Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: Where the Hawthorn Grows

Morgan Daimler’s book Where the Hawthorn Grows is an unusual entry in the growing marketplace of books about Celtic and Druidic spirituality, and I was very pleased to read it. While Ms. Daimler talks about being a modern Druid in North America and keeping ancient beliefs alive by bringing them into the modern age and allowing them to change to fit the current world, her main thrust is a reasoned effort at remaining true to the ideals of the ancient Celts as we know them through the texts and other historical sources that have come down to us. Following the threads of an ancient tapestry of spirituality and culture, she discerns the pattern the Druids wove centuries ago and exhibits it to us as a practical underpinning for modern pagan life.

To begin with, Ms. Daimler clarifies her own stance as a reconstructionist and Druid, including a clear definition of reconstructionism since it’s so often misunderstood, so often the source of argument and dissent within the broader pagan community. Then, based on the ancient texts and historical sources, she shares a discussion of ethics and beliefs, an extensive description of Irish deities and a lovingly composed set of seasonal sabbats and rites of passage.

Where the Hawthorn Grows is not the romance of Victorian neo-Druid fantasy but the reality of a spiritual and cultural tradition that can work well for modern pagans who want to connect with their Celtic cultural roots. This is not a beginner’s book; Ms. Daimler assumes familiarity with terms such as geasa and blot, so be prepared to look up anything that’s new to you. But for those who are interested in Celtic and Druidic paganism, it offers real substance and a comprehensive look at historically-based spirituality. Ms. Daimler provides references at the end of each section and an extensive reading list at the end of the book, which is helpful due to the heavy historical content of her text.

All in all, Where the Hawthorn Grows covers a huge subject well, providing a great deal of information and real substance on which the Celtic-leaning modern pagan can easily build a personal spiritual practice.

If you'd like a little taste before you buy, you can read the first chapter for free HERE.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project Part 3: Grandma’s Cornbread

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As I explained in a previous post, I have embarked on a bread-baking project to honor two of my female ancestors and, by association, all the women whose DNA I carry and on whose shoulders I stand. My first recipe in the Bread of the Grandmothers Project was the biscuits my maternal grandmother made. This post details my adventure in cornbread-making, just the way my great-grandmother did it.

Grandma Crews my great-grandmother

Like her daughter-in-law and all the other women in their families, Grandma Crews was a farmer’s wife, which is a job in itself. She raised six boys, took care of the garden and the chickens, and cooked three meals a day, every day. She also gave me my very first lesson in folk magic.

On one of the many days I spent with Grandmother during my childhood, she and Granddaddy needed to go into town to take care of some business. They didn’t want a fidgety five-year-old tagging along with them so they dropped me off with Grandma Crews, who was more than happy to have me for company. She was doing laundry that day and I followed her out to the clothesline, pleased that she offered me the job of handing her the clothespins as she hung the garments out to dry.

When she had finished hanging the clothes she twisted her apron around and showed me the ties, commonly known in folk custom as ‘apron-strings.’ She had tied the apron around her waist with a big bow but the ends of the strips of fabric sported several overhand knots, loosely wrapped and spaced closely together.

She held one end out for me to see and explained, “If you want something to happen, you think about it real hard, then you put that thought into a knot.” She demonstrated by tying another knot in the apron-string. “You leave that knot there until you get what you want, but you better be sure to undo it as soon as your wish comes to pass or something bad’ll come to you. If it’s something big you want, it might take two or three knots to hold that thought.”

Like my grandmother, Grandma Crews married beneath her, at least according to her family’s values. Her husband’s family was not exactly white, as the locals put it, and visibly so. Though the shame many of my relatives feel at this heritage has made accurate genealogy difficult, it appears that Grandpa Crews’ family contained a sizeable dose of blood from the local Seminole population, which included a number of escaped or former slaves as well as Native Americans.

Though Grandpa was happy to dispense with his local/native heritage as far as society was concerned, he hung onto one tiny aspect: the cornbread. Grandma made cornbread the way he liked it, which was very much the way the local native people cooked it. This ‘corn cake’ contained just three ingredients: plain cornmeal (NOT self-rising cornmeal mix), water and salt. The equipment: a kettle, a bowl and a well-greased cast iron skillet. The result: the crispiest brown crust surrounding a moist, creamy center.

Like all the other farm folks in that time and place who grew Silver Queen and related strains of field corn, Grandma Crews always used white cornmeal. My local grocery doesn’t carry white cornmeal and I haven’t had the time to travel up to the Nora Mill to buy some of the real, stone-ground stuff, so I’m going with the plain yellow cornmeal I can get close to home. The next time I can get my hands on some stone-ground white cornmeal, I’ll make Grandma’s cornbread again.

Most cornbread recipes call for combining the dry ingredients with the room-temperature liquid ingredients to make the batter. Grandma’s cornbread was different. She used boiling water to ‘bloom’ the cornmeal, a standard Native American cooking technique familiar to many people from the method for making johnny cakes.

Like Grandmother with her biscuits, Grandma Crews never used a recipe or measured her ingredients. She knew how much cornmeal to put into her mixing bowl for each finished corn pone, and she ‘measured’ the boiling water by eye as she poured it from the kettle onto the cornmeal. Her batter tended to be a little thicker than most cornbread batter, so that’s my guide for this project.

Grandma’s first step in preparing cornbread was to grease her cast iron skillet. She used whatever she had on hand – bacon grease, oil, butter, rendered lard, tallow – and her choice affected the flavor of the finished bread. I’ve chosen corn oil because it has a high smoke point, an important quality given the temperature at which this bread cooks. In my memory Grandma always made several small pones rather than one great big one; I’m guessing the smaller ones cooked more evenly and were less likely to be too damp in the middle. So I’ve chosen my eight-inch cast iron skillet for this project.

Grandma Crews preheated her skillet in a very hot oven (I’m going with 500º F) while she mixed up the batter. Unlike Grandma in her log farmhouse (built by hand by her father-in-law from the trees on the property), I have a smoke detector to contend with, so I’m taking the battery out as a precaution. Don’t worry, I’ll put it back in as soon as I’m done with the cornbread. I remember how smoky Grandma’s kitchen got when she was cooking this stuff.

For this size pan, I’m going to use one cup of cornmeal with half a teaspoon of salt stirred into it. That should give a fairly thin pone like the ones Grandma turned out. I’ll mix the batter in a metal bowl that won’t be harmed by the heat of the boiling water as I pour it in. I’ll eyeball the water amount like Grandma did, stirring it in as I pour, until the batter reaches the right consistency.

So here are my steps:

Grease the pan with oil and put it in the preheated 500º F oven while I mix up the batter.

Put the kettle full of water on the stove to heat.

Measure the cornmeal and salt into a mixing bowl and stir them together well.

Pour the boiling water into the cornmeal in a slow stream, stirring all the time, until the cornmeal ‘blooms’ and the batter is a good bit thicker than conventional cornmeal batter. I eyeballed it, but I think I added about two and a half cups of boiling water.

Transfer the cornmeal to the preheated pan - it's thick so it takes a little spreading with a wooden spoon or spatula - and return it to the hot oven. I was in a hurry so I didn't smooth the top down as much as I should have (the rest of dinner was ready and we were only waiting on the cornbread).

Bake at 500º F until the top is evenly browned. I cooked this pone for about 15 minutes. I think next time I'll give it another 5 minutes to thicken the crust and brown it more, though it was pretty tasty this time. As you can see, I've flipped the pone over to serve it with the smooth, crusty-brown side up, the way Grandma Crews did.

The method of eating this cornbread varied from one family member to another, from the conventional slice-and-butter style to breaking off chunks and dipping them in whatever liquid the meal offered, pot likker being a favorite. And no, I did not misspell that word.

Personally, I’m fond of butter on cornbread, and the crust on this particular pone just begs for it, so that’s what I’m having with it. If there’s any left over, I may have it for dessert the same way Grandma and Grandpa did – topped with honey (I’m out of cane syrup).

Here’s to our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all the way back in time to the first woman. May we be worthy of them, and may we always grateful that it is their shoulders we stand upon.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Shaman Pathways Web of Life

Today I'm reviewing a book by Yvonne Ryves that offers some fascinating do-it-yourself ideas for finding connection with the natural and spirit world. It's well worth your time to read it.

Do you feel a connection with the natural world around you but don’t know how to incorporate that feeling into your life in a tangible way? Have you encountered any number of medicine wheel or web-of-life spiritual traditions that feel familiar but aren’t exactly the right fit for you? This little book has some practical answers for you.

I was gratified to read Yvonne Ryves’ book Web of Life, part of the Shaman Pathways series by Moon Books. It offers a set of exercises for finding your own way, your own unique connection with the natural world and the spiritual world within it. Instead of prescribing a pre-fab tradition, Ms. Ryves takes the reader step by step through the process of developing their own spiritual practice that has meaning and purpose for them, from connecting with the sacred directions to contacting spirit guides or teachers. One chapter even includes instructions for creating your own set of cards to use for working with your personal web of life. This can be a daunting task to undertake all alone, but Web of Life sets the method out one piece at a time, allowing the reader to absorb the new experiences at their own pace. Ms. Ryves offers plenty of background information about worldwide traditions and modern science that incorporate the concepts of connection, circularity and webbiness. But ultimately, the path is an individual one, and this book does an excellent job of showing the way. It’s exactly the kind of book I wish I had found years ago.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project Part 2: Grandmother’s Biscuits

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Find Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

As I explained in a previous post, I have embarked on a bread-baking project to honor two of my female ancestors and, by association, all the women whose DNA I carry and on whose shoulders I stand. This post details my adventure in biscuit-making, just the way my grandmother did it.

My Maternal Grandmother
My maternal grandparents, James and Noreen Crews,
on the front step of their farmhouse
My maternal grandmother learned to make biscuits as a young girl. This ability was a basic life skill for her, an expected activity for girls and women in the rural South in the early part of the 20th century. First her father then, after she was married, her husband expected freshly-baked bread on the table at every meal, three times a day, 365 days a year. She started out baking her daily bread in a wood stove and eventually graduated to a gas oven, but her recipe never changed.

When I was that young I called her Nana; being the oldest grandchild apparently gave me the right to choose her name. But when my first cousin came along and grew old enough to talk, my aunt judged that name to be insufficiently classy. She insisted that we call her Grandmother, so Grandmother it was from that point onward, no matter how difficult that word was for very young tongues.

One of my earliest memories of Grandmother centers around a vision of her hands working the biscuit dough, forming the individual rolls and sliding the pan into the hot oven for the midday meal (dinner, not lunch – lunch was for city folks). I still remember what the kitchen smelled like – the pungent aroma of greens cooking long and slow on the stovetop, the lingering salty scent of the home-cured side meat she had fried for breakfast that morning, the very faint odor of the kerosene that fueled the heater at the far end of the room during the winter. When I was very small, the spot in front of that heater was where the washtub went for my bath, with Grandmother adding hot water from a kettle until I judged it was the right temperature.

My grandparents were farmers, eking out a living on a small property in north Florida. Most years they did all right, some years were tough and every now and then they had a really good year. When I was young they still grew almost all their own food, as they had their whole lives. Their typical shopping list included only flour, sugar, salt, coffee and tea; in good times they might add other store-bought items as well. Everything else – vegetables, meat, corn for the livestock and for the grits and cornmeal the family ate – came from the land.

Though Grandmother made cornbread from the grain she and Granddaddy grew, her usual bread was biscuits. Like many other rural women, she bought her flour in large fabric sacks and reused the material to make clothes and quilts. I can’t use up 25 pounds of flour nearly as fast as she could – I have only a husband and daughter to feed; she fed a husband, five children and any number of relatives and friends who worked as farm hands during the busy season. But I have chosen her brand of flour, White Lily self-rising, in an effort at accuracy. Grandmother used corn oil, the store brand from her local IGA grocery, in her biscuits so I have chosen the house label from my usual supermarket.

The only ingredient I can’t replicate is the milk she used; it came from the cows on the farm. She taught me to milk a cow when I was about five years old and I always loved helping her with that chore, then bringing the milk into the house and straining it through a dishcloth into the gallon jug that went into the refrigerator for safe keeping. The only thing I didn’t care for was cow-temperature milk to drink, so I waited for the milk to chill or asked for an ice cube in my glass. Since I don’t have a milk cow handy (though I dearly wish I did) I have opted for organic milk from my grocery store.

Grandmother kept a ‘working amount’ of flour in a wide, shallow wooden bowl that she stored, covered with a cloth, in a kitchen cabinet. When it was time to make biscuits she brought the bowl out of its storage place and made a well in the middle of the flour with her knuckles. She always computed out loud how many people she had to feed for that meal and always managed to make exactly the right amount of bread, no matter how empty or full the table was.

Into that well in the middle of the flour she poured corn oil and milk, estimating the correct amount by eye. She used about twice as much milk as oil. Then she stirred up the dough with her bare hand, gathering in just enough flour to make a very soft dough. When I have attempted her biscuit method in the past, I’ve always ended up with biscuit-flavored hockey pucks. I think I was drawing too much flour into the mixture, so this time I was careful to stop mixing while the dough was still soft.

To form the biscuits, Grandmother pinched off pieces of dough and rolled them around in her palms until they were round and smooth. I still remember the practiced motions she used, oddly similar to the way Granddaddy used to roll a cigarette in a single slick movement with just one hand. Grandmother baked her biscuits in a round metal pan (a 9-inch cake pan, if I recall correctly) that she had greased with the same corn oil she added to the dough, setting the raw biscuits right next to each other so their sides would be soft and tender when they were done.

The one detail I don’t recall is the oven temperature. I remember her telling me the oven had to be ‘hot-hot-hot’ for the biscuits to rise well, and all the biscuit recipes I’ve ever used call for a 450 º F temperature, so that is my best guess. Apparently it’s a good guess, because after 14 minutes I had soft biscuits that were gently golden on top.

Grandmother always disliked butter, a legacy of being the youngest girl in her family and therefore being stuck with the responsibility of churning the butter every week until she left home to get married. As soon as she could afford it, she started buying margarine and that’s what I remember at her house, what I always had on those biscuits she baked. But I prefer butter and I even enjoy churning it, never having had that job imposed on me by someone else. So I’m serving these biscuits with butter; I think Grandmother would understand. I even had one for dessert, drizzled with honey (I’m fresh out of the kind of cane syrup they always had on the farm, made from the sugar cane they grew on the land – the closest facsimile that’s available around here in north Georgia is sorghum).

Next time, I'll make my great-grandmother's cornbread, as I explained in the previous post. I hope it goes as well as the biscuits did.

Here’s to our grandmothers, and their grandmothers, all the way back in time to the first woman. May we be worthy of them, and may we always be grateful that it is their shoulders we stand upon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

My ancestors have a special place in my life. They provide a focal point for my shamanic practice and they give me a sense of purpose and direction. I know who I am because I understand who they are. The earliest religious traditions probably centered around the ancestors, those on whose shoulders we stand.

It is not necessary to have a good relationship with your living relatives or even to know who they are (adoptees, take note) in order to honor your ancestors. The people you come from live on within you, in your blood, in your bones. Your DNA is their DNA. In fact, your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA for short) traces back through the female line in your family to the ultimate grandmother of all your grandmothers. If you are a man, your Y chromosome does likewise for the grandfather of all your grandfathers. They live in you.

There are many different ways of honoring the ancestors, many varied traditions from around the world and across time. One of my personal favorites is the Ancestor Tree we put up every year for the winter holidays. On it we display photos of family members who are no longer living, along with one empty frame to represent the ones whose faces we will never know.

Ancestor Tree

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about two particular ancestors of mine, two women who had a major positive impact on my life: my maternal grandmother and her mother-in-law. Both of them have passed on but their legacy lives in me. In order to honor them, I am undertaking a project to re-create the breads the two of them made on a daily basis all their lives. The baking of fresh bread with every meal was a tradition in their households, and the particular types of bread these two women made represent, to me, who they were and how they lived in the world.

My Maternal Grandmother

My Maternal Grandmother

Noreen Crews might as well have been my mother; I spent much of my early childhood with her. She is the person from whom I learned my life values and the only one from whom I received unconditional love. She never thought of herself as a hero, but she was mine, and she had more strength in her 4-foot-10-inch frame than anyone ever guessed.

Every day of her life, Grandmother made biscuits. She never used a recipe, but simply poured the liquid ingredients into a big bowl of flour and mixed the dough up with her bare hands until it felt right. Then she pinched off the dough into biscuit-sized pieces, rolled each one in her palms until it was rounded and smooth, and plopped it into the pan.

I can’t count the number of times I watched her make those biscuits, but I never learned her method. I used the ‘citified’ recipe on the back of the baking powder can, cutting the solid shortening into the flour with a fork then adding measured amounts of the remaining ingredients. It’s high time I learned to do it her way, not just to ensure that this particular tradition doesn’t die out, but as a very tangible way of honoring her in my daily life.

My Great-Grandmother

My Great-Grandmother

Grandmother’s mother-in-law was a feisty little woman, more than a little eccentric. Family tradition has it that her waist measured 17 inches on her wedding day and I don’t doubt it – she was tiny all over. Among other oddities, she was rarely willing to go out of the house with a bare head. If she needed to run outside to pull a shirt off the clothesline and couldn’t find a hat close at hand, she would toss a handkerchief over the top of her head. I used to giggle at her, trotting around the yard with a piece of cloth draped over her gray hair, and she would offer me a handkerchief of my own to cover my head as well. I can't tell whether or not she has something, such as a small crocheted doily, pinned to her head in the photo above; if she does not, it's a rarity.

Like all the other women of her region and era, Grandma Crews baked cornbread on a regular basis. But her recipe was unique, more a method than a formula, and it generated a beautiful, golden-brown round pone with the most delectable thick crust I’ve ever eaten. She died when I was six and I often wish I had more time to spend with her. I still remember looking at her in the pink-satin-lined coffin as it sat on display in the front room of their farmhouse the day of her funeral. They had put her best hat on her and I knew she would be happy, since I also knew they would be carrying that coffin out of the house in a little while and she would want her head covered.

Over the next week or two I will do my best to recreate the biscuits and cornbread these two remarkable women made and I will share my adventures with you. In the meantime, you might allow your mind to trace back through your memories, to the foods the people in your life made. Do you have the recipe? Would it be meaningful for you to cook those foods yourself as a way of honoring those individuals and the gifts they gave you by being a part of your life? I wish you wonderful adventures of your own, and your ancestors’ blessings upon you.