recipe for groundhog cooked with spicebush

“This is a recipe that my Mother-in-law taught me how to cook ground hog.

Dress and cut it up. Put in pot, then bring to boil.* Break up spicewood branches, and put in pot with meat. Boil until the meat is tender. Remove; then salt and pepper; then roll in flour; put in 1/2 cup shortening, preferably bacon grease. Then put in oven and bake until it is brown.

Mrs. Ennis Ownby”

from Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1957.

*(“boil” is old-talk for simmer.)

correction: traditional uses of spicebush berries

The wife, who knows everything, of course knew a traditional use of spicebush berries that she’d told me once, but I’d clearly forgotten:

They are, apparently, dried, and used in place of allspice.

We have a pint set to drying, and will tell you how it goes.

spicebush-berry beer, autumn olive jelly

Spicebush berries—the reddest things on trees around here, at the moment—have a strong flavor—spicy, you might say—and my wife and I’ve been trying to figure out (intellectually, it ought to be said) for years how best to use them culinarily. There must be a traditional use for them, we imagine, but have never yet done the research to find it out. One reference in an old-timey Appalachian cookbook, I seem to recall, said something about using it to flavor groundhog. Fair enough, I thought, if the groundhog is gamey. Well, we’ve been making soda lately, and the wife says “how bout spicebush berry beer? (soda)” And I say, that sounds awful. I imagined it would be overly high pitched, kind of stomach turning even, and I said so, but she persisted and the stuff is gorgeous. Here is what she did:

Boil a handful or three of ripe red spicebush berries for a while in about a gallon of water, with a fair bit of sugar. Once your broth is strong enough, add some more sugar if it tastes like it wants it, remembering that some sugar will be lost in the fermentation to achieve carbonation. Strain all into a gallon jar or stockpot or crock. Next, optionally, add a small handful of raw spicebush berries—wife did this, but I think, in my opinion, she may have overdone it slightly. As always, I advise to err on the side of underdoing it. Next, put in something yeasty, ideally a cup of some other fermentation you have going. I often use my kombucha for this sort of thing. Next, cover it to keep flies out, stir it a few times a day until it gets bubbly, then put it in bottles and stick them in the refrigerator. Bottles left out in the warm for too long risk explosions.

Another wild berry ripe (just passing, really) we’ve been making much of this season is Autumn Olive. Its speckled, tannic, pink-red berries are my daughter’s favorite fruit, and they’re really very tasty. I’ve fermented them up in wine but they make it cloudy. But, they make an excellent jelly. Seems to have plenty of its own pectin. Interestingly, the juice you cook up out of the berries, rather than being that lovely pink, is grey-brown, but once you add sugar to it it goes grey-pink. Really pretty first rate. My first jelly, to be honest, and soon to be a family tradition.

making the yeast-home, and ginger beer

I’ve taken it upon myself in recent weeks to keep the air and all porous surfaces of my house saturated with diverse cultures of yeast. Without pitching anything laboratory-bred, I’ve been setting up the wild, ambient yeasts with a series of ongoing challenges—ferment this, with the vinegar bacteria already at work on it; ferment that, with the really high original gravity (lots and lots of sugar); ferment the other thing, boiled for an hour with the fine-chopped ginger-root. The result, I hope, is a native yeast-home diverse enough to effectively and creatively ferment about anything. Perhaps. For five years this is more or less what I’ve done, and it’s worked very well (though I still fear to test it on malt-based beer—soon, a one gallon batch), and the only difference now is that I’ve made it into a theory, and relating to it more like a personal relationship, or a life-long partnership, or quite-some cooking project.

That fine-chopped ginger-root, and cane sugar, and a little dark molasses, and some lemon juice (all measured without measuring, to taste and by necessity, as usual, as should you do if ye care to learn aught), is my first attempt at ginger-beer. It is a very young ferment. Once it’d cooled I pitched in it a cup of kombucha I had going as starter (yeast starter culture, more populous in active fermentations than even in the 24/7 fermentation-spewn air of my house). Maybe two days later, after stirring several times a day, a very thick, very viscous, very sharp with ginger and lemon foam formed—and I stirred it again, and tasted it, and the flavors were good, so I bottled it. I bottle such things in flip-top bottles, which I don’t bother to sanitize as these things will be refrigerator-stored and drunk within the next one-two weeks. Once in bottle, I leave at room temperature for another 6-24 hours to carbonate, then remove to refrigerator. Like my kombucha, I may do this constantly—I would for sure, except ginger is an exotic, and expensive, and just doesn’t make much sense, here. So, root beer. Birch beer. I need to find local abundant wild flavorants. Juniper berries, perhaps, which are nearing ripeness. Spice bush. Roots. Need roots.