Tag Archives: Bellwood

The Bottle Tree – Where I Got the Name

Bottle Tree

Each time I do a book signing or have a table at an event I always spend a little time talking to someone about bottle trees. Invariably a person walking by will stop to look at the books and then we'll discuss how bottle trees used to be prevalent in the rural south, how you rarely see them now, and how they are making a come back as a kind of art form made by local artisans.

I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts on the topic here on my author website so my fans and readers know a little about the subject and the way I work.

I remember when I was a little kid and we would go to my great grandparent's house in Bellwood, La. On the way there, on one of the back roads, was an old house with a bottle tree in the front yard. I didn't know the story about them but I always thought it was neat and would look for it on each trip.

Some years later I saw one and jotted the name down in a notebook I kept with ideas for stories, names, titles, etc. The name sat there for years and suddenly, one day, an idea popped into my head that was almost the complete story that I eventually published as  The Bottle Tree. Literally, the idea was not there one minute and the next it was there in my mind, almost in the final form that was published.

Bottle trees were a unique part of the culture of the rural South. Several sources that I looked through state that the concept dates as far back as the 9th century in the African Congo.  Originally, the people would lay plates around the graves of deceased family members. The practice changed to hanging bottles on a tree when the practice came to America with the slaves. The bottles were supposed to scare off bad spirits due to the sound that they made when the wind whistled across their open mouths and it was also thought that spirits would be curious about the bottles and get caught in them when they came to investigate.

In my book, The Bottle Tree, the characters discuss the bottle tree which plays a part in the book and that one of them has in his yard:

            “What is it?” Leesie asked, walking around the tree and examining it from all angles. Caleb and Johnny did the same.

            Ukiah had decorated a tree with bottles. Some were tied on with string, some were stuck on the end of cut off branches. The bottles were a mixture of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some blue, some clear, some brown. On one side of the small tree sitting on the ground was a solitary, bright red one.

            “Y’all ain’t never seen one of these?”

            “I have,” Johnny volunteered, surprising both Caleb and Leesie.

            “You have? Where at?” Ukiah asked.

            “My Uncle Franklin used to have one in his yard. Not as big or pretty as yours though. He called it his ‘bottle tree’”.

            “And that’s exactly what it is. Did he tell you what it was for?”

            “He said it kept the spirits away.”

            “It does that, plus more. You see these bottles here?” Ukiah pointed to the clear, blue, and brown ones on the tree. “The bad spirits hear the wind whistling through these and it scares them off. If’n they do come around, the wind pushes them into the bottles and they’re trapped there and can’t bother you.”

            “What about that one? It’s pretty,” Leesie pointed to the red one on the ground.

            “Oooo, you got a good eye, Leesie. That’s the one that makes my bottle tree special. Most of them are just to take care of bad spirits but that red one is the cat’s meow. It’s for good spirits.”

            “Good spirits?” Johnny asked. “I ain’t never heerd of no good spirits.”

            “That old voodoo woman who taught me how to make that peanut candy told me a real bottle tree has to have a special red bottle. According to her, and I ‘spect she’s right, sometimes people die and their bodies can’t be given a proper church burial so they can’t go straight to heaven. Their spirit wanders around until it finds the red bottle and it stays inside it until somebody they love dies and their spirit comes looking for them and helps them get to heaven. Don’t that sound nice?”

            “Yes sir. It’d sure be lonely just to wander around by your lonesome,” Caleb said.

            “It sure would. That’s why everyone ought to know where there’s a bottle tree like mine. Just in case.”

Setting the Atmosphere Through Food (and a Roast Beef Po-Boy Recipe)

As I've mentioned before, most writers pull off of their backgrounds when they set the atmosphere and tone of their books. Some do it by smells (who can forget the sour smell of Bourbon Street on a weekend morning), some do it by sounds (Ernest Gaines is great at this, conveying a sense of poverty by the creaking of worn out bed springs), and others are visual. I often do this by describing a food.

In No' Chance I referenced both the Lucky Dog hot dogs found throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans as well as po-boys served at Johnny's Po-boys there. This is probably a holdover from the family dinners we used to have out at my great grandmother's house in the small community of Bellwood, La. Ma and Pa Alford lived in the heart of the Kisatchie National Forest that became the setting for The Bottle Tree. We used to go there on Sundays and Ma would spend all morning cooking so that we'd have a huge lunch and the day revolved around that meal.

The recipe below is one that reminds me of New Orleans, the taste instantly sending me to the humidity, sights and smells of the Crescent City. This one is made the New Orleans way, dripping with "Debris Gravy". It's also great to make homemade french fries and use them in place of the meat to make the po-boy, but then covering them in the gravy. You have to remember, most of the New Orleans and Cajun foods (two different kinds) were developed because people were poor and had to make do with what they had. This one can be made from inexpensive ingredients but the taste is rich!

I started with a recipe from NOLACuisine.com and then made some changes to suit my family.

I hope you try and enjoy it.

 

Roast Beef Po’ Boy with Debris Gravy Recipe

For the Roast:

1 Beef Chuck Roast (app. 2 ½ pounds). Don’t trim the fat since it adds flavor.

2 Garlic Cloves thinly sliced

Kosher Salt & Black Pepper

Cayenne

Flour to coat roast

3 Tbsp Lard or Vegetable Oil

1 Medium Onion, Diced

1 Medium to Large Carrot, Diced (I prefer to shred it using a cheese grater)

1 tablespoon finely Chopped Garlic

1 Cup Beef Stock

1 Cup Chicken Stock

Water if necessary

2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce

1 Tbsp Hot Sauce

2 Sprigs Fresh Thyme (you can use dried if you don’t have fresh)

1 Bay Leaf  (fresh or dried)

Kosher Salt and Black Pepper to taste

 

Cut small slits into the roast, about every 3 inches, try not to pierce all the way to the bottom. Stuff the sliced garlic into the slits.

Season the Roast very liberally on all sides with the Salt & Black Pepper, season with Cayenne to your taste, I don’t use much.

Coat the roast in flour. You want enough to form a light crust when you brown it in the oil. This step will make the gravy just a tad thicker.

Heat the fat in a heavy bottomed Dutch Oven over high heat, when the oil starts to smoke, wait a few more seconds, then carefully add the Roast cut side down. Brown very well on all sides, without burning it. Remove to a plate.

Drain off all but 1 Tbsp of the fat in the pan, add the onions and carrots, cook until just before the onions start to brown, add the garlic (be carefult not to burn the garlic) then place the roast back in the pan, then add the stocks. Finish, if necessary, with enough water to bring the cooking liquid 3/4 of the way up the roast. Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then back down to a very low simmer. Simmer covered for 3-4 hours or until the meat falls apart when you look at it (you know what I mean, very tender).

For the Debris Gravy:

Carve the meat into very thin slices, it will be hard to do and will fall apart, that is good. All of the bits and pieces, that fall off are your Debris (pronounced Duh-bree.)

Add all of the bits and chunks to you cooking liquid after skimming off the fat from the surface, keep the carved meat with a little liquid on a warm plate, covered tightly with plastic wrap.

Bring the gravy to a full boil and reduce until it coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Our family adds all of the meat back to the gravy when it has reduced and lets it sit there for a while to moisten the meat.

  

For the Po’ Boy:

New Orleans Style French Bread  (we found out that if you can’t get the good, crusty French bread to make this then you can use the canned Pillsbury Crusty French Bread and it is surprisingly good)

Cut the bread 3/4 of the way through so that the bread folds open as opposed to slicing it all the way through. If you slice it through the sandwich will fall apart. If you are using fresh baked bread wait for it to cool before slicing.

Shredded Lettuce

Mayonnaise

Roast Beef (see above)

Debris Gravy

 

Slather the bread with a very generous portion of Mayonnaise on the inside of the upper and lower halves. Place about a cup of Shredded Lettuce on the bottom half. Cover the lettuce with a generous portion of the “sliced” Beef. Drown the beef with Debris Gravy.

 This recipe will make 4 big Po Boys.

Recipes From the Bottle Tree – Biscuits and Brown Gravy

While everyone knows about Cajun or Creole cuisine not many people know that Central and North Louisiana also has great food. That area was settled by people from across the country and so elements of Southern, Northern, Soul, and Cajun foods are common.

The Bottle Tree  is set in the Kisatchie Forest of Central Louisiana, in Natchitoches Parish not far from the small town of Bellwood which just happens to be the area where many of my ancestors are from and where many of my relatives still live. Some of my most vivid memories are of the "dinners on the ground" at various churches, meals at my Grandmother's, Great Grandmother's, and Great Aunt's houses, or in other kitchens across the area.

I am going to occasionally post a recipe here and there for those of you who aren't familiar with this type of cooking. I may update them slightly, since many of them contained ingredients like lard, which hardly anyone uses any more and for which I will substitute the more common vegetable shortening.

Some, like this first one, will be pretty common and well known but may include a twist or two to add just a touch of authenticity.

BISCUITS

This recipe makes about six normal size biscuits

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or whole milk if buttermilk is not available)

Directions

Rub shortening into the bottom and the sides of a small cast iron skillet and place into a 350 degree over until the shortening melts. Leave the oven at 350 degrees and pour off any excess.shortening from the skillet, carefully swirling it around the sides to form a thin layer before discarding the remainder.

In a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a fork or your fingers, cut butter into mixture until it begins to look like cornmeal. 

Make a well in the top of the flour mixture and slowly add milk into the middle. Knead dough with your fingers and add milk when necessary. 

Traditionally, in Central Louisiana (where “The Bottle Tree” is set) the biscuits are then formed with the hands and placed into the skillet for baking, however the dough can also be rolled out to the desired thickness on a lightly floured surface and then cut with biscuit cutter.

Place biscuits in pan and brush the tops with butter or some of the melted shortening. For real authenticity you can lightly brush them with the oil cooked off of bacon. Note: If the skillet is hot when you add the dough it makes for a better crust around the outside.

Bake for 12-18 minutes or until golden brown.

These can be eaten as is, with butter, jelly, or preserves, split horizontally and stuffed with bacon or ham, or served open faced with gravy.  One difference is that in Central Louisiana the gravy is less often a cream based white gravy and more often a brown gravy.

Brown Gravy (exactly as my mother sent it to me)

Use bacon drippings or Crisco oil to make a medium brown roux out of flour.  When the roux gets a medium to medium dark brown add water and stir constantly until the roux is mixed in well, add salt and pepper to taste then  turn the burner down and simmer for a little while until the flour taste is gone from the gravy.  The amounts you use depend on how much you are wanting to make.  You should use almost equal amounts of flour and oil for the gravy.  I will usually use a tad bit less flour than oil.   To turn it into a milk gravy, you simply substitute milk for the water. 

This is the recipe that I use and I got from Ma Alford when she made this.  It is the same recipe that I use to make my hamburger steak gravy out of except I saute the onions in the oil and remove them before I add the flour to make the roux.  This way you get the sauteed onion flavor into the gravy as well.

Note: This recipe is done the old fashioned way and doesn't really use measurements. I also found that a modern variation is to use beef broth on place of all or a portion of the water in the gravy, but it makes it really rich.