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’.”

A Short Visit in Maycomb

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Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square…Scout Finch.

I have never driven through rain quite like that.

It was early June of 2010 and the Old Man, Pookie and I were almost at the end of a weeklong road trip from Pookie’s college in Vermont, to her new school in Mississippi, and finally back home to Florida.

But first we had to make a long-overdue pilgrimage to Monroeville, Alabama, the real-life Maycomb where Harper Lee set her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  Where, as children, she and Truman Capote once lived next door to each other, making up stories and racing down sidewalks and through neighbors yards to the courthouse square.

It had to be a magical place.

On the map the drive from Oxford, Mississippi to Monroeville, Alabama looked easy enough: a few four-lane highways and a couple of two-lane country roads.  It was just after dark when the rain started.  It was somehow foggy and raining at the same time.  The country back roads that were nothing on the map became treacherously curvy and hilly.  Visibility was so bad that the Old Man used the navigation on his phone to tell me how far I had to go before the next twist in the road. There was no place to pull over.

Somehow we made it through the white knuckle drive and the rain began to subside just as we pulled into town. It was a Saturday night but nothing was open and no one was out.  Even David’s Catfish House, where Miss Lee was rumored to be a regular patron, was fixin’ to close. It was no different than any other small town Southern county seat with a courthouse square.

The following morning we found the site of Miss Lee’s childhood home, which had been replaced by a walk-up dairy bar.  The home where Capote spent time with his aunts burned in the 1940s.  All that remains is the stone wall that separated the properties.

And Miss Lee.  She still lives in her hometown.  And today, 55 years after the publication of her only book, she announced that this summer she will publish Go Set A Watchman, a novel she completed in the 1950s which features a grown-up Scout Finch.  I have already signed up for a copy.

So maybe Maycomb, Alabama is a magical place.  Just like Cross Creek was magical for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, or Oxford was for Faulkner.  Or maybe even your community.  Even if it appears a little tired.

Cooking for Eudora

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“…like all good visits snatched from the jaws of time…” – Eudora Welty, letter to William and Emily Maxwell, June 10, 1970.

This is how I feel when my friend Cecelia and I meet for lunch—whether it’s a long overdue catch-up like the one we enjoyed today or a brief conversation over a sandwich.

Cecelia is also a world class cook with intuition: the friend who somehow senses that you didn’t quite make it to the grocery or that while the husband is travelling you will probably settle into a giant bowl of cereal for dinner. Without having to say a word, she will appear on the doorstep with a perfect Flow Blue Platter full of her famous “Macho Salad” or pork tenderloin with apples saying “I just made way too much and we’ll never finish it all.”

Cecelia is a gracious Southerner in the tradition of Eudora Welty’s neighbor and the Southern Living cookbook author Winifred Green Cheney, who kept the great writer as well as many other friends and neighbors sustained.

“She cooks to honor the visitor, and also she cooks for a varying but ever-present list of neighbors or friends who are convalescing from illness, who are in trouble of some kind, who are alone or confined to their homes,” Welty wrote in the preface to Cheney’s 1976 cookbook The Southern Hospitality Cookbook.

“The original Lady Bountiful was the invention of an Irish dramatist in 1707,” Welty wrote. “Winifred exists as her own version. She makes her rounds with baskets and trays as a simple extension of her natural hospitality. In good weather but especially in bad, splashing forth in raincoat and tennis shoes, carrying a warm cake straight from her oven, she sympathizes with you or celebrates with you by sharing her table with you.”

In addition to being a world-class neighbor, Cheney was a food columnist for The National Observer and also wrote the Southern Living Cooking for Company as well as the books Singing Heart and Singing His Song. Although her recipes are definitely from the 1970s sour cream loving era, I take some comfort in the fact that Cheney died at the age of 87 in 2000; Welty died the following year at age 91.

My favorite recipe from Cheney’s Southern Hospitality is the Sour Cream Pound Cake which she introduces with little fanfare other than “With no exceptions, this is the best pound cake I have ever tasted.”

Agreed!

Sour Cream Pound Cake

“Let me be confined to my typewriter with a deadline, and, as though it were a fate I didn’t deserve, Winifred appears with something on a tray to sustain me,” Eudora Welty.

Preheat oven to 325

1 ½ cups butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, lemon or ½ teaspoon vanilla and ½ teaspoon almond)

Cream butter until it has reached the consistency of whipped cream. When you think you have creamed it enough, cream it some more. Slowly dribble in sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in sour cream. Put measured flour into sifter with soda and salt, and resift three times. Add flour ½ cup at a time to creamed butter, blending well with mixer on lowest speed. Add flavoring.(Cheney used vanilla and almond along with two tablespoons brandy. I use orange blossom honey moonshine).

Pour batter into one tube pan, greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours or until cake tests done. Cool on rack 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Remove from pan and continue to cool.

Enjoy!

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!

Louise Shivers

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From the Washington Post obituary of Louise Shivers, a “late-blooming” writer:

“When she discovered writing, she found a voice for herself and for other women who didn’t have a chance to speak up on their own.

‘There are so many stories that women have known,’ she said. ‘Every time I pick up a pot, I think of my mother or my grandmother. So much was going on around them, but they never got out of the kitchen to tell about it’.”

I had never heard of Louise Shivers before she died. But now she’s one of my heroes.

Her book, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, is still available.

Or just check out her obituary…it might be the best thing you read all day!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/louise-shivers-late-blooming-author-of-here-to-get-my-baby-out-of-jail-dies-at-84/2014/07/30/ae909360-17fc-11e4-9349-84d4a85be981_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200