Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Something Warm

OK.  It's January 31 and social media is a meltdown of hate-talk.  The weather lately has been cold/gray/dreary, but today the sun came out early and stayed all day, the kind of day in North Alabama where it feels good to open up the sunroof and catch a nice breeze in the 70s. Time to start rearranging the closet, putting the lined boots and boot-grazing wool coats back into storage.  Time to start looking at clothes lighter in weight and lighter in color.  People sat out at the sidewalk tables downtown at Yumm's and Odette's today: a serving of sun on their faces and breeze in their hair as a side dish with their lunch. For some folks, seed catalogs and garden plans are their happy place about now.  For me, I daydream about going to the Gulf on the first warm weekend.

Growing up, we always knew there was one warm weekend in late February or early March when it was possible to go to the beach and pretend it was already spring. Such a trip had to be spontaneous, spur of the moment. Throw a few things in a bag, grab some cash, fill up the car, go. Worry about the details when you get there.

Stop at the Durbin Farms exit and hope they are open this early. Buy whatever they have that is fresh, and be sure to buy some McEwen & Sons freshly ground yellow grits.  Further down I 65, look for Conecuh sausage, those smokey-flavored thin sausages in casings. Closer to the coast, find another produce stand, and then on the Coast, go to your favorite seafood market.  What you are looking for are fresh local shrimp and fresh local crabmeat.  If they have crabmeat, buy twice as much as you think you will need.

At some point during the weekend, you will want to eat this. 

Or maybe not.  Maybe you will do all of this in reverse order.  You will drive to the coast at night and arrive to see the moon on the water.  You will not stay at someone's house after all and will walk the beach, sleep in the sun, and eat at your favorite haunts. On your way out of town, you fill your cooler with ice one last time and stop to buy seafood.

Either way, this is what you will make to sustain you through the rest of the winter.

Shrimp and Crab on Grits
First of all, cook the grits according to the package directions.  If you bought the McEwen & Sons yellow grits, this will take about 25 minutes. About 10 minutes before the grits are done, gather the other ingredients.


• 8 oz Conecuh sausage in casings
• 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
• 1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
• cayenne, to taste
• 2 tbsp flour
• 1 3/4 cup(s) chicken broth, a splash of white wine
 • 1 lb raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 1/2 lb jumbo lump crabmeat
• 1 tsp old bay seasoning

 In an iron skillet, brown the sausage that has been cut into slices on the diagonal.  Cook until brown.  Remove sausage but save the drippings.

Add a bit of olive oil to the iron skillet and saute the onions and peppers until wilted.

Using a wire whisk, whisk the flour into the pan.
Whisk in half of the Old Bay, the chicken broth, and maybe a good splash of white wine. Let this come to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer. Let it thicken a bit, maybe 3 minutes.

Add the shrimp and cook for 5 minutes covered.  Gently add the cooked Conecuh sausage, the crabmeat, and sprinkle on the rest of the Old Bay.  Grind some black pepper on top. Cover it back up and let it all get hot.

Serve in shallow bowls over the McEwen & Sons grits. 


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Twentyfive things you might not know about me (repost)

I do not usually participate in the getting-to-know-you, getting-to-know-ALL-about-you exercises that make the rounds. But I did feel guilty the other day and post this one. I think it has enough 'accent' for this blog.

1. I like cars.
2. All cars: old ones, new ones, in between ones.
3. I cannot get rid of my old cars. I just add to the collection occasionally.
4. In the office parking lot, the oldest, dirtiest car is always mine.
5. My cars all have clean oil, right up to the full line.
6. There are not enough spaces in my garage to park my cars.
7. There are not enough spaces in my driveway to park my cars.
8. The sum total of the worth of all my cars--if I were to sell them--would not pay for a trip to Paris.
9. Or even Orlando.
10. Maybe Gulf Shores, for a couple of days.
11. I have so many cars that I have to have two auto insurance policies since they won't all fit on one policy.
12. The very few cars that I have owned in the past but which I do not currently own: I know who owns them and where they are parked.
13. I lend my cars freely for extended periods of time to those who need them. I don't ask questions.
14. My insurance agent does not know I lend my cars for extended periods to whomever asks.
15. I feel a special kinship with my mechanics.
16. I look for cars like my cars in movies, and when I see them, that place in the brain that is stimulated by heroin and/or the sight of a loved one.....well, you get the picture.
17. So far, I do not have any cars resting on blocks. So far.
18. Some of my cars are parked in the driveway of the house next door.
19. Actually, there is only one car currently parked in my garage, and that car does not even belong to me, but sometimes I walk past it and use the sleeve of my jacket to wipe off a spot.
20. Country of origin does not matter. I love all cars equally.
21. But I will have to admit there is something about the blended aroma of German leather and petroleum products that is incredibly moving.
22. A car with less than 100,000 miles on the odometer is like a two-year marriage--what do you really know about it?
23. My father once became so angry with a car that he poured a large can of gasoline on it and then flicked a lighted match in that direction.
24. The car did not belong to my father.
25. Other than a few anger management issues, my father was the sanest person in our family

The Squash Parade (repost)

Although I only saw the film "Doc Hollywood" once, several years ago, it was one of the few movies I actually saw in its entirety when my children were small. As I remember, it was not a particularly good film but one of the few movies of that time period I didn't sleep through. Any film that starts out with a gorgeous Porsche roadster plowing into a wooden fence has my attention. O, the heartache! O, the waste! And then the question: can the Porsche be repaired?

Other than the wreck and repair (twice) of the roadster, I can't tell you much else about the plot of "Doc Hollywood," but I remember it served up a slightly off-kilter, comic comparison of life in the fast lane vs. life as I've always known it: life in the dirt lane. Other than the Porsche scenes, there is one other scene I've never quite forgotten. The little town had a parade honoring its most successful agricultural crop, the squash. The movie offered a solid rendering of the small town parade. Nothing like the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving or the Parade of Roses on New Year's Day. Just the local folks hamming it up, walking down the middle of main street and waving to their neighbors, some folks pretending to be dignitaries, another walking down the street leading a pig on a leash.

Through the years, I have remembered this movie scene as I have lived many Fourths of July in the manner the folks in the Bend of the River celebrate. Even those of us who have never been to D.C. or Boston to see the grand fireworks shows and to hear the Marine Band or the Boston Pops conspire on a summer night to make us feel some kind of patriotism deep down in our souls, well, even those who have never seen it in person have watched it on television, thanks to satellite dishes. So I think we know we are missing the mark, but that's not stopping us.

Two "must do's" during the daylight hours of July 4 in the Bend of the River are fishing and swimming. If it is a hot day, dig your worms early, go out and catch an entire stringer of crappie and as many big bass and you can. After you are thoroughly sweaty and sunburned, it's time to go swimming to cool off. The best place to swim, of course, is Smithsonia Light, a tiny island with its own tire swing and shell shallows. Where we fish, I'm not telling. The hog-sized bass that got away on Saturday must be a lake record, and we plan to go back with a better plan very soon.

The other daytime activities vary. Before dawn, the smoker was loaded with ribs, so you know at some point there is pork to eat, but in the meantime there is a swing on a shady screened porch, and next to it is a stack of unread books. There are three canoes, a sailboat, and of course the yard is strewn by this time in July with windsurfing equipment just waiting for 15-20 mph from the South. There is croquet, badminton, a White Mountain ice cream maker, ceiling fans, and a lot of crushed ice and drinks to go with it.

By the time dusk falls, we are applying the sunburn gels and watching the pre-show of the lightning bugs (fireflies)rise up from the lawn. For the last three days, kids have run down to their docks with fireworks 'teasers': a string of firecrackers, a handful of bottle rockets, an occasional Roman Candle launching its glowing red, green, and blue fireballs fifteen feet at the most into the air. About the time the lightning bugs reach the treetops, we grab our flashlights and lawn chairs and head out for the dock. We don't actually know for sure that there will be a fireworks show, but we're feeling lucky.

There are sparklers, Birthday Cakes, screaming MeMe's, more Roman Candles. By 9 pm a flotilla of bass boats, pontoon boats, and a few cabin cruisers have assembled about 200 feet out. When the first of the real fireworks appears--this year it was a large golden chrysanthemum shower with the report of a cannon--traffic comes to a halt on the Natchez Trace bridge. It's time to watch the show.

We don't know exactly who pays for this, but we suspect one of our neighbors must have an interest in TNT, the local fireworks company. This is not the kind of fireworks sold at the neighborhood Southern fireworks stand, a grubby trailer guarded at night by a mean dog and a guy with a shotgun loaded with bird shot. This is the kind of spectacular, coordinated fireworks show that could only be attempted by someone who has read the rulebook and served an apprenticeship. The show starts out slow but works up by degrees. People are catcalling and whistling, clapping and rebel-yelling. The double star helix in red-white-and blue creates a war-like yell of appreciation. So what if it's not Boston and instead of the Pops playing the cymbals in the background, someone has cranked up their stereo with Sweet Home Alabama for the forty eleventh dozen time? For the Bend of the River, it's grand.

Even the next morning early, kids are still running out onto the piers shooting off firecrackers and bottle rockets.

And I'm thinking I need to buy a copy of "Doc Hollywood" as my very own.

I need to see that Squash Parade one more time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How To Tell If You Are In A Flannery O' Connor Story

(with regards to our friends at The Toast, who started this with Brit Lit)


Every prosthesis you have ever owned has been stolen.  By a Bible salesman.

You have a deep-seated, non-specific, but palpable fear of the line of woods in the distance.

When someone offers you a piece of chewing gum, you take your finger and lift your top lip ever so gently to show you have no teeth.

Everyone in your family is named John Wesley.  Even the females.

You never drive on four lane highways or interstates.  No matter where you are going, you take dirt roads or two lane blacktops with large ominous clouds shaped like anvils looming in the distance.

You keep a large looped strand of barbed wire in your closet.  Just in case you get the urge in the middle of the night to wrap it around your chest, under your pajamas.

Wait.  Hold the pajamas. You don't sleep in pajamas.  Only in dirty yellowed undershirts.

Every single person you come into contact with, each and every day of your life, is going to Hell.  Except maybe that daffy old priest who comes to visit and who hounds you about taking in more refugees of war.

For you, there is only one region of the USA. When you leave it and speak to people, they pretend they cannot understand you and ask you to communicate by writing your thoughts down on a piece of paper and handing it to them.

Every time you see a man repairing large farm equipment, you have the urge to rush to him and warn him to stop. But of course you don't. It never turns out well.

Your hair is naturally curly. And you don't even like Red Sammy's barbecue. You just want your family to get the hell back on the road to your family vacation in Florida.

You have a hard time passing by those statues of jockeys and footmen people place in their yards without stopping to take pictures and post them on FB. Along with a picture of the mailbox and enough other information that people can figure out who it is.

As a child, you had a constant runny nose and liked to take other people's books and hide them in your jacket and steal them.

Sometimes you get the urge to find the nearest street corner and start prophesying.

You have the sense that when you die you might just skip Purgatory and go straight on to Heaven because what you have been living here on Earth has been more than enough punishment to atone for your sins.

Monday, November 18, 2013


You may remember that My One and Only convinced me in January of 2012 that we should go vegan. Being vegan has been as easy as falling off a log .... and ending up with a sprained wrist, a deep cut on the forehead, and a temporary leg cast.

There have been some temptations along the way that have ended in non-vegan products being consumed.  
But nothing has been as hard to give up as oysters in late fall.

Both our families have oyster lore. My husband grew up eating Chesapeake Bay oysters while I grew up eating Alabama Gulf Coast oysters, but we both crave oysters in multiple ways when the leaves have turned from orange to russet. When we travel to either coast in months with the letter R in the name, we always carry our own oyster knife.  Now that we live several hours farther inland than we once did doesn't mean that fresh oysters are not available locally if you know where to look. And believe me, we always made it a point to know where to look.

Only now that we are vegan we are not supposed to be looking.

Traditions run deep. One and Only had a rich great uncle who lived in Mobile and shipped every Christmas a gallon of freshly shucked oysters to One and Only's Deep South grandmother.  I have several oyster recipes in her wavy/curly handwriting. Oyster Dressing.  Oyster Loaf.  But growing up near the Chesapeake, One and Only usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes right before he rhapsodizes about oysters like this:

"I cannot remember if it was at Chincoteague or Assateague or maybe it was at the Boat Club, but I remember one year these oyster fritters made with whole oysters, just the right size, not too big and not too small..." These are fine memories complete with scenic marinas and crowds of friends with nice boats having a blast on either the James River or one of the other scenic rivers that empty into the Chesapeake.

My own memories are more like:  "I cannot remember if it was on Swamp Creek or Hatchet Creek, but I can remember someone had gone by Adie Waites's store and picked up all kinds of orange and grape drinks and Dr Peppers for the kids and had them iced down with the beer for the men, and for some reason I got to go along even though I was a 5 year old girl and all the other cousins were older and boys, and after I had been fishing with a red and white bobber for what seemed like an eternity with no luck, the men got hungry and put out a spread of Vienna sausages, sardines, crackers, a wedge of yellow hoop cheese my daddy cut into slices with a pocket knife, and a jar of raw oysters with a fork and a little bottle of Louisiana hot sauce. My daddy put one of the oysters on a cracker, squeezed some lemon on it, hit it with the hot sauce, and put the entire thing in his mouth, smiling and chewing at the same time. When I asked him to, he did the same for me.  Fished out an oyster with the fork, put the oyster on a cracker with a few drops of lemon juice but only one drop of hot sauce since he said I was too young for any more than that.  I pushed the whole thing into my mouth, just as I had seen him do.  The explosion of flavor is one I will never forget. Tart lemon, tangy hot pepper and vinegar, the salty crispness of the Saltine cracker, and the juicy oyster tasted just exactly like the salt air smelled when we went to the beach at Pensacola.  There was no way I was going to just swallow it as quickly as possible and wash it down with Coca Cola as the boy cousins had told me to do.  It was delicious, and I wanted another one!"

Friday--as if my car was taken over by spirits--I found myself driving the 20 miles to the one little seafood hole-in-the-wall on the river that gets in fresh shipments of Gulf oysters.  No fresh ones were available in shell, but I went into the back with them as they opened up the gallon of fresh shucked oysters that had just arrived that hour from the coast.  I kept them on ice until the very minute they went into the cracker crumb, yellow cornmeal mixture--a Chesapeake/ Gulf Coast compromise-- that I seasoned myself with cayenne.  While we waited for those to fry in the black cast iron skillet, we ate a few raw on Saltines with lemon and a few drops of Tabasco.

Suddenly I was five years old and on a creek bank.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Redux: Halfway Between Equality and Richville

I have never repeated a blog entry before, but yesterday I read in the BBC that there are 17 million children in the USA who daily face hunger.  What I felt in this blog entry is still the way I feel today.

Halfway Between Equality and Richville

There is hunger in Florence, Alabama.

You wouldn't think so to drive through this pretty little town with its thriving downtown and well-kept historic neighborhoods. At night when the restaurants are buzzing, it's hard to find a homeless person on the street.

Florence does not have the kind of grocery store where union labor stocks the shelves with freshly made sushi and baby watermelons straight from a Chilean summer. For the last two decades I have shopped at a neighborhood grocery store where snuff and chewing tobacco are prominently displayed and where the hourly-wage workers know nothing about 'bargaining power'. Organic milk--or organic anything, for that matter--is not available at this store.

The reason I have shopped here for the past twenty-three years is because it is close to where I live. I have never lived in a subdivision nor do I ever intend to. People from the "section 8 houses" (government subsidized) walk to this store daily for food and cigarettes. Because it is a small store-- easy to get to and easy to walk around in compared to the behometh Walmart located on the outskirts of town-- the elderly like to shop here. College students pop in for cases of the beverage du jour. But mainly it is the grocery store of the working poor. The featured items prominently displayed include a lot of saltines, white bread, cheap breakfast cereal, canned vegetables, and store-brand boxes of macaroni and cheese.

Through the years I have seen a lot of young mothers, usually with their babies in their grocery carts, sorting through envelopes of clipped coupons as they shop, working hard to save a dollar here or there. I have seen fast food workers still in their uniforms in the check-out line with a cart full of the makings for chili or spaghetti. Later in the afternoon, the construction guys come in for a six pack and something to throw on the grill. Very rarely have I been in line behind someone using food stamps or WIC cards.

This Tuesday I saw something at this store I had never before seen. It was around 4 pm and parents had just picked up children from school. This is a popular time for people to grab a few items before heading home to make dinner. I was there myself for toilet paper, some grapes and a bag of rice, not an entire cart of groceries. As I picked up a basket and headed down the first aisle, a kid, maybe 8 years old, in badly fitting glasses, pleaded with his mom to buy a jar of mayonnaise. "But we're out!" He had picked up the mayonnaise from the sale floor display and held it up to show her the product as he pleaded. "You said!" he accused. "It's on sale." He held the jar of mayonnaise like a sports trophy above his head before he shifted it down to cradle it in a 'baby-doll' position. Whatever the mother said was whispered, but the kid in the glasses put the mayo back on the display and they headed for the checkout, a loaf of sliced bread the only item in her hands.

I don't think the reason they did not buy that jar of mayonnaise was because it was not organic.

Then on my way to find the toilet paper, I strolled by the meat counter. A man and woman in their 30s with two kids under the age of five held court at the hamburger section. They looked serious. They had obviously been in the store for a while because their cart was already relatively full of bags of potatoes, cans of green beans and corn, some dried beans, and several packs of the brand of hot dogs on sale this week. The dad had bought a store-brand grape soda from the cold drink machine, took a big swig from the can, and then handed it to the little girl, telling her to share it with her brother. When the wife showed him a package of hamburger meat, it was time for a conference. You could tell that they were adding up the cost of what was already in their cart and trying to decide if they could afford the hamburger meat. But what killed me, really killed me, was the pleading look in her eyes as she asked her husband if they could buy it, as she tried to rationalize the expenditure, there at 4 pm on a Tuesday afternoon in Florence, Alabama. She would really like to have the hamburger meat for her family, but they must first consult the rest of their grocery list and see if there would be enough money to buy it and the rest of the necessities they would need that week.

My grandfather was an accomplished gardener. By the time I was old enough to ride the school bus to his farm in the afternoons, he had two gardens. One was to supply food for his family. The other was to give vegetables to anyone else who needed food. One of my aunts was outraged by the people who came by to fill up bags with tomatoes, green beans, corn, and onions, people she had labeled as 'sorry people'. "They're just using him," she would say. "Just too lazy to make a garden for themselves." My grandfather smiled at my aunt and never said a word as he kept on cutting lettuce and pulling onions and radishes out of the ground and putting them into the trunks or back seats of the cars of anyone who stopped by and asked. My grandfather's farm was--and this is God's truth--halfway between Equality and Richville. My brother found the road sign the state of Alabama bulldozed when they widened the intersection there at my grandfather's farm. To the left: Equality. To the right: Richville. We were located halfway between the two.

Coosa County is a great poor man's county. Halfway between the struggle for equality and whatever lay on the other end of the spectrum. When my ancestors gave up owning slaves and moved there, I am not sure they knew what the future held other than hoping it was something more fair. Happier times, if no longer Richville.

It worries me that we seem to be drifting more and more toward what Jimmy Santiago Baca described in 1977 as "only a few people got all the money in this world, the rest count their pennies to buy bread and butter". My father came back from WW2 and never told us anything at all except that he had seen a man shoot another man dead over a wheel of cheese. Later we found out that Daddy had been in several major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, and that he had sat on a snow-covered 'bench' in Germany all winter as he ate his provisions only to find in the spring thaw that the 'bench' had been a frozen dead mule. We found out that he was wounded twice and one of only two people from his platoon to live through the entire war. But of all the horror he must have seen, of all the unspeakable horror there was in WW2, what he wanted me and my brother to know was this: given the right circumstances of hunger, people will do what they feel they have to do.

Butter or bullets is not a new dilemma, but in the meantime as our country figures out the latest round of this, maybe this is not the time to rub our gourmet acquisitions in the faces of others. As Julianna Baggott's recent FaceBook post read: "Dear food gloaters who upload pics of their (gorgeous) meals, as Sister Mary Bertha would say: Did you bring enough for everyone?"

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Weather Dreams: January 30, 2013

As a young woman my grandmother was struck by lightning--knocked out cold and quit breathing--during a Southern storm.  As a four-year-old, I had a recurring dream that the wind caused an airplane to crash into our house.  In real life I kept my little pink suitcase packed at the foot of my bed, sure that when the time came, the sound of the wind would wake me and I would hear the whine of the falling plane, giving me time to grab the suitcase and escape to my and my brother's large sand pile under a cedar tree in the back yard.

If you are from the Deep South, bad weather is part of your blood memory. 

My Southern colleague whose office is next door to mine has five weather apps on her smart phone.   She needs them.

This is not to say that people become visibly shaken or quit going about their daily business at the threat of what weather types like to call 'tornadic activity'.  People don't panic.  They keep right on brushing their teeth and putting on their shoes and appearing at the office as if it is a normal day.  Which it is not.

If you lived in the state of Alabama yesterday, there were periods of catatonic awareness, where concentration was limited and anything you attempted to do failed.  It was like someone from Louisiana had put a hex on us. The Weather Channel's Tor Con prediction number for our area was  moderately high at '5'.  Weather scientists can debate the legitimacy of the Tor Con Index all they want and make fun of it as wannabe science.  All I know is the Tor Con Index predicted the April 2011 tornado outbreak of 62 tornadoes that killed over 252 people in Alabama alone, according to the website al.com that lists all the names as well as the locations where they died.

Those 62 tornadoes raked our entire state as if the claws of a giant paw had swooped down from the heavens.  They left big long parallel gashes of damage that cut diagonally across Alabama into Georgia.

Yesterday it began up in the northwest corner of the state at 3 AM with the fading wail of the tornado sirens and the wind whipping the bare trees around in fits and starts.  My husband--who grew up in another state--stayed in bed, but I wandered down to the TV to stream the latest radars.  He didn't sleep any better than I did.  And when he got up to drive to work, we noted on the TV screen where he might encounter wind and driving rain on the road.  From there, the day just unraveled.

By late morning the threat across our region had passed, but we were all dazed and marginal.  So far there were downed trees, blocked roads, lost power. If there was a black cat on the street, it was going to run right out in front of us, we knew.  I watched a female student slip down in a puddle in her cheerful rubber rain boots. Students and professors alike had the semi-dazed look of the hungover.

By noon, as the hit parade of counties under the gun had passed further and further south, I got an email from my friend down in the lower part of the state.

"Tornado warning on now – sirens blaring." she wrote."The sirens are quieting now, and then restarting.  They are eerie. Impossible to concentrate or to work in this."

By the time my husband arrived home from work, the threat of bad weather had passed our state and moved its killing powers into Georgia.  But the look on his face told the story of his day. Everything he and anyone else at work had tried to do was jinxed. Doomed. Out of sync. 

And then we started hearing the stories of damage and death. Adairsville, Georgia.  Coble, Tennessee. Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. We heard countless stories of damaged roofs and flying awnings but also of old houses we love that had escaped the giant claw once again.  Then the stories of travel horror.   Not one but TWO of our friends stranded in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.  One got home in the wee hours of the morning by taking a detour flight and driving the rest of the way in a rental car.  The next day he left his laptop in the returned rental car, and just about the time he realized it, he got stuck in an elevator. Checkmate. The other friend couldn't get out of Dallas.  Her mom and grandmother back home in Alabama had been taken to the same hospital, freakishly, with nothing storm-related--at least not directly. By the next night, though, Friend # 2 had made it home and tweeted "1 flight, 1 hotel, 3 delays, 1 more hotel + 1 more delay = it's good to be home & cooking dinner for the fam tonight."

Some people say it is sheer human folly to worry about tornadoes.  If it's your turn, brother, it's your turn.  

But I say that to go about one's normal business on a day when the Tor Con is over the level of 5 is to face life head on,  head down into the wind of turmoil, and at the end of the day--if the power is still on--you can retell the story.  You can even laugh about it over dinner. But forget about it?  Never.  It's our shared history we carry in our blood.