Virginia Willis Blog

HOMECOMING: COTTON FIELDS AND GEORGIA ASPHALT

The landscape of fiery, brilliant bursts of ochre, red, and yellow on the rolling hills around Atlanta slowly morphed into evergreen, tall loblolly pine, gnarly small leaf oaks, and bobbled sweet gum trees as I drove South this week to teach in Savannah.

Unseasonally temperate, even for South Georgia, the thermometer in the corner of the  rearview mirror read in the mid 80s as I crossed the fall line, the geological boundary about twenty miles wide that runs slightly northeast from Columbus across the middle of  the state. I clipped along at a steady pace further South into coastal tidal area, the savannah. I drove across aging concrete bridges stamped with mid-century dates that traversed rivers with vowel-ridden Native American names: Oconee. Ocmulgee. Ogeechee. The black waterways were bordered with knobby, lacy cypress forest and bottomland swamps.

Contemplative about some recent events – and a bit anxious because I was running late to teach a class for my dear friend and colleague Damon Fowler at Kitchenware Outfitters in Savannah –  the scenery pulled me out of my thoughts. As the tires beat in rhythm on the seams of the concrete below, I consciously recognized how much I love my home state and took more than a moment to wonder in its absolute beauty.

It’s a 4 plus hour drive from Atlanta, and eventually, I arrived.  Getting out of the truck I rolled my shoulders and shook off my long drive. Damon, knowing “mid-afternoon” for me coming down from Atlanta is actually closer to 4:30 pm, already had most of the work completed. We chatted and finished the last bit of prep; it was lovely. Folks started arriving. I said hello to friendly familiar faces and met new students. It was smooth sailing, everyone had a good time and enjoyed my food and stories.  The class was really wonderful.

It never fails to amaze me how much I enjoy teaching cooking.

The morning after class, I headed north back home, but started thinking about the fact it’s pecan harvest time, so decided to veer a bit west into middle Georgia, before heading north to Atlanta. I thought picking up some new crop pecans would be well worth my diversion.

Soon I was immersed in the sounds, sights, and smells of my childhood. I took a stop near Hawkinsville – actually, passed a roadside stand, turned around and went back – for a bag of Boiled Peanuts from the Hardy Family, recent recipients of the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Windows cracked, the warm air whipped in as I slowed down from interstate driving to a more civilized pace. Relishing the salty, earthy peanuts, I negotiated the cracked asphalt through acres and acres, miles and miles of cotton. Alternating with the fields of cotton were pecan groves. The grey tree trunks stood solid as thin, bent and twisted branches reached towards the dusky sky. Butcher red dusty roads snaked between the fields and groves. A smile came to my face as I noticed the edge of the blacktop highway littered with puffs of cotton, like handfuls of snow. It’s mid-harvest still, so the rolling view was a combination of the familiar green and yellow  tractors pulling up the fields, dented red basket trailers full of picked cotton, and still, more breathtaking fields of brown, and whiter than white, bolls of cotton.

I was wrapped in the lifescape, the landscape of what I spent over half my life viewing. I found myself settling into my seat a bit softer. My grip on the wheel loosened. I felt the tension melt away from my shoulders. It seemed to flit out the window on the warm breeze. Bathed in a landscape of familiar autumn sights and colors, I realized I was feeling the enveloping, comforting emotion of coming home.

Odd thing is, I don’t live there anymore; I haven’t for over 25 years. Neither do Mama and Jona; they now live in Evans, Georgia near Augusta. I live in Atlanta. I know plenty that home is not always a simple concept. I’ve lived in over a dozen different places since I lived on a red dirt road on the edge of the “city” limits of Montezuma.  And, that agrarian beauty that was seducing me? I can guarantee I didn’t see a lick of that beauty when I was 16. I wanted to get far, far away from what I thought was pretty much the middle of nowhere.

I didn’t want to call nowhere home.

I’m older now. I now know home is a feeling. Home is a sense of place. Home is where you make it. Cliche as it may be, home is where the heart is.

Best wishes to you and your family in your home, wherever it may be, this Thanksgiving.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Mama’s Reading List
(Click on the links for over a DOZEN Thanksgiving Recipes!)

  • Need a non-turkey nibble for watching the game this weekend? Check out with Project Foodie has to say about my Curried Chicken Wings with Peach Dipping Sauce.
  • I hope you enjoy my piece about Roasting in this month’s Eating Well magazine. The spread is absolutely splendid. Basic to Brilliant, fish to fowl, I offer roasting recipes for the holidays, including a vegetarian Stuffed Roast Pumpkin.
  • The Cooking Channel Blog interviews me on the new book, Thanksgiving, and being Southern. (Now if we could just talk about my TV show….)
  • USA Today  highlights regional Thanksgiving dishes and I was asked to represent the South!
  • See Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s beautiful spread on my Gracious Southern Thanksgiving (here for more recipes).
  • A full Thanksgiving menu in Taigan with Julia Reed.
  • I am THRILLED to have contributed the recipe of the month for Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Check out my Pan-Seared Georgia Trout with Pecan Brown Butter and Smoked Trout Salad.

Events and Classes 

  • I’ll be near Nashville Wednesday November 30 at the Viking Cooking School in Franklin, TN.
  • HOWDY TEXAS! December 5-10 teaching at Central Market. Click here to register for classes.
  • For a full and ever-changing list, visit the Events page on my website.
PS For you folks who haven’t yet had boiled peanuts, I am truly sorry. You should find some or make some, or order some online, sometime, that’s all I have to say. I love boiled peanuts. I used to take canned boiled peanuts with me when I lived in France. France. Think about it. Boiled peanuts in France.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

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13 Responses to “HOMECOMING: COTTON FIELDS AND GEORGIA ASPHALT”

  1. Beautifully written Virginia! I could see it, smell it, and almost taste those boiled peanuts. And, I Icould certainly feel the emotion that you felt as you were taken back to that place. I think we should all go back there – every chance we get. Thanks! P.S. Enjoyed class last evening….it’s pretty obvious that you truly ” enjoy teaching cooking “!

    Reply
  2. I really love the post & totally know how you feel! I wasn’t raised in a rural area but loved it when living there — enough that when I’m on the road, I feel like I’m home once I see cotton fields whether it’s plants or modules ready for the gin! Sure am glad Joyce pointed me your way!

    Reply
  3. That was a wonderful ride in the country, VA! It’s a bit sad to think of the things we didn’t see when we were young(er), but that makes it all the sweeter when our eyes are finally opened.

    Reply
  4. Virginia, this is some truly lovely writing; warm, evocative, tender, and thoughtful.

    We’re lucky, those of us who’ve run away from home only to learn how beautiful and wonderful it was.

    Damon

    Reply
    • Thanks honey. I respect you tremendously as a writer and greatly appreciate your kind words. Thinking about our conversation, I laughed at all the “I”s. 😉 xo VA

      Reply
  5. You had me at boiled peanuts. Hi what a wonderful post. I know you through Gena Berry and happen to see this post on my FB read, but the boiled peanuts caught my eye and I am so thankful. Your post brought me back to my days in GA and how much I miss my home state. I just ordered my pecans from a place we have been getting pecans for years and my mother will boil peanuts for us to save her visit. I live in New England now and boiled peanuts are certainly not topic of conversation but my pecan pie is and I tell everyone it is because of the pecans and the love that went into shelling them. (I do not shell them, however my grandmother, Uncle and mother used to for me as my Christmas gifts) Thank you for the beautiful photos of the cotton fields as I was just driving through Mississippi and had to stop at the beautiful cotton fields there and just reminisce. I am signing up for your e-mails and Bon Appetit Y’all is on my Christmas list this year. Thank you for taking me home today! Please tell Gena hello for me next time you see her.
    Blessings,
    Michelle Smith Rapoza

    Reply
  6. Lynda Weaver

    This really hit home (so to speak) with me too. After a brief move to Texas, I’ve never been happier to come back home, even though I live in Atlanta but grew up in North Georgia. Side note – I do MISS Central Market in Texas though!

    I enjoy your writing! It never fails to either resonate with me or make me laugh – and both are welcome!

    Reply
    • Thank you! I am glad to make to make you smile, I hope this time. I feel like I always make folks cry! “Virginia Willis aka The Maudlin Southern Writer” 😉
      Many, many thanks for reading. Best VA

      Reply
      • Lynda Weaver

        Don’t tell anyone I said that about Central Market since I’m an ex Whole Foods person! : )

        Reply

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