• Posted by Karen Dill on May 26th, 2008, 11:22 AM

    Our two-story North Carolina farmhouse, built in the late 1800s, is rambling and rustic. We’ve lived here 25 years and I dubbed our decor “shabby chic” before it was popular. Our daughter, home from college, questions the “chic” part as she arranges a throw pillow over the stuffing leaking from a hole in the wingback chair facing the fireplace. We favor comfort over style, much to her chagrin.

    The dining room is haunted. We decided this soon after moving into the house—neither animal nor construction worker would linger after dark. It is this room that will be the setting for our dinner tonight. Although it is around the first of March, there is a distinct chill in the air. The candles are lit to hide the cobwebs on the ancient chandelier that dangles over the table. Fresh flowers, linen napkins, and the good china complete the scene and await our guests. The lace curtains flutter softly in a breeze created, perhaps, by spirits circling the room. I am giddy with anticipation of the coming evening.

    I love good food and its preparation. This is an inherited trait from a long line of Southern Appalachian women. Food is comfort, a form of self-expression, and a gift of love. When words fail (as they often do in this culture of hardscrabble survivors), food speaks volumes. I daydream about recipes and dinner menus and read cookbooks in our spooky old house at night as intensely as I would a good novel. Despite the simple cuisine of my childhood, I long for the exotic. I love to combine familiar tastes with touches of flavors from far-off places. A dinner gathering provides the perfect audience for this expression.

    Our guests consist of Thomas, our poet friend; Nan, a musician and writer; and the Kumars, a couple gifted in photography and music. I yearn to be an artist, a musician. I was downright envious of the pianist in the Southern Baptist church of my childhood who “played by ear.” Perhaps my craft is cooking “by ear.” I use no set recipes or formulas. I have an idea and go passionately from there. If Thomas and guests create from the heart, sans recipe, I cook from the soul, moving through the preparation of a meal as a conductor leads a symphony. I am lost in taste, texture, smell.

    When our guests arrive, my husband Tom and I greet them from our front porch, along with the traditional dog and cat and the not-so-traditional peacock who has taken residence in our yard. Sir Percival, Percy for short, welcomes guests with a bullying squawk. He is an arrogant bird and he’s taken to intimidating strangers as well as the pets, so we warn him that he could easily be tonight’s entrée. I’m thinking about peacock with pomegranate glaze as he struts away with an indignant bellow.

    The meal awaits. I had decided that a rustic theme would suit the ghosts of the dining room and would accommodate the freshest local foods in season. This meal will bid farewell to the spirits of winter and herald the arrival of spring. A native of western North Carolina, I cook with what I know and utilize what I grow. We begin with a salad of baby field greens, my salute to spring, combined with fresh strawberries, dried cranberries, a few slivers of red onion, and pecans sautéed with brown sugar and butter, topped with a tart strawberry vinaigrette. On the side of the salad, a medallion of local goat cheese, produced by our friends Jackie and David Palmer at Dark Cove Farms, that I’ve dipped in egg and bread crumbs and sautéed quickly in butter. The warm goat cheese melts with the tart salad dressing and strawberries. As we start the salad course, I take hot cheese biscuits from the oven. These are easy–combine self-rising flour (White Lily is my Southern mother’s choice) with heavy cream and shredded cheddar cheese and plop them on a baking sheet. A note of caution: Southern cooking is not for the faint of heart. Bacon grease, heavy cream, and butter are staples and, though used sparingly, are all found in my cooking.

    Tonight, I’ve chosen pork, sweet potatoes, and kale as the main dishes. These were plentiful in my childhood and, to this day, signify the return of cold weather for me. Spring is around the corner but mountain weather is fickle and I welcome an occasion to revisit those dishes. They were “comfort foods” long before we knew what to call them. My husband Tom had grilled the pork tenderloin over charcoal and hickory chips earlier in the evening and I basted the pork as cooked with a raspberry chipotle sauce that has a distinct kick. I let the pork rest on a bed of apple and Asian pear slices that were sautéed in butter with sprinkles of brown sugar, cinnamon, and ginger. When the pork is served, I’ll drizzle the raspberry chipotle sauce over the apple mixture and pork medallions, throwing a few fresh raspberries into the mix. The sauce is too spicy for some but I pass a bowl around the table anyway. I notice Thomas covering the meat generously and am glad I’ve provided plenty of white wine and local ales. I particularly enjoy the Highland ales and Biltmore Estate white wines, both from nearby Asheville. Our sparkling water is straight from the old well below our house.

    The sweet potatoes are mashed with butter and heavy cream (I warned you!) and drizzled with a bit of local honey. The kale has been blanched, then chopped and thrown into a frying pan that I have used to cook several bacon and onion slices. I add sugar, apple cider vinegar, and some red pepper flakes, and top the greens with bits of bacon and cooked onion. I serve corn muffins and the cheese biscuits with the entrée. Pork and greens simply require cornbread. I had added chopped onion, some leftover corn kernels from Thomas’ garden, a variety of chopped bell peppers, and a couple of jalapeños to the cornbread batter.

    We eat slowly, savoring the flavors and the company. Conversation flows as I enjoy another local ale. We talk easily, as friends do who enjoy good food and agree on a number of topics. We lament the dismal administration in Washington, share our fears of losing our beautiful mountains to the wealthy from Atlanta, and share stories of childhood, travel, and of course, food.

    Dessert is simple. I had made a fresh apple cake earlier in the week after work that I could probably make in my sleep. It is an old family recipe that utilizes local apples and black walnuts. My ancestors would roll over in their graves if any other nuts were substituted for the black walnuts. I’ve saved some from our walnut tree, shelled tediously in the warm autumn sun. I will share the recipe, but just promise to use black walnuts. We sip coffee and tea and enjoy the winding down of the evening. We are quiet, reflective as the candles flicker and the lace curtains flutter in the soft breeze that appears from nowhere. The ghosts are apparently content with us. The house settles quietly into night. Percy is mercifully quiet, roosting in the magnolia tree outside the window. Perhaps he is dreaming of his elusive peahen or perhaps he is smug in the knowledge that he has been spared being our dinner entrée.

    Karen Dill lives in Webster, North Carolina, which is located in the Smoky Mountains near the town of Sylva.

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