cornbreadI’ll start out by saying that I am thankful that there will be a nice crowd around our Thanksgiving table, and enough of them are cooks that the burden pleasure of preparing the big meal is shared. Henry will roast the turkey, Mary Ellen and Carl are bringing green beans from their garden, Anna is making her favorite mac-n-cheese, Rachel is doing a cranberry dish (presumably while Nathan, the new Daddy, entertains Olivia), and Jan, Dan and Amanda are bringing dessert.

I am preparing my two favorite dishes, the sweet potato casserole and the cornbread dressing.  Both of these are long-standing traditions on our Thanksgiving table, going back decades, to when my mother was the chief cook and provider of the holiday feasts.  As we grew into adults, my sister Gwen and I took on some of the cooking tasks, first under Mom’s supervision and later going out on our own.

For this year’s Thanksgiving, I started a day ahead making the dressing with Mom’s instructions in my memory: “Start with a pan of cornbread.” Mom’s cornbread recipe was merely a list of ingredients that, when put together in the right order, usually turned into warm, crumbly bread with a satisfying crunch around the edge. It took me several years to get the proportions and the timing just right.

The cornbread

Set the oven to 450 degrees. Pour about a quarter cup of canola oil into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and put it in the oven while it’s heating. Meanwhile, mix 2 cups of self-rising cornmeal – Martha White with Hot-Rize was Mom’s favorite — a pinch of sugar, 1 egg, and enough buttermilk to make a nice batter. When the oven and the oil and the skillet are hot, pour the oil into the batter; it should sizzle when you pour it on. Mix the oil in quickly and pour the batter back into the hot skillet, put the skillet back in the oven and bake until the top of the bread is golden brown, about 20 minutes.)

dressingThe dressing

The dressing itself is also one of those recipes that Mom assembled from a list of ingredients put together by guesswork, but somehow it always worked out. Here’s my adaptation of her cornbread dressing.

Gather the ingredients: That pan of cornbread, a medium onion,  2 or 3 stalks of celery, about a half-stick of butter, chicken broth, fresh sage, rosemary, parsley and thyme, all finely minced,  1 egg, salt and pepper. Break the cornbread into small pieces into the bowl of a stand mixer and pour in enough chicken broth to begin to soften it, but not so much that it becomes soupy. Melt the butter in an iron skillet and saute the onion and celery until they are tender. Add the vegetables, along with the egg, to the cornbread and broth in the mixer bowl, and mix it until it is the consistency of thick batter.  Now begin to add the herbs, about a tablespoon at a time, tasting as you go, until the mixture tastes like you think it should. (I tend to go light on the sage, mainly because Mom always said she didn’t like sage, and a little heavier on the parsley and rosemary.) Once you have the herbs balanced to your liking, add salt and pepper to taste, pour the mixture into a baking pan, and bake until it’s firm, but not dry, 30 – 40 minutes.

In truth, this recipe has improved over the years. I grew up in a kitchen that included McCormick’s Poultry Seasoning from that small tin can as a key ingredient in the Thanksgiving dressing, and I give credit to Mary Ellen, my sister-in-law, for reminding me years ago that fresh herbs taste better.  I’m thankful that I’m able to have those herbs growing out back, just a few steps away from the kitchen door.

That’s just one of the many, many things, small and large, that I’m grateful for as our families prepare to gather today for a Thanksgiving feast. I miss my mother, but I’m thankful for this cornbread, and this dressing, our time on this earth together and the memory of the many Thanksgiving dinners our family shared.

Freeze warning

The National Weather Service has issued a freeze warning for Middle Tennessee tonight. Temperatures are expected to drop to the low 30s in some areas, and that likely means the end for the “sensitive vegetation” that’s still blooming out there right now.

freeze toadlilyThe toad lilies, which bloom so well in the cool fall shade.

Those floppy mums growing over a short wall and up through the chicken wire cloches.

freeze marigoldsvaseThe armful of orange marigolds I cut and brought home from Farm in the City…

And the marigolds that grew so well in the garden out back…

freeze coleusThe volunteer coleus that somehow grew in the okra bed.

freeze rosesBedraggled roses leaning on the Great Wall.

freeze peppersThe ornamental peppers growing as volunteers in the herb bed.

All gone after tomorrow. It’s time to bring gardening endeavors indoors, where the geraniums, enjoying their winter perch in a sunny south-facing window, have finally started to bloom.freeze geraniums

3rd Largest Pecan Tree in the WorldForty years ago, Henry and I spent the weekend after our wedding at Natchez Trace State Park, near Wildersville, in West Tennessee. One memorable feature of that trip was finding what was called – and we’re almost positive about this – the World’s Largest Pecan Tree. As we recall, it grew by itself in a clearing alongside a winding road. We’d stood under its canopy to read the marker that announced its claim to fame, walked around the massive trunk, and looked up to marvel at its wondrous height and expansive breadth. It was, at the time, a very old tree, possibly held together in places with cables and cement. We were not surprised to learn later that the tree had been taken down.

Last weekend we visited the park again. It rained, so plans for biking in the park were nixed, and hikes were limited to short treks along the misty trails, but we found time to drive through the sprawling park in search of the Pecan Tree site, to see what, if anything, was left.

The tree is still part of the park’s history, and it’s mentioned in information about the area’s unique features – except now it’s always referred to as the 3rd Largest Pecan Tree in the World. There are still park signs that point the way to the site, and after a long, winding drive we turned onto Pecan Tree Road and pulled into the parking lot of a clipped lawn picnic area where the giant had stood.

watermelon vineThe tree, once majestic even its crippled state, is now reduced to a rotting stump. Inexplicably, on the day we visited, the remains were covered with an odd but somehow familiar plant, which we quickly identified as a watermelon vine scrambling over the stump. A concrete pedestal that had once held the marker still stands in front of the stump, sadly empty.

Back home, I tracked down bits of information that we couldn’t find at the park: the tree was probably cut down in 2008; it had, in fact, been held together for years by concrete and cable, according to a couple of accounts I found. It had been called The World’s Largest Pecan Tree at one time, its measurements recorded in 1973 by the American Forestry Association in its Register of Big Trees, but within a year of receiving that honor, larger pecan trees had been identified in Louisiana and Virginia.

Even in third place, it was an enormous tree. According to information I found here and here, in ’73, the American Forestry Association measured it at 106 feet tall, 136 feet in spread, and 18 feet 2 inches in circumference. Its shade was said to cover an acre of ground. A photo from about 1973 shows a very large, perfectly symmetrical, beautiful tree.

Now it’s just an enormous stump, one that somehow welcomes watermelon seeds to sprout and scramble within its crevices. Two young pecan trees have been planted a few feet behind the World’s 3rd Largest’s remains. Whether these trees will reach that great size some day, none of us will ever know, but they have something to aspire to.

Wild and strange

mushroomI’ve always remembered the warning: Do not eat any mushroom in the wild unless you’re absolutely sure you know it’s edible. To me, that means: Do not eat any mushroom in the wild. Ever. Period.

This is one of the garden-related areas where my knowledge is lacking, so when these big beauties popped up in the lawn a few days ago, my curiosity was piqued. I found the USDA’s Field Guide to Common Macrofungi in Eastern Forests and Their Ecosystem Functions online – an 84-page document with color images of mushrooms — and scrolled through to see if I could find the name of the fungi in our front yard.

The species in this book are not those typically growing in our region, but what I found made me wonder how mushrooms ever became the culinary delicacy that we know. There’s a mushroom called Destroying Angel, warned to be “Highly poisonous and often fatal” and in a family that, collectively, causes 95% of fatal mushroom poisonings. But then there’s the Morel, “One of the most sought-after edible mushrooms.” Later, the False Morel: “Poisonous; fumes while boiling this fungus can be toxic.” And if that doesn’t scare you enough, there this note: “This fungus is reported to produce the compound mono methyl hydrazine, found in rocket fuel.”

There are Inky Caps, noted as edible, but followed by the information that this and related species contain coprine, “a toxin that interacts with alcohol when ingested and causes severe nausea.”

Between the “Choice” and “Highly poisonous” on the edibility scale are dozens of species described as “Inedible” or “Not recommended” or “Edible when young,” “Good,” or “Good when fresh.”

In those 84 pages, I didn’t find anything that resembles the mushrooms in our front yard, which appeared in the area where a Bradford pear tree was removed a few years ago. I’m sure it’s a common species, but I won’t be harvesting them for dinner.

Have you seen this mushroom in your lawn? Do you know its name?

anemone equinox

The Japanese anemone begins to bloom as summer turns to fall.

Two days before my mother’s funeral in April, our son Nathan and daughter-in-law Rachel made an announcement: Henry and I were about to become grandparents! It was the best thing we could have heard at that time, and it lifted us out of the depths of overwhelming grief. The baby would be due early in October, they said.

This week, we learned that the Universe had a different plan. Rachel went into the hospital on Sept. 23, the first day of Fall, and gave birth to our first grandchild, Olivia, that afternoon. It was also a day to remember my mother; Sept. 23 would have been her 93rd birthday. (There are some in the family who believe that my mother had a hand in this!)

Welcome, Olivia. We celebrate this new joy in our lives!

Olivia, ready for her first car ride, going home.

Olivia, ready for her first car ride, going home.

After the baby announcement in  April, my poet–friend Kory Wells asked how I was reacting to the news of becoming a grandmother. “I know now that it’s possible to hold great sorrow and great joy at the same time,” I said, “and they don’t necessarily cancel each other out.”

Three months later, I was honored to hear those words echoed in Kory’s poem, “In Praise of Our Numbered Days,” at a bookstore reading. With her permission, I’ll share an excerpt:


Food tastes better at the campfire.  

We warm our hands, our backs    

chill. This reminds us of happiness,

one turn, the warmth gone. How often    

is the forecast wrong? Clearing skies portend  

colder ground beneath our tent tonight.    


For all we’ve packed and planned,  

life’s more paradox than perfection.  

You tell me it’s possible to hold  


at once great sorrow and joy,  

that one does not cancel the other  

on some cosmic ledger. …

On this equinox, we celebrated a beautiful new life, and remembered a long life well-lived.

Late summer

Ornamental pepper

Tiny flowers peek out from under the leaves of the ornamental pepper.

By late summer, everything in the back garden — the vegetables, the flowers, the gardener — is worn out. The heat has taken a toll on all of us. Now, after a month-long break, it’s time to venture out back with a camera to try to find what, if anything, still lives. Today is still warm and hazy, but slightly cooler September days and nights are helping things spring back to life.

late salvia

A little patch of salvia that came up from last year’s seeds is thriving.

Marigolds… And more marigolds.


The okra keeps blooming, no matter what.

Snapdragons… And a lone daisy.

Rogue blooms: Self-seeded amaranth pushes out from under a patch of mums; celosia has the audacity to grow up through the gravel path.

late anemone

And here’s Japanese anemone, that aggressive but still appreciated late-summer staple, about to burst into full bloom.

Beach reading

Butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) growing on the Florida gulf coast.

Vacation at a Gulf of Mexico beach is a great chance for a gardener from Middle Tennessee to see a range of tropical horticultural wonders — as in, “I wonder what that flower is.”

Browsing at Sundog Books in Seaside yesterday, I came across Florida Trees and Wildflowers, a pocket-size, laminated, fold- out guide that makes it easy to ID some of the most common roadside wildflowers. This morning, I set out from our rented house on Grayton Beach to take pictures and put names to some of what’s blooming at the beach right now.

Slender dayflower (commelia erecta). Flowers have two large petals above and one tiny white one

IMG_1520Partridge pea (Cassia chamaecrista). Flowers have brown centers.

Looks like black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta) but the leaves are not the same.


Blazing star (Liatris spicata), has long spikes of feathery flowers.

Not everything is in the guide. Here’s one that’s still a mystery to me.

Tropical flowers and foliage grow alongside more familiar wildflowers. It’s good to have a guide.


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