Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lemon Delight in Big Stone Gap

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the 41st Annual John Fox Jr. Literary Festival in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. John Fox Jr. was a turn-of-the-century (last one before this one) bestselling author; his best-remembered novels are The Kentuckians and Trail of the Lonesome Pine. I googled John this morning and learned that while he was born in Kentucky, he was the son of wealthy mine owners, and he not only graduated from Harvard but fought with Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders before settling down in Big Stone Gap to write.

Big Stone Gap is also the title of Adriana Trigiani's first novel, set there where she grew up. So it's got a pretty good writing history for a small Appalachian town stuck deep in the middle of nowhere. (One of the women at the festival told me, "No one goes to Big Stone Gap by accident.")

It was a pretty drive from Bristol, though it would be even lovelier if the trees on the mountains had leaves. I left home early, mostly because I was ready to go and didn't know what else to do with myself, and that turned out to be a good thing: I forgot how on these curvy mountain state highways the speed limits are along the lines of double-dog dares. It saves money policing when everyone who exceeds the speed limit just flies right off the edge of the road.

The festival was fun. My talk went well and I enjoyed the people I met. Afterwards the organizers and some of the writing contest winners and I had lunch in the John Fox Jr. House, where John Fox Jr. wrote. It's now a museum that reminded me very much of the Gene Stratton Porter house in Indiana, which I visited when I was small. (Leave a comment with your favorite GSP book, if you have one.) A group of museum volunteers cooked and served lunch, which was a fancy chicken breast with spinach and bacon, seven-layer salad, and homemade rolls, plus strawberries over angel food cake for dessert. I haven't had a good seven-layer salad in a long time, and I don't know what the secret women from this part of the country have about rolls--I've tried and tried to make good homemade rolls and I never can, but every mountain cook above a certain age is ace at it.

I sincerely complimented the food, while eating all of it, and told the others at my table that while I enjoyed cooking I felt that lately I'd fallen into a recipe rut,  an "if this is Thursday it must be pork chops," kind of thing. The conference organizer immediately made me a present of the cookbook put out by the ladies of the John Fox Jr. House--it's a lovely volume. I was thumbing through it, quite pleased, and one of the museum ladies was pointing out the chicken with spinach and bacon recipe, when I stumbled across another recipe, and gasped.

"Lemon delight!" I said. I scanned the ingredients and directions. The very same.

"Yes," the conference organizer said. "It's wonderful. I nearly ordered it for our lunch today."

"My mother makes it," I said. "When I was little it was her go-to dessert for bridge night." A layer of nutty shortbread, baked in the oven. After that a layer of slightly sweetened cream cheese. Then thick lemon pudding, then whipped cream. The day after bridge night I ate a piece of the leftovers for breakfast. I always did it in layers, first skimming off the whipped cream, trying to remove as much of it as I could without dipping into the lemon layer. Then the lemon layer, again trying not to nick the layer of cream cheese. Then I ate the bottom layers together.

I don't think I've had lemon delight for thirty years. When my mother makes dessert for family occasions she goes with carrot cake or apple pie, the favorites of my husband and children.

I did not expect it, yesterday, to be sitting in an old cabin in the Appalachian mountains and feel so entirely as though I were back in my childhood home.