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“I’m sorry about the cornbread,” Ruthie said in her deep Southern accent, placing a basket of steamy bread on the table. “My stuff hasn’t come from home yet.” By “stuff” she meant the particular brand of cornmeal that cannot be found on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where Ruthie has, for the past 17 summers, cooked and cared for my mother.
My mother, actress Patricia Neal, changed both her accent and her palate when she left Kentucky for Hollywood in 1945 at the age of 19. But she’d grown up on Southern fare, and with the introduction of Ruthie into her life, came to love it again.
I first encountered Ruthie Parks nearly 18 years ago while visiting my in-laws in a small town in southern Georgia. A 40-year-old single mother (her son was already 21), she was the cook at a small restaurant called The Country Corner. After polishing off my plate of delicious soul food, I — almost jokingly — offered her a job cooking and keeping house for my mother on Martha’s Vineyard.
She accepted on the spot. In no time, it seemed, she boarded a northbound bus, leaving her family and the state of Georgia for the first time. Since then Ruthie has spent six of the summer months of the year on the Vineyard and the others back at her home in Georgia.
In my mother’s house, Ruthie is the boss. She exudes an extraordinary sense of strength and wisdom that has earned the respect of our family, friends and even people in the little preppy town. When Ruthie walks down the street, people yell from their cars, “Hello Ruthie.” She waves back and recently confessed to me, “I holler right back at them. I don’t know who some of them is, but I still wave.” And then she bends over, as she always does when she laughs, then she comes back up and finishes the chuckle with a “Ummm-humm.”
Ruthie is simply a master of Southern cooking. She has, I’m certain, never even glimpsed at a cookbook. If you were to ask her how she became so skilled she’d reply, “Everything I knows, I learned from Mama.” And she knows how to cook.
Ruthie doesn’t fry her chicken in a deep fryer. She puts about three inches of oil in a skillet and tends to the pieces continuously. She likes the wings, and it is an unspoken rule that we always leave the wings for the cook.
She peels her potatoes with a small paring knife, cuts them in to uniform size chunks and after boiling, mashes them by hand, first with a fork and finishing with a hand whisk after adding the perfect amount of butter, cream salt and pepper.
Spare ribs are slow-boiled before slowly cooking them in the oven, covered with her homemade BBQ sauce. Pork chops are pounded until thin and then fried to crispy perfection.
Ruthie uses salt pork in all of her greens. The furthest Ruthie will stray from collard, mustard and turnip greens are green beans. Other than those, she will touch no other vegetables except an artichoke. Why an artichoke? Because my mother insisted that she try it, and she loved it, I suspect because the tender leaves were drenched in salty butter.
The healing power of Ruthie’s Southern cooking
There’s an undeniable “Driving Miss Daisy” aspect to her and my mother. The two women are great friends and know every secret and detail of each other’s life. They often squabble, which inevitably ends with Ruthie tutting and making clucking noises as she wipes down the kitchen counters, and my mother announcing to herself that, “Ruth doesn’t love me,” to which Ruthie always replies, “You know I do.”
In February of this year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She spent two months in the hospital in Los Angeles, where I live, and I watched her become very weak, her appetite and energy nearly gone. All she wanted to do was to get home to Martha’s Vineyard. I called Ruthie to ask whether she could come early this year. Knowing Mum was very ill, she said, “I’ll be on the next bus,” and she was. (Ruthie is terrified of flying.)
When I arrived with my mother a week or so later, I explained to Ruthie that Mum wasn’t eating much and seemed to have lost interest in food altogether.
Ruthie began to cook. First the cornbread, my mother’s favorite. Then fried chicken. Pork chops. Spare ribs. Mashed potatoes. Greens. Baked beans. Sausage patties. Bacon. Biscuits and gravy.
To my amazement, my mother began to eat. She got stronger with every day and every meal. For a few days after the trip back east, my mother rested in bed, but she always got up for all of her meals. She knew Ruthie had been cooking for hours, and I think just the smell of all that good cooking gave her something to look forward to throughout the day. Ruthie would set the table as if for the queen.
That was two months ago. I just went back to visit my mother and I couldn’t believe it. My mother was as she was before her diagnosis. She and Ruthie are bickering and laughing. My mother is up, walking about, living her life. Her cancer is still there, and she has opted not to have any treatment, because her quality of life is just perfect for her, just the way it is.
“Ruthie,” I said, “It’s amazing!” she just looked at me wistfully and said, “Umm-humm.”
Then she picked up the car keys and said, “I’m going to the post office to see if more of my stuff has arrived.”
Photo: Ruthie Parks. Credit: Lucy Dahl
My father, Roald Dahl, was a great lover of oysters. “Treats!” he would announce when he returned from The Harrods Food Hall after a trip to London. Unlike these days, when oysters are plentiful and available, when I was a child growing up in England, the rare oyster was encountered only in the most prestigious French restaurants or at the magnificent Food Halls of Harrods. So despite their slimy and unattractive appearance, the rarity and expense of oysters made them a treat, even to a young girl like me.
I will never forget the evening Dad brought home a bushel of oysters and invited his sisters, Asta, Else and Alf, to share in the rare feast out at our rambling farmhouse in the Chiltern Hills in southwest England. My cozy Norwegian aunts often would drive from their homes in neighboring villages and, after much food and laughter, leave well-fed and “watered.” At the end of an evening, my sisters, brother and parents would walk the aunts out to their cars. We would wave goodbye as their little cars sped down our country lane and then as always, my father would announce, “There they go, sloshed as usual!”
When we were young, my father and his sisters would speak in Norwegian if the conversation became inappropriate. But on the night of the oyster dinner, as the topic turned to the mollusk’s aphrodisiacal power, they continued in English. I was about 9 years old, and I was riveted.
That evening, I learned that according to folklore, Casanova ate several raw oysters to prepare himself for an evening’s encounter in his lover’s bedchamber. Don Juan, they said, practiced the same regimen. (My father, later known to have a penchant for beautiful women, probably did too.)
Scientists agree that the oyster boosts a man’s sex drive, but argue that it is the high level of zinc that raises the testosterone in the body — not any physical resemblance to a woman’s “lips.” I think it is probably a little bit of both.
Oysters on Orcas
Oysters are notably less rare where I spend much of my adulthood — on Orcas Island in Washington. Just outside of our small town is a beautiful little cove, and at low tide, I often admired the carefully placed sticks, strings hanging between them, with the shells growing from the strings. It never looked like much of an oyster farm, and therefore I did not succumb to the temptation of harvesting any for myself.
That is, until I stumbled upon a secret treasure trove.
We were at the cove, also known as Crescent Beach. My husband was foraging for driftwood and, finding myself uninterested in his quest, I wandered out in my Wellington boots, beyond the dry sand toward some unusual shadows far out. Due to the particularly low tide, I was able to explore further out than usual. As I got closer, I began to make out the mystery object: a secret oyster bed, exposed by the very low tide.
Rows and rows of wire nets were filled with oysters of all different sizes. Some had spilled out and were growing outside their wire homes, clean and beautiful. I felt as if I had stumbled onto Aphrodite’s jewelry box.
I have since learned that these wire-netting sacks protect against predators, such as crabs and birds. The oysters thrive for about two years in these nets, growing from seed to adult without tending.
A single oyster filters 60 to 80 gallons of water a day. Oysters have recently been planted in the Chesapeake Bay to clean up its notoriously polluted water. They are a fascinating and powerful stimulant to our environment — and as I learned the other night, after my husband and I feasted on the fresh, ice cold, salty delicacies, they do the same for a marriage!
Photos, from top:
Oysters for sale in a French market. Credit: Norbert Bieberstein
Low tide exposed the vast oyster farm off Orcas Island. Credit: Lucy Dahl
I have just spent a magical weekend at my home on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands chain in Washington. Whenever I am on the island, I always go to Coffelt’s Farm to buy locally raised, grass-fed meat at the little stand on the farm.
Coffelt’s Farm is 180 beautiful acres of meadows and pastures, nestled among willow trees and ponds. The farm has been run, virtually single-handedly, by Sidney and Vern Coffelt for the past 40 years. Although sheep are their primary livestock, they also breed cows and chickens. All the animals are born, bred and slaughtered on the pretty little farm. The slaughter, I know, takes away the dreamy visual that I have just described, but I can assure you, it is the only bad day these animals have.
There are two animals, however, who have never had a bad day: Coopworth and Tex.
Coopworth and Tex are the ram studs. They were born on the farm with good looks and good fortune. A good ram, Sidney Coffelt tells me, “has a perfect length leg and a good robust rib cage.” Looking at Coopworth and Tex, there is no doubt they have both attributes.
Both rams are very good-natured and the best of friends. From about November to August, the lucky rams roam about the farm’s lovely pastures and meadows, or lie in the sun, or graze on the grass. They might wander over to children or visitors who happen to be hiking by their meadow and get a head rub.
Come summer, Tex, Coop and the other sheep are shorn. Their wool is either spun into yarn so Sidney can knit it into a hat, or sent off island to be made into a wonderful heavy organic comforter.
But eventually, as summer turns to early autumn, Tex and Coopworth have jobs to do.
The 60 or so ewes that have been born on Coffelt’s Farm are randomly split between two pastures. Coopworth and Tex are each assigned a field and will remain on the clock, round-the-clock, for the next six weeks. This ensures enough time for the ewes to have had two cycles, doubling their chance of impregnation. What must go through the mind of a randy old ram when he is suddenly placed, after 10 quiet months of bachelor life, in a field of ewes in heat?
Sidney tells me, with a chuckle, “The first few days are a little chaotic.”
I asked her whether the ewes get jealous of one another during the mating weeks. “Oh no,” she replied. “They are happy to just stand still and wait for the ram to come.”
“Right!” I thought.
I find myself wondering how the randy ram chooses which ewe to mount first. Could it be Sweet Pea, whose eyes are lined with a shadow that looks like mascara? Or would it be the most delicious smelling ewe? Or perhaps a fond memory from the previous year’s mount? Either way, Coopworth and Tex work their way through the herd of pretty ewes that patiently wait their turn. It all sounds very polite and civilized.
Five months later, most of the ewes are now “ladies in waiting” — the term Sidney Coffelt uses to refer to the sheep about to give birth. Lambing season changes things a bit on the farm. Usually, as you drive (abiding by the 5-mph limit) through the willows, down the windy lane past the pond, you pass pigs and chickens wandering around, but these days there are also baby lambs leaping about and suckling from their mothers.
Until my recent chat with Sidney, I believed that the lamb we eat at Easter were the lambs born in February. “Oh no!” she said with both horror and amusement. “These babies won’t be butchered for at least 5 months.”
I asked Sidney how long a sheep’s life span was. A simple question with three answers:
“A good ewe will breed for about six years.”
“The lambs are slaughtered at roughly 5-12 months.” Unless you are born with the lucky karma of Coopworth or Tex!
“But Sweet Pea, our favorite runt, she was a triplet. Well, she’ll live until she dies naturally, probably about 12 years.”
Sidney pauses, feeling me out, trying to decide whether I can handle the truth.
I guess I passed the test, because she added, “And then, like the others, we’ll probably eat her.”
Editor’s note: Corrections have been made to this story since it was originally posted clarifying that the lambs are slaughtered at 5 to 12 months of age rather than 18 months, as was originally reported.
Photo: At top, a sheep in the pasture of Coffelt’s Farm. Credit: Lucy Dahl
The day after Christmas I vowed to never again eat four courses of caviar, goose, Christmas pudding and Stilton cheese within a few hours. And yet, it was too late. For the following week there was a family wedding in England, which is something like a college reunion: one always hopes to look one’s best.
The beautiful wedding was to be in the New Forest district in Hampshire, southwest of London. I packed my best black dress, which is corseted and fit me perfectly, or at least, it did when I last wore it two years ago. The wedding reception was going to be held in a “Burlesque tent” shipped in from Budapest. I wasn’t exactly sure what that was, but felt that the black corseted theme of my dress would be a good fit with the setting.
The afternoon of the wedding ceremony, everything was perfect: There was snow outside and indigenous wild ponies milling about.
An hour before the ceremony, I stepped into the dress, but the zipper up my back seemed to be stuck! I asked my 21-year-old daughter to help.
“Mom, she said, it doesn’t fit.
“What? Of course it does! Try harder!” I had nothing else to wear. I brought this dress at great expense four years ago, and justified its price by telling myself that it would be my “black-tie dress” that would carry me through my 40s for the next 10 years. I had outgrown my evening gown from my 30s and was happy to move in to something as beautiful but more sophisticated and age appropriate.”
Spanx!” my 19-year-old daughter suggested, and appeared with a pair of what looked like a modern, lightweight version of my mother’s girdle with stockings attached. This proved to be an excellent idea. I pulled and stretched and squished and squeezed into this exceedingly tight garment, commenting that no man or lover should ever see his or her partner execute the donning of these torturous body shapers. It took a while, but eventually every inch of my body from my hips to my breasts was squashed first in to the exceedingly tight Spanx, then the even tighter corset of the dress.
“You look magnificent!”
“Thank you.” I replied, hardly able to breathe, realizing I would certainly have to bypass dinner.
I sat painfully upright through the beautiful candlelit ceremony, remembering something I’d read years ago in a magazine : After the age of 30, women gain a pound a year. I wished I had taken heed to this information and planned accordingly. I had managed an accurate estimate for the lifespan of my 30s dress. But having outgrown its successor in only four years into my 40s was depressing. Three glasses of Champagne and a good glass of white Burgundy dulled the pain of the corset; I completely forgot about the device restraining my bulging trunk.
After the service, guests filed into the huge Burlesque tent for dinner. The guests were awed at this stunning room, with wooden floors; vibrant, colorful fabrics; and wooden tent poles carved with small, chubby, smiling naked people in the most extraordinary acts of Kama Sutra.
Dinner was a feast. I greedily tucked into the smoked ham hock terrine, served in individual flip-top mason jars, with crispy lettuce and toast points. That was followed by roast chicken breast stuffed with truffles tucked underneath the crispy skin on a mountain of creamy mashed potatoes. Delicious wine flowed. I ventured without a thought on to the frozen berries floating in hot white chocolate sauce.
After dinner, the tent was abuzz with excitement. Wedding guests began to move to the dance hall. As I stood up to follow, I realized to my horror, that I could no longer move. I had stretched the Spanx to its absolute limit.
I waddled off to the ladies room – resenting the beautiful thin girls in their 20s I passed, giggling in their comfortable, flowing dresses. I closed the door to my stall and with great ambition, pulled off the Spanx in an act about as unglamorous and unsightly as getting them on. I reached under the corset and pulled as hard as I could to squeeze the elastic fabric out of the corset, which I knew once unzipped would never be zipped up again. The dress’ built-in corset held and I was back in the game. I threw the Spanx in the trash and trotted back to the party.
It was not until I was on the dance floor, that I remembered — to my horror — that my dress was designed with a split up the front that ended about two inches from the top of my bare legs and beyond. I had never worn the dress without underwear and tights, but now, without my all-in-one Spanx, I was bare from my shoes up!
I urgently asked my niece: “Do you have any underwear?” A silly question, as who carries black underwear in their purse to a wedding? She assured me that I would be fine, advising, “Just don’t do the can-can.” Easier said than done, as I traditionally lead a conga line at family events like weddings. As corny as it might sound, it is always a highlight of the evening.
As the evening progressed, I wisely declined the delicious chocolate wedding cake and switched to Champagne, which must have given me the courage to lead the conga line without one paranoid glimpse toward the split skirt of my dress.
And so the question I ask myself is this: Am I resolved to fighting this disagreeable pound-per-year from now to eternity? Even from now until my 50s dress? Will I forever view delicious foods and wines as a sin to be punished by the donning of Spanx?
No. I shall just buy a new dress.
Photos: Zipper, at top, iStockphoto; ponies and the author dancing, courtesy of Lucy Dahl.
Our Santa was different from the others, because he was an Epicurean.
“Let’s leave him a treat!” my father, writer Roald Dahl, would say as he placed a little tin of Beluga and a glass of vodka on a bowl of ice. “He’ll like this.”
“But Daddy, Father Christmas likes cookies and milk,” I would protest on Santa’s behalf.
“Rubbish,” my father replied. “This is the stuff he likes.”
How I tried to stay awake, to see this jolly fellow filling my stocking at the end of my bed. Inevitably, I drifted off and woke up Christmas morning to find my stocking stuffed and a note from Santa himself. The notes, year after year, read something like, “Thank you for the delicious treats. My bossy wife never lets me touch the stuff, so it was especially good.”
And then came the Christmas morning I shall never forget. The caviar tin was empty, as was the vodka glass — and so was my stocking! I ran into my parents’ bedroom, clutching my empty stocking, shrieking, “Mummy! Daddy! Father Christmas didn’t come!”
My mother opened one hung-over eye and said three words that changed everything: “Shit. We forgot.”
Sometimes Santa left us kids a poem instead of a note, but there was always a reference to his wife who, as we all know, works very hard preparing Christmas (which is certainly true in my household of seven children). Some years later, after we were grown, I’m sure he still felt the same, as he wrote a Christmas poem for a charity auction, which sold privately, and therefore never published.
Where art thou, Mother Christmas?
I only wish I knew
Why Father should get all the praise
And no-one mentions you.
I’ll bet you buy the presents
And wrap them large and small
While all the time that rotten swine
Pretends he’s done it all.
So Hail to Mother Christmas
Who shoulders all the work
And down with Father Christmas
That unmitigated jerk.
Family traditions linger. I too made sure Santa left a big fat stocking at the end of my children’s beds, and a note — and thankfully never forgot. Now the children are older and no longer expect Santa to pop down our chimney; however, other family traditions continue. While the Christmas goose is in the oven, we all gather around the kitchen table and greedily pile our spoons with caviar and sip ice cold vodka.
I was 5when my father, Roald Dahl, wrote the story about “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” who would help himself to the chickens, geese, ducks and cider from three nearby farmers. At that age, you believe everything, and Mr. Fox was very real to me.
At the top of our lane was a large beech tree with a foxhole at its base. “That is where Mr. and Mrs. Fox live with their three children,” my father told me. I imagined them, as they had been illustrated in the book, sitting around a little table feasting on Farmer Boggis’ chickens while drinking Farmer Bean’s cider. “I’ll bet he’s going to Farmer Bunce’s farm tonight for a delicious goose. He’s a clever chap, Mr. Fox.”
In the story, one of Mr. Fox’s friends was a badger and during many summer nights, my father would take my sisters and brother and me up to the woods to wait for Mr. Badger to come out of his den on his way to feast with the Fox family. We knew where Badger’s hole was and would patiently wait with anticipation, which was always rewarded with a big slow nocturnal badger heading out of his hole and into the darkness of the woods.
“There he goes,” my father would whisper. “He’s off for a slap-up supper with the foxes and those nasty farmers don’t have a clue.” He’d chuckle, “Marvelous, absolutely marvelous.”
And that is, I suppose, how my moral compass as a child was developed. The animal my father admired so much was a food thief who, for the most part, never got caught.
It wasn’t many years later that I, like all English children of that class and time, was sent to boarding school in Hertfordshire. The school was called Abbot’s Hill, and it was cold and unpleasant, compared to my cozy life at home. Home was a rambling old Georgian farmhouse, filled with animals, food and love. Abbot’s Hill was a huge stone medieval castle filled with great friends but shadowed by the formidable Matron. Today she would be called a “house mother” – but Matron did not possess one ounce of anything maternal. She was mean and hated us all as much as we hated her.
About midnight one night, two friends and I crept down the spooky dark school corridors of the old castle. We crept into the usually locked kitchen and quickly stuffed packaged ice-cream sandwiches into our underwear to take back to our dorm-mates for a late-night feast.
As we bolted back through the darkness we were stopped short by Matron, who demanded to know what we were doing. We knew a complete confession of the heist would mean a severe punishment, so we mumbled something about going to the bathroom. Matron, with her years of experience with adolescent alibis, was not having it. We spent the next hour standing in Matron’s office. She calmly knitted, hiding her delight in watching us squirm as the ice cream slowly melted and dribbled down our legs. “You are a bunch of thieves,” she said, promising to call our parents in the morning.
We were suspended for three days. Our parents arrived before lunch to take us home — which to me was a treat!
“I’m not angry that you did it,” my father said on the drive home. “I’m angry because you got caught. If you’re going to do something fun, just make sure you’re clever about it.”
His unusual parental advice was not condoning thievery or dishonesty. He was simply saying that no matter how hungry you might be, always sniff more than once before you leave the foxhole. If you don’t, you might lose your tail — which is the moral of the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” tale.