“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”–Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Yes, I know we’ve all heard the remark before that’s posted as my title today.  But did you know that Brillat-Savarin wrote a whole book of aphorisms about food and eating called “The Physiology of Taste”?  I didn’t, before today, when I looked up the quote to see where it came from.  Anyway, you’ll have to take my word for it, but I’m an elf.

Why am I an elf, and what do I eat that makes me one?  Well, the so-called “waybread of the elves,” of course (along with a judiciously tall glass of milk–waybread is a little bit dryish and full of delicious crumbs, just as it should be, so milk goes with it just fine!).  End this vain pretense, you say, come out from behind that elvish persona and reveal a real subject that someone can sink a literary tooth into.  Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing; but I’d better explain.

Several of the interesting folks whose works have been in Freshly Pressed lately and who write on books or literature have recently commented on what they eat or drink while writing, or reading, or they’ve just shared recipes as a periodic feature on their posts.  So, in the interests of combining the literary with the culinary, here’s my own offering in that light, along with an excellent recipe for “waybread of the elves” (at least, that’s what I call it–the originator of the recipe was much more modest and less histrionic).

Back in the days when I had recently become a teenager and was babysitting my brother, who was five years younger than I was, I had just re-read Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the second time.  One particular summer, time was hanging particularly heavily on my brother’s and my hands, and I proposed to him that I read Tolkien to him to get us through the long, hot summer days when it was too scorching or humid to be outside in the sun and we were stuck inside.  Quickly, so enchanted was my brother with the book and I with my own voice communicating the story by reading aloud to someone whom I had often previously aggravated and pestered, that we kept it up until the entire book was done.  We had real meals, of course, either cooked up ahead of time by my mom, provided by my grandmother (who lived close by and could look in on us from time to time), or dreamed up by ourselves.  But I had recently discovered another book as well, a book called Old Timey Recipes, a series of recipes collected from the Appalachian area by someone named Phyllis Connor, and I had a favorite recipe in it:  her recipe for butter cookies.  The plot begins to thicken, you say, or at least the dough.

Now, lest you run away with the idea that these cookies were like the effete, overly sweet, LITTLE cookies that come in those tins at Christmas, I would like to tell you that you’d be misinformed:  these so-called butter cookies, especially when made entirely with butter the way (I confess) I changed the recipe to make them, come out nothing like a sweet cookie but much more like what’s correctly called shortbread, or shortbread cookies.  That is, when they emerge at the correct time from the oven, they’re not yellowish, but rather lightish buff color with slightly browned edges and bottom.  And with a contribution of imagination from Tolkien, you can easily imagine them wrapped in preserving leaves by the elves to sustain weary travellers on their way, and you can even imagine how they taste after several days’ travel, filling and innervating, because cookies made entirely with butter don’t go rancid the way cookies made even partially with margarine can.  Instead, they age, though they may get slightly softer; hence, you can imagine Sam’s grief and sense of loss as he sees Gollum’s nasty work of crumbling the cookies and throwing them down the mountainside in Mordor.

I know one thing:  to the despair of my mother, who kept asking where all of the butter and milk were disappearing to while she was gone, my brother and I ate copious amounts of waybread and drank milk all summer long (some elves drink milk, too!) while we read through Tolkien.  Finally, my brother read the books to himself by preference another time, since I was at this later time occupied with other things.  And now, he’s reading the books to his child, doing all the different voices as he no doubt imagined them for himself (since I made no attempt to reproduce accents when I read to him, doing instead only the emotional tonalities and nuances).

And now that I have dragged you through this piece of back history, here’s the recipe:  like all old timey recipes, it leaves some details out, such as the information that if you cut these cookies with an old-fashioned biscuit cutter (a large one), it’ll look more like standard shortbreads, or that you bake these on an ungreased pan, or that actual baking time if your oven is accurate is 12-15 minutes (check often in the last 3 minutes).  Or, that you can press out the dough gently with your hands.  Also, as I said before, the cookies will keep better if you use all butter, but I want to give you the exact recipe as I first encountered it:

“Cream 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup shortening, and 3/4 cup sugar until fluffy.  Add 1 beaten egg and 2 teaspoons vanilla.  Sift together 3 cups flour, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon salt.  Add this to cream mixture very gradually.  Roll out on a pastry cloth [doughboard is fine] and cut into desired shapes.  A cookie press may be used [unnecessary].  Bake at 375 degrees until light brown.”  And that’s it.

There are other recipes in the book which were mainly of historical interest to me, such as recipes for parsnip wine, home brew, and moonshine.  And there is one which I’ve never tried, but which some people still swear by:  hog jowls and turnip greens.  Corn fritters, dandelion greens, grandmother’s spice cake (the third one of these I have tried, and it’s very good), you name it.  If it’s an Appalachian traditional recipe, chances are some version of it appears here (though since some of the recipes are very old and don’t supply cooking times or temperatures, you may have to improvise).  I first bought the book in 1970 or so, in a sort of “hippyish” place which also sold beads, incense, and quirky jewelry.  A few years ago (about 5), I was in a gift shop in Appalachia, and I sighted the book again!  Evidently, it is still continuing to sell.  My edition is the 3rd edition; I was distracted at the time and so happy to see my old friend on the bookshelf that I unfortunately can’t tell you what edition it’s in now.  But if you want a copy, I can tell you that it’s published in Bluefield, WV.  Put that together with Phyllis Connor’s name and the title of the book, and you may be fortunate enough to locate a distributor/supplier, especially with the Internet being the haven for information that it is these days.

And whether you get a copy or only follow my revised recipe, be sure and bake a recipe of waybread for your favorite elves and Tolkien fans (even if you’re the only elf you know for 40 miles!).  You surely can’t go wrong, whether in summer, spring, fall, or even winter to supply hungry literary “travellers” with sustenance.  (And keep in mind that waybread burns the hands of minions of the Dark Lord, just in case there are any grumps around!).

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