Thanksgiving Tradition

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Last year I wrote about our Thanksgiving tradition of reading aloud a passage from a favorite book as we sat down to dinner. As this year The Old Man and I will again be in Mississippi for the holiday, I will go back to one of my most loved book of letters from two of the state’s best writers: The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy edited by Jay Tolson.

While Foote wrote the wonderful novels Love in a Dry Season and Shiloh, he is best remembered today as the author of The Civil War: A Narrative Trilogy. Percy, a physician by training, made a startling fiction debut in 1961 with The Moviegoer which went on to win the National Book award.  The Moviegoer is the novel that not one but two of the people I hold in highest literary regard have excitedly explained to me how reading it changed their lives…a feeling I completely understand.

Foote and Percy grew up together in Greenville, Mississippi, remaining life long friends and literary confidants, often writing of the daily indignities of a literary life.

“But I am in low estate. I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S….Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass… the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys… coming home of an evening with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky, having 4 drinks of good sour mash…” Percy writes to Foote while working on Love in the Ruins.”

And Foote describes a moment while working on his third volume of The Civil War:

“I killed Lincoln last week — Saturday at noon. While I was doing it (he had his chest arched up, holding his last breath to let it out) some halfassed doctor came to the door with vols I and II under his arm, wanting me to autograph them for his sons for Xmas. I was in such a state of shock, I not only let him in; I even signed the goddam books, a thing I seldom do. Then I turned back and killed him and had Stanton say, “Now he belongs to the ages.’…”

Growing up in the Depression era Delta, William Faulkner’s works obviously had great impact on Foote and Percy. So my reading this year will also include Foote’s eulogy to his friend in October of 1990.

“I would state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in time for what he was in simple and solemn fact — a novelist, not merely an explicator of various philosophers and divines, existentialist or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them or even influenced by them, than was Proust, say to Schopenhauer and Bergson. Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors. Like Flannery O’Connor, he found William Faulkner what Henry James called Maupassant, “a lion in the path.” He solved his leonine problem much as Dante did on the outskirts of hell: he took a different path, around him. Their subject, his and Faulkner’s — and all the rest of ours, for that matter — was the same: ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.”

Friday Declarations: The Pact

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Part One: by Cecelia

Most friends or neighbors will deliver a casserole or a pound cake to a family reeling from a death. My neighbor, Becky, and I have an agreement to do much more. When I die, she will be sweeping the contents of my underwear drawer into a trash bag.  I have only two final requests: clean out my underwear drawer and absolutely no open casket.

It took a few years of friendship with Becky before I had the courage to ask this favor of her. We sat at our annual birthday lunch at our favorite restaurant, and I leaned across the table to make my request. “If I die, use your key to get into the house and clean out my lingerie drawer immediately.”

I know Becky—she will lean towards making some chicken and dumplings or a skillet apple pie to minister to my husband in his grief. That’s the sign of a good neighbor. A truly great neighbor, however, will dispose of your underwear before firing up the oven.

While this might seem like a bizarre topic, she knows what I mean. We’ve gone to far too many estate sales where old brassieres and housecoats were sold alongside Minton and Fostoria. Who sells their dearly departed relative’s undergarments? And, worse yet, who buys their bras at an estate sale?

I rest assured that with Becky as my neighbor, my dainties will be burned and the ashes buried. I’ve pledged to do the same for her.

Part Two: by Becky

Every Friday morning I wake up early, fill the travel mug with coffee and drive to the homes of the recently departed. Once there, I stand in a line outside surrounded by strangers. And unless I am joined by a decorator friend or two, no one speaks.

I love searching through cabinets for the odd pieces of antique china that I collect or the vintage purses I buy for Pookie, but some sales feature parts of a life that should be disposed of before a line of strangers with cash come marching through.

My mother’s best friend from childhood had a wonderful solution to this travesty of allowing strangers, or anyone for that matter, to see her unmentionables. She swore her daughters to a solemn pact that immediately after she died they would dispose of her undergarments. Not only thrown away, but fully incinerated. It’s the only proper way to handle such delicate personal property, and a Southern solemn oath that Cecelia and I take very seriously.

If you ever see smoke coming from our neighborhood in the middle of a hot Florida day, don’t ask questions, just smile and maybe get a casserole ready.

Little Red Cooler

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Sometimes friends ask me to keep a look out for specific antique or vintage items as I’m scouring auctions or local estate sales. I keep a notebook of their china and crystal patterns in case they need a random piece to complete a set. Other times I just get lucky and snag something that I think they might want.

Last Friday, Pookie and I went to an estate sale at a very nice and meticulously maintained ranch-style house which had been preserved by its late owners as a sort of 1960s time capsule.

After scoring a perfect vintage silver plated tea service for myself from the dining room, we headed to the garage. Pookie was immediately drawn to the leather Samsonite briefcase in like-new condition which still had the original pens in the pocket from 50 years ago when it was new and expensive.

As Pookie ogled her briefcase, I spotted my great item of the day sitting under a table stacked with Christmas ornaments: a 1970s red Coleman metal cooler complete with bottle openers on the side handles. I could have sworn someone had told me about their desire for this exact cooler.

But who?

After we loaded the cooler in the car, I started texting the usual suspects. Cecelia denied knowledge of a cooler request but said that if it were plaid she would most definitely want it. Tristan was working on a house so I didn’t bother him. Pookie couldn’t remember either.

That’s about the time The Old Man called to check in from his office. I told him about my find and surmised, from his squeal of delight, that he was the requester. The person who wanted the cooler was my own husband.

It was the cooler of his youth. The one that his aunt and uncle packed with drinks and food for family road trips or took along while fishing. For him, a metal Coleman cooler brings back distinct and warm memories of a time when his Aunt Lucille would fill the cooler with enough sandwiches to keep the kids fed during stops at roadside picnic tables long before drive-through fast food became the norm for travelers.

On Saturday, after another long day of treasure hunting, we inaugurated the red cooler while “chairing” (see Chairing from July 31, 2014) with a bottle of champagne in our backyard. We made a toast to the couple who had valued their possessions and the people who wouldn’t throw old stuff away just because there were new things to buy.

And The Old Man is happy to report that the cooler still works…perfectly.

Birthday Food Part 2: Salmon Cakes

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It’s our boy’s birthday week. And even though he’s now fully grown with a wife, career in the Air Force, and a life of his own stationed in the desert too far away; his mother still wants him to have all of his favorite foods from childhood.

Because it’s his birthday!

Salmon Cakes

Our boy didn’t handle cow milk well when he was very young and there were sadly few alternatives like the almond, soy or cashew milk so wildly available today. So I set out on a plan to ensure that he had plenty of calcium heavy food in his diet.

That’s when salmon cakes became a cheap, healthy and regular dinner item. The best part is that everything you need for this super simple dish is probably already in your pantry or refrigerator.

1 can Alaskan canned salmon
1 egg
1/3 cup (plus more if you need it) bread crumbs…fresh or store bought are fine, cracker crumbs also work
1/4 cup of milk (soy or other alternatives)
Chopped fresh rosemary is optional but it gives a good boost
Black pepper

Drain and rinse the salmon in a colander. Then take a fork and crumble the bones and skin. Don’t worry, it’s not as gross as it sounds.

Combine salmon, egg, bread crumbs, rosemary and pepper in bowl. Drizzle with the milk until mixture reaches a consistency that is easy to assemble into round balls. Shape the mixture into balls or press into patties and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. When ready to cook, pour a small amount of olive oil in a skillet, warming over medium heat. Add the cakes and brown on both sides. This makes about five patties.

Our boy would—and continues to— eat these on sandwich buns or as small round poppers dipped in mustard. I prefer them with a salad, roasted potatoes and Cecelia’s homemade French dressing (Nectar of the Gods recipe first published in September, 2014).

However you eat them, they’re easy and delicious.

Enjoy!

Birthday Food: Spaghetti Carbonara

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It’s our boy’s birthday week! Even though he’s now fully grown with a wife, career in the Air Force, and a life of his own stationed in the desert too far away; his mother still wants him to have all of his favorite foods from childhood.

Because it’s his birthday!

So in honor of our boy and his debut in the world 27 years ago, here is the first of a week’s worth of recipes of his favorite foods.

Spaghetti Carbonara

It was the first recipe I could prepare from memory. And that is probably why when I do look at the stained photocopied sheet of paper from the early 1980s the recipe maintains almost no resemblance to the spaghetti carbonara my friends and family know today.

I have cooked this dish for large dinner parties, Thanksgiving dinners in support of Calvin Trillin’s campaign to replace traditional turkey with the pasta dish, but most importantly each year for our boy’s birthday dinner.

He remembers first requesting spaghetti carbonara on his 10th birthday when he could design the dinner menu. We were living in Washington, D.C. at the time so he also paired it with Armand’s deep dish pepperoni pizza. After we moved to Florida a few years later the he switched the beloved Chicago deep dish to basic Pizza Hut pepperoni.

Over the years, his birthday dinners have introduced countless friends of his to the amazing combination of eggs, bacon and cream saturating pasta and topped with cheese. But no celebratory dinner stands out more than his 20th when his birthday fell between two terrifying and long hospital stays. We always knew he was tough but we never knew just how tough until he drove himself hundreds of miles home from college with a ruptured appendix.

As The Old Man and I sat at the dining room table that night and watched him, surrounded by his friends, still very ill but able to eat his favorite food, we were very aware of just how lucky we were. And still are.

Spaghetti Carbonara

1 pound spaghetti or bucatini
2 eggs
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
8 slices of thick bacon cut crosswise into chunks
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh ground black pepper

Bring large pot of water to boil for pasta. In the meantime, fry the bacon until crisp. Drain on paper towels and reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon grease in pan.

In large serving bowl, beat eggs with half of the grated Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Set aside.

As pasta cooks, return the drained bacon to the pan with the 2 tablespoons of bacon grease. On low heat, add the heavy cream stirring constantly and heating through but not to a boil.

When pasta is done, drain and immediately add to the serving bowl with the egg mixture. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs. Stir completely then add the cream and bacon mixture.

Top with remaining cheese, more black pepper and chopped parsley.

It is wonderful fresh, but as our boy proclaims, “It’s even better at 2 a.m. eaten right out of the refrigerator.”

Enjoy!

Growing Up With Elvis

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By Pookie

He’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive, but I grew up with Elvis. Not through his music, but through bathrooms.

As a way of honoring the King, my parents hung a picture of Elvis above every toilet in our home: an ironic gesture that I like to think he would have appreciated. My brother and I never questioned it growing up, we thought of Elvis as the patron saint of bathrooms, until we learned where the music legend died. We still find it funny.

No bathroom has the same totem. One has a Russell Stover’s Chocolate box graced with his iconic visage while another has a black and white Andy Warhol print of Elvis singing. But the master bathroom is a special shrine to the King. Above that toilet is a picture from December 21, 1970: Elvis shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

Apparently, Elvis set up the meeting with the President in hopes of getting a badge from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Although he didn’t get the “free drugs” badge, as he saw it, he did get to schedule a meeting with the head of the free world on his own terms, in the famous office, and gift him a Colt .45 from his personal collection while saying “I’m on your side”.

The photo that doesn’t look like it should exist has evolved into a somehow factual myth. There is now even a movie due out this year based on this coming together of 1970s super powers. Elvis and Nixon will star Michael Shannon playing Elvis and Kevin Spacy adding onto his presidential acting resume as President Nixon.

Looking at this picture, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t want to be Elvis. Starting as a poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi and growing into such an influential person that he could arrange meetings with the most important people in the world and have them actually play along, even while wearing a purple velvet suit, cape, and obnoxiously large belt.

Long Live The King.

Pookie is a poet and proud Ole Miss Alum who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

The Undefeated Eleven

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I’ve long been a believer of the “ripple effect” in dealing with people, especially the young people I meet.

The intellectual term is “elevation” which was coined by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. Haidt believes that witnessing courage, compassion, or generosity can not only make us better people but increase the likelihood we’ll do good works of our own.

I thought of creating good ripples when I came across the yellowed newspaper clipping that was stuck in the back of a book I found in the private library of the grandest estate in town. The clipping had a picture of two coaches and 21 boys wearing football sweaters and leather helmets which must have been miserable in the heat and humidity. It was taken in 1927 just a few blocks from our Old House which was newly built. The headline read “The Undefeated Eleven.”

This team was not playing for the local high school but for the Bartow Boy Scout Troop 1 and they travelled the state of Florida playing against military and junior high school teams. The never lost a game. The coaches were their troop leader: George Watters “Floppy” Mann and E.A. Bosarge who, according to the news report, “guided the boys in their troop in other activities besides football.”

“They taught them ballroom dancing, how to play bridge, and gave them exercises in table manners using silver borrowed from Gen. and Mrs. A.H. Blanding for place settings,” the story reported. “Mann and Bosarge did all the instructing, except for the girls who joined the group for ballroom dancing classes.”

“They took the boys on trips during two summers to Canada, Mexico and Colorado, using their own money plus a charge of $6 to each scout and contributions from interested citizens. The boys travelled in a bus, furnished by Bosarge, and a truck which Mann owned, and camped out at night along the way.

Mann was a success in business and lived in our town until his death in 1974. Bosarge went on to a long and prominent legal career which included arguing cases before the Florida Supreme Court. General A.H. Blanding was appointed Chief of the National Guard Bureau by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and before that as a member of the Florida Board of Regents he helped to build the University of Florida into an academic powerhouse.

One of the boys, G. W. “Buck” Mann, helped guide the citrus and cattle industry for years in Florida. Another, Kelsie Reaves, went on the graduate from West Point, work as a staff officer for Joint Task Force 7 conducting atomic tests at Eniwetok Atoll, command the 14th Infantry 25th Division during the Korean War, serve on the staff of NATO, command the 3rd Armored Division in Germany as well as serve as the Deputy Director, Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. during the Vietnam War. He retired as a Major General.

“Elevation seems to have a ripple effect, triggering cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes,” professor Haidt says. “It makes people more open, more loving, grateful, compassionate, and forgiving.”

I like to think that it was their proficiency with etiquette, their world view influenced by travel in addition to toughness learned on the playing field that helped these boys establish a town, serve their country and lead productive lives. But whatever the reason, the story of these boys and their volunteer leaders from a tiny rural town is a great lesson to all of us that good actions can lead to good ripples.

Motivation: I Meant To Post This Yesterday

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by Pookie

There is just enough room
on the half-made mattress
for a strategic nap,
body curled carefully around
an assortment of books,
clothes, and technology
that have long been separated
from appropriate housing.

There used to be a chair
next to a former desk,
but it is now a shelf
of laundry that might be clean
and a table of used
and forgotten kitchen-ware.

There is a pathway on what
might be hard-wood floor
from the door to the bed
and the bed to the bookcase,
an artfully mapped plan around
high-heels and dusty sneakers.

The piles keep growing
but there is still enough room
to moderately function.
I will deal with it later

Pookie is a poet and proud Ole Miss Alum who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

The Old Man: Burning in the New Year

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Traditions are one of the ways we tell ourselves and each other who we are. And if you live in a small town, you know how sometimes even the smallest of traditions can carry enormous weight. New Year’s Eve is when my little southern town in Central Florida carries on what is apparently a unique tradition in America.

The Bartow Christmas tree burning has been going on for 78 years according to some accounts. Even though the pile of trees collected and stacked around a 35 foot-tall wooden pole on the edge of a soccer field seems to get a little smaller each year, the tradition keeps going.

A decade-and-a-half ago, when we came to witness our first tree burning, we stumbled across the bumpy grass in a darkness that was so complete we wanted to stretch our hands out before us. Finally, we recognized the dim shapes of dozens people gathered at the edge of the field. We made our way there, recognizing voices from our church and neighborhood. We found a place to stand just as a pinpoint of light from a flashlight ignited above a small podium a dozen yards away.

The voice of S. L. Frisbie IV, the editor and publisher of our town’s twice-weekly newspaper, welcomed everyone and began to explain what was about to happen. With the soft-round vowels of our local accent and the gentle humor that is his trademark, he told the story of how a city councilman in the 1930s worried about the fire hazard of having tinder-dry Christmas trees inside wood frame houses more than a week past the holiday.

This councilman began a rumor that it is bad luck to have a tree in your house after the First of the Year. Once he convinced his colleagues on the City Council of this superstition, he succeeded in winning the City’s approval to hold a community bonfire with donated Christmas trees from the citizens. The idea quickly won support. Whether they were concerned about luck or just wanted to know that their own tree was part of the celebration, people eagerly contributed their trees to the effort, and a new tradition was born.

The bonfire was interrupted during the Second World War over concerns that Nazi U-boat navigators might spot the glow on the horizon. Once we were free from the thought of Germans peering through periscopes at a small town 60 miles inland, the tradition was renewed, and S.L. says the Associated Press occasionally lists our town’s tree burning as an example of unusual community events in America.

And so, our town’s tradition has also become our family’s tradition. Ever since we first came here, we have stumbled through the dark with children and friends to the join the small crowd at the edge of the soccer field.

We listen to S.L. deliver the same monologue — with the same jokes and same wonderment over such things as New Year superstitions and enemy submarines. Then we join the voices in the dark singing a Scottish tune most of us don’t understand the words to. And then we applaud and cheer as the stack of trees bursts into a golden blaze that climbs high into the sky, driving the night from around us.

In this moment we know the past is burning away, and its glow is helping us to see clearly everyone around us, smiling, laughing, and gazing at the flames. On New Year’s Eve, we’ll be there again, celebrating the past and looking forward to the future.

Happy New Year!

Victory Over Daily Life: The Washing Machine

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The slight smell of burning rubber coming from the laundry room should have alerted us to a problem. But it was the weekend and something in the dryer probably just got hot.

By Monday, it became clear that it wasn’t the dryer at all.

Isn’t it always a load of towels that sends washing machines into spasms? Or in our case just murdered the appliance with the sudden precision strike of an assassin.

It was Monday, I was ill, and it was raining. So I did what any person in my situation would do…I called my mother to complain. Whine really.

And it helped.

There was no reason to panic because I actually have two washing machines. The recently deceased one that was a part of the 2004 addition to the Old House and the older top loading one that sits in the original laundry room behind the garage and is nothing more than a shelf for Christmas decorations.

I believe that every old house in our neighborhood has an outside laundry room, sometimes connected to the garage but never to the house. Early in the morning, you can often catch a glimpse of our neighbors, huddling in their bathrobes, dashing out to their laundry rooms to fetch some necessaries. It’s Florida and the builders of these houses got it right when they decided that the last thing they needed was an appliance blowing hot air.

After my pouting and foot stomping, I pulled myself together enough to call the repairman and dust off the old machine so that I could be back in the laundry business.

Now it’s Thursday.  In three days I have become an expert on washing machine transmissions. Who knew that there were such things?  And who would have thought that they would eventually leak oil and die on a rainy Monday?

Not just the one machine…no, both my washers decided to go out together like an elderly couple in one of those wonderful stories, or probably more like Thelma and Louise.

The new machine with a viable transmission is on its way.  A trip to the laundromat ended the immediate dirty clothes crisis.

My cold is gone. The sun is out.

But I’m sure there will be something else to whine about when I call my mother this afternoon!