by Joy Salyers
I took my children with me to the North Carolina Folklore Society meeting in Cullowhee, NC October 9 and 10. I was confident that we would encounter learning opportunities to rival a day of school. We drove first to the Musuem of the Cherokee Indian, where they got Jerry Wolfe’s autograph, sat riveted by the telling of traditional Cherokee legends, and fought over the camera to take their own photographs for their school reports. I bumped into fellow folklorist Barbara Duncan who happened to be walking through the exhibits, and she helped me tell the kids about how archival research helped the Warriors of AniKituhwa accurately revive 18th century Cherokee dances that had been lost.
Lt. Henry Timberlake, a British emissary on a diplomatic mission to the Cherokee, wrote in his Memoirs about the Welcome or War Dance and the Eagle Tail Dance that he saw performed in the fall of 1762 at the Cherokee capital of Chota. His written description helped the Warriors of AniKituhwa identify and locate a copy of songs for these dances that Cherokee artist, elder, and community scholar Will West Long had recorded on wax cylinders in the 1920s. Combining this lost historical information with retained traditional knowledge, the Warriors of AniKituha were able to revive the War Dance and Eagle Tail Dance.
But even before we got to Cherokee, we stopped just west of Maggie Valley at Soco Crafts. You’ve probably noticed it if you’ve ever driven Route 19, because its observation tower rises impressively into the sky, with a sign billing the spot as “the most photographed view in the Smokies.” I certainly made plenty of pictures on that beautiful day! Soco Crafts has been in business since 1947, but had the genius idea to move the former water tower structure from the town of Hazelwood in the late ’90s and create the observation platform, which costs 50 cents to climb. On our way back out to the car, we bought a bag of North Carolina grown apples, mostly Stayman Winesaps. We ate on them all weekend, and they were absolutely delicious.
Two apples remained when we returned home, a little bruised from their travels, and I knew that if I didn’t do something with them pretty quickly, I’d end up feeding them to the compost, which seemed a darn shame. By happenstance, I was also cleaning out my fridge and freezer, and came upon a few frozen pie crusts from the local co-op. I didn’t think two apples — even big ones — were enough to make a pie. So I punted.
I sat the pie crusts on the counter to thaw. After cutting out the bruises, I cored and sliced the apples and then chopped the slices up some. I sprinkled the cut apples liberally with lemon juice, then with sugar. ( probably only used a 1/4 cup of sugar; I tend to think most desserts are way too sweet, and I would rather have the tartness of the fruit come through.) After adding a big old handful of raisins and another of finely chopped pecans, I sprinkled a little ginger, less cloves, and more cinnamon over it all, added about 1 1/2 Tablespoons of flour, and stirred it all up.
Once the crusts were pliable, I laid one out on a piece of parchment paper and mushed any cut places back together with my fingers. I spooned a third of the apple mixture onto one side of the crust, drizzled a spoonful of dark molasses over it, and dotted it with small chunks of butter. Then I folded the other half of the crust over it, crimped the edges, and laid it into a cast iron skillet. (I didn’t grease the skillet, and I didn’t punch holes in the crust because it already had vents from where the crust had torn a bit in storage.)
I had enough filling for three of these impromptu turnovers, two of which fit into my skillet at a time. I cooked each batch at 425 degrees for about half an hour. Here are they before and after cooking.
Now, I could try to point to all kinds of traditional foods as the heritage for this dish, from cast iron baking to my grandmother’s fried apple pies, but the truth is I’ve never made anything quite that way before, or even seen it made. But in my family, making do with what you have is itself a strong food tradition.
A friend of my father’s once excused her poor cooking skills by saying that her family was so poor they just ate whatever her mother shot out the back door. My sisters and I never understood what those circumstances had to do with the quality of the cooking! Both our grandmothers and our mother cooked amazing meals from whatever happened to be at hand, whether ground hog, leftovers, or whatever needed to be used before it went bad. Just the other day a delicious smell started arising from my mother’s oven. “What’re you making?” I asked. “Oh, it’s an experiment,” she replied.
So I’d say my little apple experiment falls squarely into the tradition of “makin’ do” — one I’m sure many of our readers also know well. Another aspect of food makin’ do is fixing cooking mistakes, because we didn’t have enough money to afford to throw them out. When I was a teenager I tried to make apple bars and they broke all to pieces when I tried to turn them out of the pan onto a wire rack to cool. My mother helped me break the pieces up a little more, put them in a deeper glass baking pan, mix together some more ingredients to pour over it all, and bake it again. They were some of the best dessert bars I’ve ever made. (Too bad I’ll never be able to replicate them!)
I’ve heard some horror stories about the unpleasant things people have eaten to make do; I am grateful to come from a family that counts it as one of its practiced arts. I will never match my mother’s skill – her engrained knowledge of how food works amazes me, and I still call her up to ask how to adjust a recipe when I don’t have all the ingredients it calls for or what she thinks will happen if I go through with a food experiment I have in mind. This time, though, I did right well on my own. These turnovers were so good, I didn’t even want to share!
Find a North Carolina apple orchard: http://www.orangepippin.com/orchards/united-states/north-carolina