Normal Trees | grilled pbj

When I think of home – both my adult home, in Virginia, and my childhood home, Georgia – I think of rain. I think of humidity and flowers and family. I think of Gone with the Wind kitsch (I am from Jonesboro, after all).

Last week, I took a trip to both of my homes, first to Virginia, and then to Georgia. And as I walked through parking lots or down streets or drove around town, I just kept saying, “Look at all these normal trees!”

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People thought it was a funny thing to say. It’s full-blown spring in the southeast – tulip trees are blooming, pollen has everyone congested, and everything is bright and green and full of life. In Ventura county, the spring is chilly. Mid-day picnics require a jacket. Our trees bloom, yes, but it’s different. I explained this to people. I reminded them that my corner of southern California rarely sees rain. Our trees can withstand drought. Palm fronds sway on the trees outside my window even as I write this.

I’m always struck by how hard palm fronts actually are. The wispy leaves belie the hardiness of the stalk, of the tree’s trunk. During Santa Ana winds, large layers of the crown of the palm tree will fall to the ground, and road crews hurry to remove them from roadways. They’re not light and flimsy as they look, all bent and peeled away, like banana peels. They are like lemongrass – deceptively flimsy, sharp enough to cut. Like tumbleweeds – so much is contained within their dried, skeletal frames.

California is a mess of contradictions like this. Perfect gorgeous weather, perpetual sunshine – but the terrain is hard and unforgiving, easily given to burning. The green is only just now returning after last year’s Springs Fire. So much is contained here, but you’d never know it for all the sunshine and breezes.

And so when I went home, I saw pines, and tulip trees, and the Japanese maple in my mom’s yard, planted by teenage boys thirteen years ago while my sister and I sat in the grass and watched, planted to remember my brother – a tree now so big and full of bright red leaves. Everything was lush and heavy and full of life.

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When I think of home, I think of trees. I think of the moment, when I found out that Amanda and I were moving cross-country, and I paced in the parking lot outside my building, and I looked at a magnolia tree and burst into tears. “They won’t have magnolia trees in California,” I cried to my friend Mary. They do, as it turns out. My favorite tree in all of Ventura county is a gigantic magnolia in downtown Ventura, the kind that really makes a room, like you could live under it. The kind under which nothing grows, so you wouldn’t want to.

My favorite tree in California is the kind we have at home. It’s like being able to order Duke’s mayonnaise on Amazon. A way to find home in a place that is not.

I can’t think of home, either, without thinking also about food. I have found it hard to maintain my love and enthusiasm for cooking while Amanda is gone. Cooking elaborate meals with plenty of leftovers seems too much trouble for just me by myself. I eat a lot of salads, and I eat a lot of sandwiches.

For me, the best comfort sandwiches are grilled cheese (which I wrote about on Food Riot this month, so check that out if you want some next level grilled cheese ideas) and peanut butter and jelly. And in a moment of inspiration one day, I thought, hey! Grilled PB&J.

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And y’all:  that was a game-changer.

A simple grilled sandwich, made in a cast-iron skillet, with simple ingredients:  white bread, peanut butter, homemade jam, salty Kerry Gold butter. It goes perfectly with salad, with soup, with fruit, or on its own. In moments of longing – for trees, or for my wife to be home, or even just for more energy in writing, for greater stamina in front of the keyboard – a grilled PB&J sets everything right. It’s nostalgic, but grown-up. It’s indulgent, but restrained. It’s like a palm crown or a tumbleweed – deceptively simple.

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The recipe isn’t really even a recipe. Take two pieces of bread, and butter the “outsides” as you would a grilled cheese sandwich. Then turn the bread slices over, and smear one with plenty of peanut butter, and the other with plenty of your favorite jam. Heat a cast-iron skillet, and when it’s ready, assemble the sandwich, and place it in the skillet. Turn after a few minutes, grilling both sides to golden goodness.

I went searching earlier for a poem about trees. This is National Poetry Month, and April 24 is Poem In Your Pocket Day. This will likely be the poem I carry in my pocket, a perfect meditation on what I think of when I think of home – of Southern trees. Or as I call them, normal trees.

where you are planted

by Evie Shockley

he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.

fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.

one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.

the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.

frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.

i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :
it’s part of what makes me evie : i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.

7 thoughts on “Normal Trees | grilled pbj

  1. It’s really entertaining and endearing the way you weave life and food together – it’s as comforting to read as those sandwiches look to eat… 🙂
    I read your “about’ today also – really nice and I do love the whisk and pen 🙂

  2. I’m not always one for poetry, but that is a lovely lovely poem.

    I love everything you’ve written here as well, esp. the tulip tree mention. I adore tulip trees, and sycamores, and magnolias, and really any kind of tree that we don’t have up here it seems. For me, it’s interesting, I seem to have more affection for the trees that I don’t get to see on a daily basis, but perhaps that’s just because trees are my job, and I like to collect them as a nerdy boy would collect Pokemon cards.

    1. Haha, I would imagine you’d have a fondness for the trees that you perhaps don’t work with on a daily basis. Palm trees were a novelty to me when I first got here, but I find myself missing those trees of home. Thanks for the kind words!

  3. aw, “normal trees!” i totally get that. although right now, the normal trees of the midwest are laying waste to my sinuses, i still love them, and would miss them were they gone. I actually still sometimes think about the dogwood and the maple tree i had at my childhood home – although only a half hour away (b/c i still live in STL), i don’t have them in MY yard now, and i miss them b/c they were always in my line of vision as a kid.
    grilled pb and j! WTH why did i never think to do this…

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