they are telling you that you can and should take that number of fish of that given size.

It is a dangerous and foolish assumption that catch and release fishing is more responsible, or more ethical than taking fish for food.  However, it is that very misguided assumption that leads to the attitude of elitism that so irks me.  The elitist who views himself as the true steward of the environment and the highest embodiment of the art of angling, too often looks down on the man who takes his limit home to feed himself and his family.  Never mind that the fisherman who keeps his fish does so in a manner that culls fish populations and ensures the availability of healthy fish for all anglers... but, he just might be a better fisherman too.  He may be able to fish in varying ways with a variety of tackle, whereas the specialist is an expert in only one.  He may even be more intelligent as he has the sense to enjoy the fruits of his labor and relaxation in a delicious meal.  To the elitist though, he is a barbarian, a hick, the lowest of the human form, besmirching the noble art of angling.

In a mountain community in which I spent several years, all of the good trout waters were "owned" by a fly fishing club.  I place owned in quotations, because their legal right of ownership was questionable at best.  The law would appear to read that they could only own the banks on either side of the rivers, and that anyone could wade those waters - the water itself was public.  But, money talks and these were big money "summer people".  Any non-club member caught fishing would quickly be ticketed by the local game wardens.  Their purpose was simple - they meant to keep the riff-raff out.   We local hillbillies were unwelcome in their waters.  Again, I have no problem if a club wants to legally purchase a stretch of water so its members can have a little extra casting room.  But, when they lock up nearly all of the good fishing waters in a community so that the common man cannot enjoy natural recreation or provide for his family's table with the God-given bounty of the earth, that is wrong - and its wrongness compounded by the fact that those "private waters" benefitted from stocking of trout by state agencies, funded by the very tax dollars of those deemed unworthy to fish said waters.

At the heart of my objection to the elitist, strict catch and release philosophy... beyond all I have written previously... is that it embraces a very unnatural view of man's role in nature.  Man is not separate from nature - some alien being to the wilderness whose presence can only be detrimental to the natural order.    The same God who created the world and filled it with plants and animals also created man and gave him a unique role.  The plants and animals - the bounty of the earth- would feed man and in turn, man would steward the earth.  Man would farm, fish and hunt - and man would manage those natural resources.  This stewardship is not only to ensure the earth's bounty for future generations but to ensure the health and environment for plants and animals - living beings that have no capacity for reason or concept of the future and no ability to manage their own environments.

The man (or woman) who eats his catch is fulfilling his natural and God-given role in the natural environment.  For man to live, he has to eat.  Everything he eats was once alive and must die for him to eat.  Life is not catch and release.  Whether plant, fish, bird or mammal, a living thing must give its life for another to live.  The angler who studies the fish he seeks and the art of fishing, who catches and kills the fish, who cleans and scales the fish and who stores or cooks and eats the fish has a much more intimate relationship with his food than does the catch and release fisherman who spends all day yanking fish out of the water by a hook through their lip and looking at them, only to leave them behind to eat steak or hamburgers for dinner.  An angler who fishes with simple tackle like a cane pole, or who keeps his catch to eat, should never be denigrated.  The elitist who looks down his nose at the common man does so out of arrogance and ignorance.

In closing, I will say that when I begin publishing fishing videos on this blog, they will not be catch and release.  Unlike most fishing shows, you will not see scene after scene of the angler pulling a fish from the water, holding up for the camera, exclaiming something like "whoohoo, look at that pretty fish", throwing it out and casting again.  Here, you will fine detailed information about tackle and techniques. You will see how rigs are assembled and how they are fished.  You will see fish caught, landed, killed, bled, gutted and scaled.  You will learn how to store and preserve fish and how to cook them.  Killing will be done as quickly and humanely as possible.  At times, it may be a bit graphic, but will not be unnecessarily so.  I do not enjoy killing, nor do I fish for sport.  However, LIFE IS NOT CATCH AND RELEASE.