Archive for the ‘Southern’ Category

My-Hand-To-Your-Mouth Syndrome

November 27th, 2011

mymableMy wife and I each had grandmothers Mable. My version was le chef redoutable, or as she didn’t speak French, the formidable cook. She was famous in her family and town and county for her baked goods and her overall kitchen skills.

Moreover, she so strongly identified with her food, there was no separation. She had three children — girl, boy, girl, and taught none of them to cook. They were born in the 1920 and as understandable for the period, her son was expected to marry a cook, not be one. Her daughters were shortchanged in that Mable’s kitchen was just that. On occasion, such as canning and pickle making seasons, you might be pressed into service as a culinary lackey, but it was almost as though you were blindfolded. It was Mable’s hand to your mouth, the magician keeps her secrets.

In many ways, my Mable was my nemesis. She was often severe to a circle of us — her husband, her daughters, her sister, and my sister and me.

Yet we owe her much. Most obviously, physically I got my big feet, absurd chest and shoulders and bone structure from her. Granddad was more delicate, with size 8½ shoes for example.

She was also demanding in the dining and living rooms. We were expected to participate in conversations…and no jive. She wanted fully formed arguments and opinions based on facts.

She also pressed my sister and me into service in the many summers and holidays we boarded there. We regularly cleaned the windows and storms with ammonia and newspapers, subject to her inspection. Likewise, we dusted each newel and stairpost daily, subject to her inspection. She was quick to find fault.

Now of course, an bit of humor is that I exhibit some of her traits. Foremost is that I am the family cook. Although I eagerly teach to wife and children, I have that emotional tie to my kitchen and the pressures and joys of my-hand-to-their-mouths cooking. I’m good with food, know that I am, and enjoy people enjoying what I produce.

Unlike Mable, I have cooked tens of thousands of unique dishes. She lived by her recipe box, which I own. I combine drawing on what I’ve picked up over the years. I know what will taste good together in what quantity. In another sense of the term picked up, I cook by what I pick up from the Haymarket, farmers’ markets, green grocery and supermarkets. My week’s menus generally reflect what’s available at the food sources, including our backyard and side yard gardens.

For a couple of decades, we’ve hosted a Southern Thanksgiving. At least one member of each couple and family has roots in the big arc from Virginia through the Carolina into Arkansas. Generally, I planned the table and cooked nearly everything. It’s an exhausting death march for 15 to 25, but I love it. Slowly over the years though, my wife and the two sons still at home have become cooks too. They’ve caught the pleasing-others-with-food disorder and want to participate.

This year was thus different from most others. While guests often would bring their families’ favorite pies, and occasionally a side dish, this time was edging toward participatory cuisine.

As I recall the low and high living room tables and the dinner table, we served the following in 2011. I likely forgot a few items, but this is the gist, our version of a groaning board. The remarkable aspect is how cooperative this year’s was. Note the parens with initials of various preparers who are not I.

brie en croutem (EB) kasseri various crackers
hummus (EB) jalapeno mustard pita
baba ganoush (EB) sparkling ciders (various fruits) ales
collards (JL) red wines mashed potatoes
beer still cider white wines
turkey red onions filled with vegetarian stuffing cranberry chutney (EB)
cornbread turkey (CT) green beans almondine sauerkraut
stuffed shells (IB) vegetarian and turkey gravies tea
coffee sweet potato pie (JL) pumpkin pie (TC)
cherry pie (CT) Boston cream pie (IB) pecan pie (KC)

Previously, I would work steadily a day or two before and throughout the entire appetizer period up to the moment of the main seating. Not this year. So much was done by others before or in the prep period that I socialized much more. That was definitely something gained and something lost.

Perhaps I’ve matured enough to share.

Those Pine Things

November 11th, 2011

pinetagsStriding down Brush Hill Road yesterday, I thought of the Americanisms related to those dried leaves from pines and many other evergreens. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the female coyote that trotted fast across the road and into the backyard of one of the Lowe Circle MacMansions. Those aforementioned pine leaves on a rock beside the road weren’t moving though.

My South Carolina born and raised wife is quick to note when I fall back to my West Virginia and Virginia upbringing here. To me, these were and are pine tags. Down in her past parts and up here, these are pine needles often and pine straw sometimes.

As with other terms, spellings and pronunciations we learned from a parent, sibling or beloved fifth-grade teacher, we just know that there are specific correct ways to say them. We can be at our worst when we say a loud accusatory, “I’ve never heard anyone call them that!” That, of course, says more about us than about the other person.

I accept that pine tag is both regional English and less common than pine straw (and far less common than pine needle). Yet, I can’t decide whether my preference for my childhood term is because I’m just routinized or perhaps because it sounds less prosaic.

Regardless, it’s not a term I find in many conversations. Sometimes I catch myself and use the local terms. Other times, I let my past announce itself.

Yellow Flowers by Black Creek

November 10th, 2011

The uxorial unit led the trip to South Carolina. She comforted a recently widowed girlfriend from college days, enjoyed a couple of days with the godmother of one of our sons, and had several days with her elder second cousin. I arrived two days before we drove furniture from her late parents’ house back to Boston.

There were the clichéd and expected, plus a colorful flora surprise.

Thick accents and thicker grits were parts, as were tall biscuits (White Lily flour certainly). Thigh-high cotton fields in full fluff lined the roads. Every town had at least one Piggly Wiggly. Nobody cut off another driver or honked at anyone slow off the traffic light. In fact, slow was just fine. People held doors for each other and said, “Ma’am” and “Sir” without irony or sarcasm.


A nice extra was only a quarter of a mile from her cousin’s house in Hartsville. Kalmia Gardens is a combination arboretum with labeled plants and a formal Southern garden and a boardwalk beside the cypress swamp that is Black Creek.

As so many Southern splendors, this is a rich woman playing with her money for visionary pursuits on a local level. In this case, it was not to name it after herself or her husband nor to restrict it. She gave the resulting property to Coker College, which was named for her wealthy family. She fixed up the neglected, trash heap of land (rather paid people to do that), designed the walks, plantings and more.

It has been open and free to the public since 1935.

Coming down from Boston after our slush fest on top of our usual brown fall, I was pleased to see so many plants still in bloom. Amusingly, the specimen sugar maple has yet to turn color, while ours are long defoliated. My snaps from the walk around are here.

My wife’s cousin has not been down to Black Creek, although she did host an engagement dinner on the grounds above. It is 94 steps down to the uneven boardwalk…and 94 steps back up, unless you lie down and die. We thought it was worth the stairs.

Turning On and Off the Fans

September 19th, 2011

Arr, know ye all on Talk Like a Pirate Day, me be no football fanatic.

With that out of the way, I am not oblivious to sports. In particular, having started college at the University of South Carolina, I see and hear about it from friends up here in Yankeeland as well as former classmates. Moreover, I was sports editor of my high-school paper (I confess because it was the open slot and I would much rather have run features).

USC logoLately, the Gamecocks have been sports newsy, popping up to 10 or so in the polls. While I honestly think they have been lucky to win both times so far and should be no higher than 18 or maybe 15 in the country, I admit this has been a steady climb. With nearly everyone in power in that state having an undergrad or law degree from the red Carolina, that’s a big deal there and big donations from alumni.

Now their former (ACC) and current (SEC) conferences are big in the sports news. It seems the former snagged two Big 12 teams and adopted a poison-pill-style strategy that any team leaving would have to pay a $20 million penalty. Ho hum, then again ha!

Waaaay back, I arrived in Columbia with little interest in football. Heck, in high school, I covered it as part of the job, but I had been on the wrestling team first then finished as a swimmer. I started college on the swimming team and living in an athletic dorm on a partial scholarship. My only real affection for football was secondary. The badly underfunded swimming team had the right to sell programs outside and inside the stadium and we made a lot of needed money doing do.

Otherwise, Carolina had a hugely successful basketball program under coach Frank McGuire and labored under fantasies of similar success for football. The ACC was the best basketball in the nation and its football was so-so, giving the Gamecock some hope for success. They tried their damnedest, including renting Paul Dietzel, who was doing great at Army after success at LSU. He had one great year, but a losing record overall. That coupled with a sense of victimhood in Carolina basketball and football teams somehow “cheated” out of conference championships when they lost in tournaments. In 1971, a pouting athletic program went independent

As this was brewing, I broke my resolve to avoid sports writing. In the campus paper, also The Gamecock of course, I ridiculed the whole program in a column. In very heavy-handed terms, I wrote that they should drop the pretense and go pro. If they can’t win on an even basis, they should become professional and buy the best and biggest as they tried with coaches.

Well then, despite many strong political columns in that extremely conservative state and region, this one hit it. Wealthy alumni as well as sports-oriented students flipped. They took it literally and wrote long, dull-witted letters about why that was not legal. They called the university president, the dean of the J-school, the top editor of the paper, and they wrote to the local daily papers. They even did what I see so often in MA (as with Elizabeth Warren), pulled the parochial he’s-not-from-here routine.

Eventually though, after 20 years of hit-and-miss records, Carolina joined the SEC in 1991. That was fine for basketball, but suddenly they were in with the big boys of football. It took them a long time of being the team that got snapped with the towel in the locker room — rather got run over by bigger, faster, just better players — to get their football act together. They recruited and trained and coached up to where they are.

Now when the team is on the front of the sports section or web pages, I am likely to notice. I’m not all that interested in the far more local Patriots (or any football). I’m not quite as snippy as the Church Lady about it, but honestly, there’s a larger world of greater concerns. Then again, I have my own diversions and distractions when those bigger issues weigh heavily. Let’s not begrudge those with a sports Jones who remain suspended in their college years.

Plain People Parade

August 29th, 2011

queensPlump girls on horses and scrawny ones on ponies. One tractor after another. Fire trucks from every wee burgh in Hampshire County. Teen beauties in sparkly gowns. Wrapped candies tossed from every vehicle.

Until I saw the 14-minute video of this year’s county fair parade in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, I had forgotten.

These are my people.

They may not claim me. I moved away, first to Manhattan and then to Boston, so I’m not from Romney as far as they’re concerned. Yet, I spent my summers and holidays there with family. These are the folk I sat with at the Mountain Top, Pioneer and Green Palm. These are the distant relatives I learned to swim with in the Potomac. These are the lads I stupidly jumped from the tall bridge into the river with. These are the girls I learned kissing with. These are the plain folk who find simple pleasures in such as parades.


There’d be a parade for the fair. Of course, they’d be one for the Fourth of July. There’d be one for Heritage Days (after all this is the oldest town in the state, the one where George Washington as a young surveyor slept in the barn in the still standing house behind my grandparents, and the one that happened to be on a major train line, so it changed hands something  like 56 times in the Civil War).

I remember what seemed like onerous duty at the time, rather times, of parades. My grandparents lived on South Marsham Street, a block off Main Street (a.k.a. Route 50). One of my chores was to bring a backyard picnic table bench to the sidewalk in front of the A&P. I would set it in the place my grandmother designated, close enough to the curb to reserve the room. Then my sister and I would take turns sitting there and refusing to let anyone else, so that a few minutes before noon, parade time, my grandmother and any neighbors she’d invited would walk down to take their throne on the parade route. I was out of luck and only served to wait until after the parade to lug the wooden bench back.


I’m a boomer and never questioned the inequality and arbitrary abuse of power. I respected my elders and did what they told me.

Even now, I can recall the crude thrills of the parades. It certainly was what passed for theater in Romney. It surely was superior to any school or church play.

In my late 20, married and running a grocery magazine, I returned to Romney for the Fourth parade. My newish wife came and we did enjoy it. A long-time family friend, nearly 90 if she wasn’t already, had stayed up all night baking pies for church. Then she rode on a float, and walked back to the start to march with her women’s group. If I can find the issue of the magazine I published the story about it in, I’ll do another post.

Everybody knew this, that and the other person. All the marchers, musicians, baton twirlers, drivers and candy tossers got cheers. Pretentiously we could say that bonhomie reigned. In plain terms, people flat out enjoyed every moment.

Rock Doves and Hammers

August 22nd, 2011

European diners are fond of squab and the Brits call them rock doves, but Americans seem to dislike pigeons almost as much as Canada geese. None were as hostile as my Grandmother Mabel.

While Romney was the county seat and the largest town around that part of West Virginia, it had under 2,000 folk. So, pigeons like we see befouling benches and picking lunch leavings from trashcans weren’t a serious problem. Yet, to Mabel they were monsters.

My grandfather literally built their compact three-bedroom house. The backyard had a guard of a gigantic maple that was host every seven years to cicadas who’d leave spectral, fragile molted shells on the bark. The magnificent tree oversaw more regularly the swarm of neighbor and relative women who arrived when Granddad brought bushels of Lima beans, tomatoes, string peas and such, that required processing and sharing both of the goods and the gossip.


The pigeon trouble came about half way up the maple. They would spend the night either in the adjacent limbs or directly on the roof. Then come dawn or even before, they’d coo and COO outside her bedroom window. Mabel was deeply insulted and took this as a personal affront. She spoke of pigeons with the disdain and anger country preachers reserve for the Devil and his minions.

So it came to pass in those days when I was a gentle, curious and naive lad of perhaps six that I had both pigeon shame and triumph.

For the shame, unlike many children, I loved hearing adults such as the six sets of great-aunts and great-uncles spinning their webs of memories and stretched truths. One of those recurring tales was metaphorical, but I took literally. I didn’t understand the science, but I heard many times that if you sprinkled salt on a bird’s tale, you could pick it up, catch it.

Well, to the ridiculing delight of the family, I very stealthily came behind a pigeon on the picnic table and dumped a fair amount of table salt on its tale. For a long moment, it looked curiously and then took off. My mother explained there was no science, that if you were close enough to salt the feathers, you could grab the bird. Ha ha, you literal-minded child.

That did not cause me to hide in my room for the rest of the summer. Instead, I plotted other ways to capture a bird. Lo, these many years later, I’m not sure why I wanted to do so, but it must simply have been the challenge, plus the plethora of robins and pigeons in the yard.

Eventually, I succeeded. I stalked and walked a youngish pigeon into thick ivy on the building beyond the goldfish pond. It tried to fly away from me and was caught in the vines. I sprung and had it in my hands. I was proud.

My grandmother was ready. She had observed this from the kitchen. As so many of us, she loved to see others fail at small tasks, but seemed to have gotten over this disappointment quickly. She likewise sprang, from the house to the tool locker on the back porch. She loped toward me with a ball peen hammer. She exclaimed that she would finally have some revenge and would crush the pigeon skull in small retribution for the many too-early awakenings.

I immediately opened my hands and tossed the bird up, where it beat away. Mabel was both angry and confused. When she told the tale at dinner, my grandfather was not at all surprised. He had a son and other grandsons who loved shooting deer, rabbits and birds, but knew I was not interested. Nature might well be as the cliché goes red of tooth and claw, but I was not.

License note: The pic is, of course, Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with it. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

The First Lowell (Rather 25th)

July 31st, 2011

There’s one last day at this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. As usual, we were there and recruited a pair of first-timers for this one.

Also, as usual, we heard a long-time favorite and found a new-to-us gem. This is really the best, biggest free music around. Channeling Mr. T again…I pity the fool who misses this.

Some highlights follow.

Pix Trix: All images are Creative Commons Attribution 3.0, use ’em with credit. Click on a thumbnail for a larger view.

A new treasure was Greenville, MS’ Eden Brent. She’s powerful, raw, funny and romantic simultaneously. She does serious boogie-woogie. eden1
eden Brent’s mentor, Boogaloo Ames, nicknamed her Little Boogaloo. He’s dead, but boy does she carry on.
We’ve heard Shemekia Copeland from her first visit here. It’s fabulous that she still comes by even when she’s well established. She alone is worth a trip to the LFF whenever she appears. She gives loud, passionate and believable blues. copeland
clevelandfiddle I’m not huge on bluegrass, unless it’s great. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper is. These guys are highly skilled, blazing fast on most tunes, and present the best of the genre from way back. They seemed to have more fun than any other act.
Most years, the LFF includes at least one a cappella gospel master group. This year’s Birmingham Sunlights were high energy and alternated sweet and rocking. sunlights

Lizard Man in the Hot

July 21st, 2011

turtles1Yankees, grits and thermometers bring the oddest weather prides and tolerances. Today was maybe 96° in Boston, allegedly feeling 10° warmer with humidity. That’s not so bad, even though the better-safe-than-sorry sorts had their klaxons blaring.

Yankees, as in folk in New England, often display their masochism or stupidity by not wearing hats in bitter cold winds, and claiming to love snow and ice. Grits, as in folk in the deep South, slow down but claim to thrive in 100° air. A reasonable cliché is that Northerners turn on the air conditioner when it’s 73° and Southerners put on a cardigan when it’s below 68°.

While I’ve lived in Boston for most of my life, much of my childhood and youth was where heat’s the norm. Today in Boston was fine. I’m not unhappy or uncomfortable. I biked for a couple of hours this morning, getting out before the air hit 80° and returning, wet but OK before it got to 90°.

Truth be told, when I was out in the hottest part of the day later for chores, I was a happy as a basking lizard. I know I’m not cold blooded, but in real heat, I can relate to basking.

Of course, even, or maybe particularly, New Englanders go to a lot of distance, expense and other trouble to bask. They’ll hit the Cape or Esplanade or backyard to crisp up in the sun. That’s desirable. Somehow feeling the heat when you don’t seek it is not. Meh.

Maybe for me it was also the years in the lifeguard chair and all the associations. As a blond, I started summers too damned pale. I’d bake in the chair, getting blonder and brown or at least brownish at the same time. I got paid for goofing off, rolled with visions of pulchritude, and enjoyed the heat.

The mildly crushing embrace of the hot sun evokes those halcyon, long days with a whistle on a lanyard around my neck. I truly enjoy my cross-country skiing in the eenies or at zero with a wind chill way down, but in my heart and under my skin, basking is just fine.

How Do Grannies Eat Those?

July 7th, 2011

Summer is when bananas brown, then blacken fast. Hiding them in the fridge gives you an extra day, but they’re doomed like the pretty supporting actress in the sci-fi flick.

Yet, my grandmother was one of many who could hardly wait for what most of us think of bananas gone bad. She’d set aside a few in her pantry just for them to turn black.

She had other country eating habits that moderately appalled me. The worst was surely her raw passion for the chicken neck. That gnarly mess that was trash to me, when cooked looked like a stick you’d pick out of a stream, was perfection to Mabel.

When I heard a Bill Cosby routine about this, I got it thoroughly. He spoke of his mother or grandmother making love to a chicken neck. The skit had lots of sucking noises, including finger cleaning. That was the otherwise prim Mabel totally engaged in capturing every fragment of cervical goodness from that overbaked osteoid arc.

She was also the one who’d be sure to have a wee seafood fork when we had a beef roast. She’d pluck the marrow from the bone and savor it. That was a much quieter display.

Of course, the aim of eating each of what was trash to me was sweetness of one type or another.

It’s true enough that black bananas as ripe and redolent. You can smell them as you approach the house, as can every six-legged flying critter, all of whom seem determined to beat you to them. Sure they’re soft to the point of being pulpy. The flavor is so strong and the sweetness so intense, they overpower all, like a cloying version of a stinky cheese.

That’s the point for someone who likes sweetness with intense aroma and flavor.

Likewise, Mabel would take the magnificent local peaches and ruin them to my mind with sugar. In the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, she was surrounded by apple and peach orchards on the mountainsides. Granddad would keep her supplied with the biggest, best and ripest peaches. I’d like them out of the wooden baskets, but Mabel wanted them even sweeter. She’d slice them, sprinkle sugar around and store them in the fridge for a day or even two. The chemical changes broke down the structure a bit, making them softer, darker colored and even sweeter.

Banana, neckbone, marrow or peach, the points were sweetness and intensity.

Today, I’ll keep four or five browning bananas, but only for secondary purposes. They are the basis for great banana bread, and can make delightful pancake augmentation or even an ice-cream like frozen dessert.

I don’t have Mabel’s sweet tooth. In fact, I’ve gotten less of one as I age. Candy bars I used to love, like Heath Bar, are far too sweet to me now. I favor a 70% bittersweet chocolate square. When I bake pie or banana bread I put in half or a third of a traditional portion of sugar. I want the flavor intensity to outrun the sweetness.

De gustibus though. Mabel thoroughly enjoyed her treats. To those who eat only to live, I say that’s a noble construct, but my grandmother got serious, repeated pleasures from her treats.

Birds, Beasts and Bragging

June 29th, 2011

Rip ’em up. Tear ’em up. Cocks give ’em hell.

That was by far the most popular cheer when I attended the University of South Carolina. My high school in New Jersey also had a bird (bird?!) as mascot, but not with razor spurs and killer reputation. Instead it was a cardinal.

I confess that I am not a true sports fan. I like the team sports I participated in — wrestling, swimming and water polo. When the Olympics coverage shows those, I may watch.

Gamecocks tee shirtIt should surprise no one that I’m not a big USC Gamecock’s fan. Yet I did become aware last year and this, as the team had a shot at back-to-back college baseball national championships. Last night, they did win the College World Series and did it right. It was an all-SEC final, against Florida. The red Carolina swept the three-game playoff after winning all of its CWS games. Or as Yahoo Sports put it, “South Carolina became the first team to ever go 10-0 in an NCAA tournament and the first since Oregon State in 2007 to go unbeaten in a CWS. The Gamecocks’ streaks of 16 NCAA tournament wins and 11 straight in the CWS are both the longest all-time.”

So, self, I ask you, why when friends were were also jocks or even just alumni go on and on when their alma maters do anything remarkable, are you blasé? I still do athletic things, am a hulking guy, and of course, once a jock, you keep that mindset at some level.

I’m understandably indifferent to a second college, Lesley in Cambridge, where many years after journalism school, I got a management degree. That likely has to do with no longer being a teen, as well as taking the courses at what was then a hotel on Route 1 in Norwood, where the business school shipped its professors one night a week for a long, long session. In fact, we called it Ramada U. As it turns out, I was the only one who had bothered to find out that the few, almost entirely women’s teams had a lynx as their mascot. None of us in our study group or the program ever attended any games.RU

In Columbia, I did attend football games, but to sell programs, which was a money maker for the underfunded swim team. I also wrote news, but mostly opinion pieces for the student newspaper. There I ran afoul of the fowl-loving real fans.

Our football coach/athletic director was the allegedly brilliant Paul Dietzel. He built a shakily assembled (really pissy) record there. Then when he had the double slam of thinking the ACC rules kept him from recruiting enough big dummies for football and the very good basketball team got skunked in the conference tournament, he took Carolina independent. It subsequently ended up in the SEC, which is much, much tougher in football. It took them nearly 20 years to morph into truly competitive teams there.

I found his crybaby exit from the ACC pretty stupid and puerile. One of my paper columns that got the most hateful responses was a satire about it. I suggested that we forgo such pretenses as athletic conferences and instead go directly professional, so we could simply funnel the huge alumni contributions into paying jocks directly. We could buy championships and be done with it. Lo and woe, many students and alumni were mightily offended. In a state where nearly everyone in power had at least one degree from Carolina, many threats and curses came to the board and president. In fact another journalism major told me that when he was crossing the horseshoe in the old campus and hailed President Tom Jones, he told him on being asked that I was gone. He said Jones grinned and said, “Good!”

I surely have robbed myself of frequent simple pleasures in vicarious participation in an alma mater’s successes. That’s odd in that I have many cheap thrills. I revel in our own flowers, herbs and other plants, as I do in those I see as I walk or cycle. When I create a new or I think improved dish, as I do several times weekly, I can be smug. I can even delight in a small square of 72% chocolate or snifter of Lagavulin like it was a sacrament.

Those though are all personal and direct.

I admit it’s great for the young Gamecocks that they won it all in their sport, and two consecutive years. I was never on a team that did anything like that. They’ll have bragging rights for the rest of their lives. I just don’t see how it has much to do with me.