By Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Although Grandma Zaunbrecher’s ham and cornbread dressing were unsurpassed, the focal point of Christmas Day was always the tinsel-laden tree in her living room. Those towering, woodsy-scented pines grew wild on my family’s forestland. It did not matter that they had long sparse needles and slightly crooked trunks — to my child’s eyes they were stunning. And most memorably, I’d tag along with my Uncle Willie to “help” cut them down.
There’s something calming, almost magical about spending time in the woods. But aside from using our forests for camping, hunting, and chopping down Christmas trees, this renewable resource provides raw material for our state’s second largest manufacturing employer, the forest products industry.
Buck Vandersteen of the Louisiana Forestry Association reminds us that Louisiana has as astounding 15 million acres of forests. “Some 60 percent are privately owned by family farms,” he says, “with the average tree farm at 40 acres.” Ten percent is managed by the federal and state governments, and corporations own the remaining 30 percent.
The northeast part of the state is home to hardwoods, such as the oak group, which is our most prevalent hardwood. Softwoods, such as pine, are predominant in the northwest part of the state and down to DeRidder. The Florida parishes also specialize in pine production, while our vast wetlands nurture the state’s official tree, the bald cypress.
Bald cypress, which is a deciduous softwood, is in the same family as sequoias and redwoods. So, although bald cypress is technically a softwood, it is so durable, stable, and rot-resistant that it can match up to just about any oak.
The state’s most commercially important tree is the Southern Yellow Pine, which is a term used to describe a group of species made up of loblolly, longleaf, shortleaf, and slash pine. This softwood is particularly important for making building products, since it can be pressure treated against moisture retention.
“Louisiana’s milled wood primarily goes to markets in Dallas, Houston, and California,” says Vandersteen, “as well as to ports in New Orleans and Mobile, which ship on to places such as France, Spain, and the Caribbean.”
Some wood products we make in our state include lumber, engineered wood, plywood, pellets, paper, windows and doors, and particle board. Our hardwoods and cypress are primarily used for cabinetry and for furniture, such as a spectacular handmade cypress dining table I recently bought at a store in Lafayette.
Growing trees here is big business, around $13 billion annually, with some 50,000 Louisianians working in such jobs as foresting, logging, transportation, and in mills.
“And there’s good news concerning mills,” says Vandersteen. “After a 25-year drought with no new construction, four mills have recently announced startups.” One lumber mill is reopening in DeQuincy, and new mills are being constructed in DeRidder, Taylor (in Bienville Parish), and north of Alexandria in the town of Urania.
Urania also has the distinction of being the home to Henry Hardtner, the “father of forestry in the South.” In the 1890s, the Pineville lumberman spent lots of time trying to figure out how to grow new crops of trees in about 60 years, rather than relying on the 200-year-old-trees that had been traditionally harvested. He eventually convinced the Louisiana legislature and the largest sawmill in the world, the Great Southern Lumber Company, to establish reforestation efforts. Most of what is known about southern pine silviculture, the development and care of forests, was pioneered in central Louisiana by Hardtner and his local contemporaries.
To keep our trees growing and healthy, reforestation is incredibly important. If you own forestland don’t hesitate to ask for advice from experts at agencies such as the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, the LSU Ag Department, the Louisiana Forestry Association, the National Forest Service, and especially the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
If you just want to kick around in the great outdoors, consider visiting a state park. Or go to one of the five ranger districts of the 604,000-acre Kisatchie Forest, Louisiana’s only national forest. While you’re there, you might want to spend time camping, fishing, swimming, boating, hunting, hiking, horseback riding, or picking up firewood. Just be sure to get permits ahead from park rangers.
If you want a forest-fresh Christmas tree, consider going to a “Choose and Cut” Christmas tree farm. (You can find a list at www.southernchristmastrees.org). Some places cut them for you, and some allow you to chop down your own cypress, fir, cedar, or pine. Most farmers are happy to tell you how they grow their manicured rows of trees, and some farms have petting zoos and activities for children.
Unlike my grandma’s Christmas trees, the chances are excellent that the one you bring home will be straight and full. And way past December you, too, will remember the joy of picking out your own.
Makes 12-14 servings
This old-fashioned Christmas favorite is always a hit. Even though it’s simple to put together, it looks and tastes like you worked hard making it.
1(8 to 10-pound) smoked, fully cooked ham, with fat layer
1 (10-ounce) jar orange marmalade
2 tablespoons orange juice or water
1. Score the top fat layer of ham horizontally and vertically at 1-inch intervals. Push a whole clove into each fat square. Cover ham and refrigerate until ready to bake. (Can refrigerate up to 2 days ahead.)
2. When ready to bake, take ham out of the refrigerator an hour or so ahead. Preheat oven to 325°F. Place ham on a rack over a foil-lined roasting pan and bake 1½ hours.
3. Meanwhile, combine marmalade and orange juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until marmalade is melted.
4. Raise oven temperature to 350°F. Baste baked ham with half of glaze and bake 15 minutes. Spread on remaining glaze and bake 15 more minutes. Remove ham from oven and cool at least 20 minutes before slicing.
Grandma Zaunbrecher’s Cornbread Dressing
Makes 8-10 servings
You could tell it was Christmas Day just by opening my grandmother’s front door, when the savory, meaty scent of this dressing hit you.
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped small
2 stalks celery, chopped small
1 bell pepper, chopped small
2 cloves garlic, chopped small
2 cups (1 pound) ground beef
6 cups (8 slices) toasted bread
6 cups coarsely crumbled day-old cornbread
¾ cup water or chicken stock, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
Salt and black pepper
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimentos, drained
½ cup chopped parsley
½ cup chopped green onions
1. Preheat your oven to 375°F. Grease the insides of a 9x13-inch casserole dish. Heat the ¼ cup oil in a Dutch oven and sauté the onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic until just soft, about 4 minutes. Add the ground beef and cook over medium-high until brown. Remove from heat.
2. Soak the toasted bread in water and squeeze dry. Gently stir the cornbread and soaked bread into the beef mixture. Add the water, being careful not to break up the cornbread too much. You want it moist but not wet, about the consistency of thick mud, so adjust water as needed.
3. Add poultry seasoning and season generously with salt and pepper. Gently stir in the pimento, parsley, and green onions. Spoon into the prepared dish and bake, uncovered, until golden and crispy on top, 30-35 minutes. Serve warm.
Christmas Wine Cakes
Makes six 4-inch, or 12 baked in muffin tins (Make 1 day ahead.)
Throughout the 1800s, festively decorated pound cakes soaked in wine were a must on New Orleans holiday tables. You can still buy wine cakes at a few New Orleans grocery stores and bakeries, but none compare to the taste of homemade.
2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon iodized salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar, divided
4 large eggs, room temperature
¼ teaspoon ground cloves, optional
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups dark rum, divided (or port, sherry, marsala, or even wine!)
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Generously grease and flour six 4-inch baking molds or 12 muffin tins. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, use medium mixer speed to cream together butter and 1 cup sugar until it’s light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in cloves and vanilla. Using low mixer speed, add flour mixture and ½ cup rum to butter mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Beat until just combined.
3. Pour batter into prepared pans until they’re ⅔ full. Level off tops. Bake on center rack until brown and center springs back when lightly touched, 40 minutes for larger cakes, and 30 minutes for muffins. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes in pan. Remove from pans and set cakes on a rack to cool thoroughly.
4. Boil together ⅔ cup water and remaining 1 cup sugar until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and pour the hot liquid into a 4-cup measuring cup or equivalent shaped boil. Cool 2 minutes. Stir in remaining 1 cup rum. Completely submerge each cake into the syrup, and hold down in the liquid a few seconds. Place saturated cakes in a baking pan. Pour remaining wine syrup over cakes. Wrap pan tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
5. To serve, arrange cakes on a rimmed serving dish, and pour remaining wine syrup over each. Top each with a spoonful of whipped cream and a cherry.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles
Cynthia Nobles is the cookbook editor for LSU Press and the author/co-author of several historical cookbooks, including A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook, The Delta Queen Cookbook, and The Fonville Winans Cookbook.