If talent is a gift, Susi Gott Séguret has not only opened the proverbial package, but has spent years spreading the wealth.
In addition to being a celebrated musician, Séguret is the author and editor of dozens cookbooks and magazine articles, but her latest book is a departure from the conveyance of authentic Appalachian cuisine.
“Child of the Woods, an Appalachian Odyssey” is a collection of her memories about growing up in rural Madison County.
To promote her new book, Séguret gave an al fresco presentation at UNCA that interlaced readings from her book with musical interludes performing alternately on guitar, fiddle, banjo, and with song. The event was a familial affair. Séguret’s mother, a talented watercolorist, created the cover art for the new book, and her father took to the stage with banjo in hand to sing a couple numbers with his daughter.
“This particular book was something I wrote 25 years ago when I was living in the Wheat Belt of France with a newborn baby at my side, and not much time to think about anything else. I never knew if the book would see the light of day or not, and strangely enough some things take 25 years or more,” Séguret said. “It’s scary because if you come from Madison County, you risk getting shot if you say too many things.”
To avoid that outcome she heavily edited several stories and omitted a few altogether.
“My parents, Peter and Polly Gott are the reason for the writing of this book because they had the temerity to move here in the early 1960s and establish a lifestyle in a completely different context from what they had known. This story is a treatise to the sense of wonder that gripped me as a child, a journey into the magic of the woods, all senses on the alert. The woods were my kingdom. So long as I had trees for my roof, I was protected. Everything I adored and coveted I found under a canopy of leaves,” she said.
Séguret read a passage titled “The Summer of the Dead Cow” from her favorite chapter in the book.
“The creek was there waiting for us with its hidden pools that concealed myriad mysteries. Crayfish that would startle you out of nowhere to snap at fingers or toes. Pebbles of all different shapes and colors with which you could make drawings on larger stones, or patterns on leafy ground. Wet mossy logs to balance on. Jewelweed growing down to the water’s edge. If you picked a leaf and held it underwater you could see pearls standing out on its underbelly, then when you drew it out into the air again it became an ordinary green leaf. How many other hidden treasures could you find like that?
“And then there was the cave, at least we like to think of it as a cave although it was only a rock overhang. We were small enough to crawl back into a space that would have been inaccessible to adults. To us it merited its title. There were places where we had burned the rock with plumber’s candles we carried in our pockets. This only added to the intrigue as we imagined the stains had been put there by the fire of some long ago person seeking shelter. There was also the flat spot between the creek and the cave, a rarity as all around us the rest of the land climbed steeply and was studded with trees and underbrush.
“Here grew wild purple phlox in springtime. Here we could build an imaginary house to live in when we grew older, and we could even choose to be older now, but today, walking down the abandoned sled road we were not to get that far. Something of much greater interest lay in our path ahead.
“We began to suspect some treasure cache when we saw that the mat of leaves covering the road had been disturbed. Then further on we found long streaks of bare earth where the leaves had been forced aside. It looked as if something had been dragged down this route, a path which we had never known to be used, and this something was sizable.
“When ordinary things stray from the norm you feel your senses quicken. You breathe carefully, walk softly. You’re sprung, ready to jump aside should something move too suddenly. You tiptoe over to the transformed path until you round the curve, and there you shudder with thrill as the mystery is revealed.
“As you have never seen a dead cow before, you are not sure what it is at first. This mountain of flesh covered with red hair is not the same as the familiar beast you have seen in the pasture. It is an object like a house or a stone, still and unyielding. It attracts and repels at the same time, but the attraction is stronger so you inch closer until you see its glassy eyes staring nowhere, its horns pointing out in useless directions. At least the horns identify it as a cow, but now a new mystery arises. Whose cow is it? Why did they leave it here? Are they sad? Who’s going to watch over it and keep it company?
“Self-appointed to the duty, Tim and I made regular pilgrimages to the spot of the unfortunate cow. We were disappointed to learn that the neighbor had dragged it there with his tractor to get it out of the way when he found it dead in his field. It seemed so mundane, but that didn’t dampen our fascination with what might happen next, so we kept our vigil.
“For a surprising number of days it remained the same, save for a slight muskiness that began to hang in the air. Then it began to bloat. Was it still a cow we wondered, or had it changed into a whale? Who knows what becomes of the dead?
“…When we returned we saw that the cow had been visited by other creatures in our absence for it had started to diminish. Bones showed in places where dogs and crows had feasted. Eventually there was nothing but the hide and skeleton that once supported and covered a docile animal with soft eyes. As time passed most of that, too, was carted off by nature’s servants until there remained only the skull and a few darkened tufts of hair.
“Many times since then I have walked the old sled road, and I never round a certain corner without a slight catch of breath as I look for an enormous mound of decaying cow, and then a sigh of relief as I see it has long disappeared, but not without providing a summer of fascination for two small and curious children. And then I smile, and look more closely, and see if I can find one remaining tooth.”
Séguret conducts culinary expeditions on the last Saturday of every month that bring together foraging, cooking and dining. “I take you around the Madison County farm and go looking for whatever’s in season in the woods. Then we come inside and cook on the wood stove and have a multicourse, wine-paired dinner with maybe a little moonshine thrown in, and then we sing some ballads at the end.”
Séguret also directs a weeklong session at Warren Wilson College called the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts. “This year it falls at the end of July and the beginning of August. It’s a hands-on intensive session with several of Asheville’s best chefs, so you get to work with a different chef each day and have tastings in the evenings. You can come for the week, the day or just a single session for people who can’t get away for longer,” she said.
To learn more visit her website at www.SchoolOfCulinaryArts.org, or call 828 301-2792.