Written by Vivian Howard | 11/20/2013
I’m often asked how the series, “A Chef’s Life,” came to be. Truthfully it’s a long, drawn-out story involving about 3,000 phone conversations and lots of miles driven between Durham and Deep Run. I won’t share with you all the logistics of the near nightmare but I will share the beginnings of my desire to document the food traditions of Eastern Carolina. It all started 4 years ago, exactly, in a shed in Pleasant Hill, NC. I was so moved by the experience I came home and wrote a blog about it all. Here it is....
Ben and I live in the tiny rural community of Pleasant Hill, North Carolina, which sits on the edge of Jones County, the least populated county in the state. Here, there are tobacco farms, volunteer fire departments, big gardens, and plenty of old-timers canning, pickling, and preserving. “Putting up” of late has become hip. Not to generalize, but for the most part people under the age of 50 preserve jams laced with chilies or can pickles spiked with unlikely spices. We practice some of this trendy preservation at Chef and the Farmer, and among some of the preserves we made this year were strawberry malbec jam and star anise okra pickles. Still most of the produce preservation done in this area is decidedly old-school. And as luck and constant pestering would have it, last week I got to participate in some old-fashioned “putting up.” Our neighbors, the Mills, have lived on Pleasant Hill Road for 4 generations. They own Pleasant Hill grocery, a country store with a grill serving biscuits my family has enjoyed for as long as I can remember. Each year in November the Mills gather at “Aunt Pat’s” to make collard kraut. I was first introduced to this preserve 4 years ago shortly after moving back here from NYC. It’s much like sauerkraut, but made with collards and not quite as pungent. Oddly enough I remember eating it piled on a crostini over creamed collards (Weird). However strange my concoction, I was so taken by the flavor and texture of the kraut, I asked permission to sit in on the next kraut session. Fast forward to the week before Thanksgiving 2010, just down the road from my own home, the Mills brothers, Pete, Van, Fred and a first cousin, Charles (aka Pee Wee) were already working in a shed out back. It was obvious this was not their first rodeo as they worked in smooth assembly with tools that had clearly been around the block a few times. First the collards were taken from a small pick-up load just outside the shed where Pete made quick work of trimming the root end from each bunch. Next Fred and Charles washed each collard bunch in two changes of water before dropping the bundles into a heavy-duty 50 gallon trash can. Once in the can, Van pounded the leaves down with a tool similar to the one Bam Bam carried around on the Flinstones, a very cool, authentic looking device capable of fetching big money at any roadside antique market. This action both served to pack down the leaves and to bruise them a little so as to speed along the fermentation. Intermittently the men sprinkled salt between the layers of leaves and finally filled the 50 gallon bin with water and weighed the whole thing down with smooth blocks of oak. Only oak will do as pine, hickory or other types of wood will impart an off flavor to the kraut.
Throughout the whole process the Mills men waxed on about the superstitions surrounding this dying art. First off, for proper kraut one must start with collards that have been subjected to a good frost. The collards the Mills use come from seed that has been in the family for over a hundred years, and the water they use to both wash the collards and fill the bin is well water from the family farm. But probably the most widespread belief is one concerning the proper time for making kraut. With respect to the Farmer’s Almanac, kraut should never be made in the bowels. What in the hell you might ask does that mean? Well it all has to do with the moon, the month, and the parts of the body associated with each moon phase. Kraut made during the phase of the moon below the belt and above the feet will not be “good.” I can personally vouch that this is no joke. After first tasting collard kraut, I haphazardly tried to make it here at the restaurant. The outcome was so stinky and rank, it took three guys to dispose of the evidence, and we eventually had to throw away the container. I had made it in the bowels.
The final step with the Mills that day was to cover the bin with a towel to keep out insects and other country stuff, leaving the collards, the salt and the well water to do its fermentation magic over the course of about three weeks. At that point the Mills will have preserved collards to enjoy and share all through the winter. This is what “putting up” was originally about, having something to eat when the ground is too cold to produce, storing up in times of plenty in preparation for periods of lean. Luckily there are a few people still observing these rituals even though the Piggly Wiggly sells collards year round. Maybe the Mills brothers will not be the last generation to make kraut in November on Pleasant Hill Road.
*The above was written in November, 2010. I have learned a lot about fermentation and writing since then, so the beliefs shared above are not necessarily what I would choose today.