Sweetwater Creek **** by Anne Rivers Siddons
I’m joining Jain with my Edible Book Review at Food for Thought, where pages from your book magically mix with the kitchen and your camera.
I found this book at Audible, searching for something to listen to that took place in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I selected it primarily because it was narrated by Kate Fleming, known under the pseudonym of Anna Fields ~ one of my favorite narrators, who tragically died in 2006, and leaves a wealth of recordings. . .
This book chronicles twelve-year-old Emily Parmenter, in a coming of age story, who lives with her father and older brothers on Sweetwater Plantation. Walter Parmenter who “lived far back in his head, in the glory days of the family-oriented plantations”~ is consumed with raising the famous Sweetwater Boykin Spaniels, desired for their hunting abilities. Oblivious when it comes to his daughter, Emily is left to navigate her small comforting world of tidal creeks and magical dolphins, with her dog by her side. Grieving for the loss of her beloved older brother and still coming to terms with being abandoned by her mother, Emily turns to Sweetwater’s Boykins and discovers she has an uncanny ability to communicate and train them. When a Charleston society daughter, Lulu Foxworth~ beautiful but damaged, discovers Sweetwater Creek, and is invited to move in for the summer, Emily sees her a threat to her small safe world while Emily’s father sees Lulu ‘resting & relaxing’ at Sweetwater, as his ticket into Charleston society.
“In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and only there in the world, a savage and beautiful ballet takes places twice a day. Usually in late summer and early fall, when the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry salt marshes are at their lowest, the fish and crabs who inhabit them cling nervously to the muddy banks, waiting for the tide to return and give them sanctuary in the tall spartina grass. Suddenly the dolphins come.”
“Pods of bottlenose dolphins, which have hunted these creeks and banks for generations and know every bend and mudflat, burst into the creek and begin to herd the fish, usually silver mullet, against the mudbanks. At a signal, perhaps a whistle or the echoing clicks from the out-riding scouts, the pods erupt, and with sonic blast and perfect herding tactics, run the schools of mullets into a tight ball against the shore. In a thrashing rush that defies human ken, they create a great wave that washes the bait fish out of the water and up onto the mudflats. The dolphins, riding their own wave, follow them out of the water onto the banks, where they gorge on them until they are gone. The dolphins themselves come completely out of the water, lying side by side in a tight row, always turned on their right sides, as synchronized as the Rockettes. These salt-sea creatures come twice a day for two or three months, always to their pods’ ancestral banks, and for a moment become completely creatures of earth and air. It is called strand feeding, and nobody really knows why or how it happens, only that it has probably happened this way since time out of mind. The waters they hunt are not fresh, but sweet in the way that only warm, salt-softened water can be. This story is set on the banks of one of these creeks, and in the fields and woods around it. As long as anyone can remember, this ribbon of tidal water has been called Sweetwater Creek.”
Walter worked hard to establish a reputation for Sweetwater Plantation’s fine Boykins descended from the original stock founded in Boykin, South Carolina:
“The little dog had touches of this and that in his ancestry: Chesapeake Bay retriever, American water spaniel, cocker and springer. It turned out that the new breed was naturally affectionate in the house and joyfully enthusiastic in the fields and marshes. His dense, curly coat protected him from icy waters, his autumn-brown color effectively camouflaged him, and his stub of a tail did not disturb undergrowth and give away the position of the blind-hidden boats. He was equally at home flushing small waterfowl and upland birds: doves, turkeys, and ducks. He was even proficient at flushing deer. By the time Walter Parmenter met the Boykin Spaniel, the dog had become a favorite with sportsmen up and down the eastern seaboard.”
I had no idea when I selected this book that food would be is as prolific and as descriptive as the scenery of the Lowcountry~ the drool factor is HIGH in this book: turkey, corn bread and oyster dressing, pecan pies…fried chicken, collards, cornbread…crabcakes, shrimp & rice, shrimp & grits…beef tenderloin & benne biscuits…brown oyster stew & scalloped oysters…broiled quail & rosy sliced duck breast… And food is not just mentioned like menu items, Siddons SERVES them with the Foxworths’ heirloom silver~ slender stalks of white asparagus are “dripping velvety gold sauce”… breakfast consists of “crisp & airy” peach waffles & “cinnamon-walloped” sweet rolls; eggs are scrambled “endlessly high and golden” served along with “steaming” Sally Lunn doused in ribbon cane syrup ( I had to google, you can read here if Sally Lunn is foreign to you like it was to me :-) Food was SO abundant it hard to choose. . .
Since Boykin Spaniels figure so prominently in this story, I looked for a food to illustrate them, so I chose Cheese Straws.
‘The dog that won’t rock the boat,’ was the dog’s unofficial slogan.
Cheddar Cheese Straws, recipe here~ really easy & good, dog cookie cutter not required :-)
Emily picks out a puppy from the litter on her tenth birthday~ the runt of the litter at only three weeks old, who clumsily sits down on Emily’s foot~ it’s love at first sight. Her older brothers’ snide comments that he was “no hunting spaniel” and more of a hound dog, prompts Emily to name her puppy Elvis :-) Elvis become Emily’s constant companion and confidant.
“Off in the marsh and on to the hummock, live oaks spilled curtains of silvery moss onto the high grass, and the resurrection ferns burned primal green. At the marshes’ edges the spartina danced in a light wind that smelled so densely of the ocean, fishy river and the sea far beyond it that you could get drunk on it. A hundred bird songs haunted the shimmering air. Over it all arched the great tender, washed-blue skies of spring.”
“The marsh was almost totally green now, and alive with its teeming, gliding, scuttling, splashing denizens, and the smaller creeks cutting it ran full. It was nearly high tide. Behind Emily’s closed eyelids the sun made red whorls and pinwheels, and was tender on her face.”
“People who live beside moving water have been given the gift of living light, and even if they never come to recognize it as such, any other light, no matter how clear and brilliant, is pale and static to them, leaving them with a sense of loss, of vulnerability, as if they have suddenly found themselves without clothes.”
“It was a Saturday afternoon, and for once the Lowcountry was behaving as it did in the dreams of people who had left it a long time before but never stopped aching for it. The air was soft and sweet with the scent of flowers both close by and borne in from faraway by the river wind. It was cool in the deep shade of the front porch, and not really hot when you went out onto the lawn and down to the river or back toward the kennels and barn. The sucking humidity had lifted temporarily and the sky and reflecting river were so blue they almost hurt the eye. The wind that lifted with the incoming tide made the river, running full, glitter and dance, and off on the faraway hummocks, and even to the woodland beyond, you could see the sharp details of palmettos and soft webs of moss and resurrection ferns, the shivering of the small live oak leaves, the ink black trunks of the forest trees.”
“Every citizen of the water and marsh and sky seemed to put in a courtesy appearance for the Foxworths: mullet jumped in the river, shrimps popped, turtles splashed into the water from the mossy banks, ospreys dived and wheeled in the blue vault of the sky, and even the young eagle who lived across the river, on the edge of wood, swept by, casting a prehistoric shadow. Off the hummocks the ensigns of the white-tailed deer flashed in the deep shadows, and from Sweetwater Creek, the roar of the big bull alligator drifted across the peninsula.”
The Parmenters’ housekeeper, Cleta provides a safe-haven for Emily and makes a Coca-Cola cake. . .
I used the Chocolate Coca-Cola Cake Recipe, here and the icing recipe for the cake below.
Coca-Cola Cake Icing
6 tablespoons Coca-Cola®
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I used dark)
1/2 cup butter
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt butter in saucepan and add cocoa and Coca-Cola. Remove from heat and stir in confectioners’ sugar, chopped nuts, and vanilla. Top cake while hot.
Lulu takes Emily into Charleston:
“They rattled over the cobbles and bricks of the old neighborhoods south of Broad, and Emily could look up at the narrow, beautiful old single houses lining the streets, the colors of soft heat…”
“They drove down yet another street lined with live oaks and palmettos and tall old dowager houses, and Lulu slowed and stopped before the largest of them. It was massive and beautiful, with slender columns. It sat amid smaller but equally graceful outbuildings, like a mother hen with chicks. The faultless green lawn was encircled with a handsome wrought-iron fence…”
Lulu gradually begins to prepare meals for the Parmenters cooking from her great-grandmother’s ‘receipt’ book and prepares among other things, a shrimp pie.
I found a recipe here, for shrimp pies that gave me an excuse to play with my new Williams-Sonoma pocket pie mold :-)
“Each day was so perfect that it seemed there could never be another one, and then there was. The great seas of spartina sweeping away to the line of dark trees at the horizon, ordinarily the color of an old lion’s hide, were still as green in the beneficent sun as the little emerald lizards of the Lowcountry. They rippled gently in the small tidal winds off the sea, smelling of warm salt and sea grapes and flowers from unknown faraway shores. The skies were a tender, cloudless blue, almost indigo at noon, and the small citizens of the marsh and river and creek lingered, splashing and swishing and chirping and rustling. None seemed in a hurry to settle down. The creek banks and low lying branches of the live oaks were festooned with big, drowsy snakes and turtles; whitetails whisked I the far-off hummocks, wood ibises and wood storks and ospreys and an occasional eagle circled lazily, riding the warm thermals. Only the dolphins were gone, cleaving more firmly to their internal imperative than the lure of the still-rich creek water.”
Overall I enjoyed this book, despite the fact that there was a section that was VERY disturbing and I felt, unnecessary. I found the combination of the joy of dolphins, the details of raising & living with dogs, the setting and imagery of the Lowcountry, irresistible. Anna Fields’ audio performance, and ability to “giving herself over to the page” was icing on the coca-cola cake :-) and elevated a 3* read to a 4* listen for me.
Be sure to visit Food for Thought and see what everyone is reading & eating & Mary at Little Red House for Mosaic Monday ~