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VOL. 44 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 10, 2020

Old skills revived for a strange new world

COVID-locked & bored? Try fermenting, open-fire cooking, breadmaking or curing

By Nicki Pendleton Wood

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Remember that first trip to a store after early March this year, when all the flour shelves were, shockingly, empty?

It was just a portent for dusting off or acquiring skills that many contemporary city-dwellers have left behind, or delegated to others. When the days are largely empty, and your “office” is 15 feet from the kitchen, why not try something new, or new to you?

Bread-baking, open-fire cooking, herbs, fermenting and curing: Meet four Nashvillians who revived or picked up a skill they admired.

Neil McCormick, who runs Tall Boy Marketing, and his family quarantined a month at home. Then McCormick and his wife packed the children (ages 5, 3 and 1) and decamped to his family’s farm in rural Arkansas, where the living is outdoors and the valuable junk is, too.

“Like most of rural America, everyone there is waiting for American Pickers to show up, so nobody gets rid of anything,’’ he says. “I found this huge metal pot – like 30 gallons – and I dug the pot out and flipped it over, and it’s one of those kinds that have a gatemark. A gatemark is how you tell the older ones, the collectible ones. It’s like a tab leftover [from where it was cut off at foundry].’’

He dragged the pot to the front yard.

“This being a farm, it has a ton of wood and trees that need to be trimmed. So I set about trimming trees and cutting wood into small pieces and burning it. That turned into having fire continually for two weeks. We sat around it at night with a fire grate. If a storm came through you had to build a good enough fire to make it through.”

McCormick had been an Instagram fan of an open-fire cooking account. He sorted his stash of wood into cedar and pine – the resin in them is great for starting and sustaining a fire but not great for cooking meat. His other pile was “cooking” wood of hickory and oak, mesquite and cherrywood.

The McCormicks had brought meat with them from friends in Castalian Springs, and there was an IGA in Ozark, Arkansas.

“My dad doesn’t eat meat – he’s an old hippie,’’ McCormick points out. “Anyway, though, he gets food from a really rural area of Arkansas where Walmart has a, like, it sends the excess produce to a big food bank.”

McCormick’s father brought back 10 bags of mixed sweet peppers, which McCormick chopped, wrapped in foil and set away from the fire. He was surprised that they turned into a sweet, roasty puree that was miraculous mixed with a little spaghetti sauce and tossed with pasta.

And that was how it went for two weeks: Meat from their stash and produce from Walmart went into the pot over the fire.

They moved back to Tennessee “just in time – the heat and humidity there get really swampy” – and brought home the idea of keeping a fire going for weeks.

“The next house I live in, if I don’t bring that pot from Arkansas, I’ll find one here to have a fire going for the summer. We can enjoy the fire, hang out, the kids can run around. The fire is like a central meeting place. It was the kitchen before everyone had a kitchen where the party always ended up.”

Interested? Check out local regulations before you get started.

An “operational permit” is required in Nashville “for the kindling or maintaining of an open fire or a fire on any public street, alley, road or other public or private ground. Instructions and stipulations of the permit shall be adhered to. Exception: Recreational fires.”

Software engineer ferments, cures

It’s been a productive time for Josh Mock, a software engineer, writer and show host on Nashville’s WXNA radio. Along with the usual jars and bottles of hot sauce and kombucha fermenting at his place, there’s gravlax/lox curing.

“I hadn’t ever cured meat before, because the prospect of food poisoning seems higher,’’ he explains. “But it was a pretty quick cure (a few days, not weeks or months) so I was willing to give it a shot.”

Software engineer Josh Mock's kombucha, passion fruit and elderflower

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

He was inspired by a gin-cured salmon he ate in Belfast that he calls “phenomenal.”

Mock had done “dry brining” with chicken and turkey before, “basically just covering them in salt for a day or two before cooking to maximize juiciness and flavor.” Lox, he says, is “just a step beyond that.”

The project went smoothly, using the recommendations of Bon Appetit’s Brad Leone for salt-to-sugar ratios, and the end product was delicious. “The only downside was that it goes bad within days, so I was eating a LOT of lox and bagels. The alternative was freezing the extra, but I didn’t have any freezer bags handy.

Also underway: Garlic-ginger paste fermentation. “Every time I burp the container it’s in, the whole kitchen fills with a delicious garlic smell.”

Next up, he says, will probably be “aging garlic cloves in honey, at my wife’s request.” Or tepache (a sweet, slightly fermented beverage served in Mexico), now that pineapple is in season.

“I already work remotely, but being more home-bound than normal has made it easy to run more experiments concurrently. So I’ll probably do both.”

Sourdough for weeks

Amanda Dillingham, a production manager, took up sourdough starter baking when her work schedule suddenly vanished.

“When all this started, it was scary because we had 13 different jobs scheduled for the next months,’’ she explains. “We got phone call after phone call canceling. At first we were like, ‘oh it’s no big deal,’ but then we realized that was all our business. With nothing to do, I just sit on the couch and procrastinate. My mind was wandering.”

Amanda Dillingham’s pretzels

-- Photo Provided

Dillingham had given her father a copy of “Artisan Breads Every Day” by Peter Reinhart some years ago. “I was talking to my dad, I said, ‘Maybe I should bake bread. Would you bring me the starter?’”

Dillingham had never baked bread before because the process, using starter, is three days. That was a feature, not a bug, for her now that her days were emptied.

“There’s a schedule to it, something I had to do every day instead of just sitting around. Especially the day before you bake it.”

She’s moved from using the original bread directions to experimenting. They tried pretzels, which were a disaster the first time and just OK the second time. Now they’ve notched up olive bread, red pepper and rosemary olive oil loaves.

Next, she wants to try a sweeter recipe. “I been gardening a lot, so maybe lavender honey loaves. Something like that. We have strawberries, so I might make jam.”

Mary L. Sullivan, bookbinder

Like many people with quaran-time on their hands, Mary L. Sullivan, a bookbinder (crowinghensbindery.com), cultivated a bread starter. Unlike other people, she named hers – “Shannon Dough-erty” – and used it in pancakes, rolls, crackers and brownies.

There was less to do as the pandemic wore on, and Sullivan began noticing and collecting wildflowers that grow in her sizable yard (a “yarden” as Leah Larabell of High Garden Tea calls it).

Mary L. Sullivan, a bookbinder by trade, has tried her hand at breadmaking and collecting and drying herbs.

-- Photograph Provided

From a workshop last summer, she learned a little from leather tanner and ethnobotany enthusiast Kelly Moody about making tinctures, salves and bitters. (To enter a whole world of handcrafting and culture, visit the robust blog and podcast www.ofsedgeandsalt.com).

“I don’t have background or working knowledge of making bitters, syrups or tinctures (concentrated herbal extracts), but Leah’s videos on Instagram (@highgardentea) identifying medicinal and edible plants in Tennessee yards, as well as Kelly’s experience in collecting herbs and making tinctures, salves and bitters, were my main inspiration,’’ Sullivan says.

Sullivan has collected herbs from the yard and dried them, for when she has a chance to experiment.

“I have a variety of plants and herbs in my yard and garden that I hope I’ll be able to experiment with in the coming months.

“I also have a small plot of flax that I planted before Nashville shut down that I’m hoping to harvest in the fall.

“Several of my fellow students from the workshop last summer also decided to experiment with growing flax this year in hopes of being able to come together after it’s harvested to help process it for spinning thread and cords. It’s a labor-intensive process that benefits from having a bunch of people to help.

“Once it is safe for us to come together again, I imagine we might make plans to have a reunion of sorts and work on our flax.”

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