Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ere the Winter Storms Begin

I keep seeing these little featurettes on "how to survive your family at Thanksgiving," the assumption being that everybody has a family full of jerks. In fact, there's one such article on Salon right now, entitled "A Holiday Guide to Arguing With Your Right-Wing Relatives." Then there are the articles which presuppose that Thanksgiving dinner has to be a six-course gourmet stunner requiring all-night cooking marathons and exhausting repeat trips to the grocery. There must be millions of people for whom Thanksgiving is this way, but I feel sorry for them. They've missed the boat on the best holiday of the year.

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving meant the Tennessee cousins were coming to Georgia (or we were going to the cousins'). Either way, it was heaven for me: I was the youngest in the extended clan, and there is no such thing as a kid who does not like to hang around older siblings and cousins, in order to get a preview of coming attractions (dating; high school; acne; college). Aunt Ruby and Uncle CC and the four cousins would always promise to arrive at 2 and get there at 4, bringing pound cake and a gallon jar of ambrosia and dressing, several side dishes and at least three kinds of pie, which would be added to the three kinds my mother had already made. My mother would also make the turkey, and no force on earth could stop her from also making collard greens, which she loved but which are not everybody's favorite smell. (One year my cousin Butch came in the door and announced, "Aunt Ruth, something has died on your stove.") There was no such thing as menu planning; in fact, there was no such thing as recipes, because this was just the kind of food every Southern cook knew how to make. The china didn't match, the serving dishes were a motley collection of Tupperware and whatever was handy, and the kids always wound up with the salad forks because there weren't enough of the big ones to go around. The table was a card table attached to the dining table extension, covered by an old bed sheet or mismatched table linens. Nobody cared.

But the food was only half the attraction, if that. Mostly, it was just the talk. My family was not a bunch of joke-tellers; as somebody once observed, Southerners do not tell funny stories; they tell stories funny. (For that very reason, these are hard to reproduce--you really had to be there--but there was the time my cousin Butch was asked to assess the structural soundness of a building his church owned, and found during his inspection a massive bee's nest in the rafters and a nursing mother in an out-of-the-way classroom, and returned to the next deacons' meeting to report, "My brothers, I come to you from a land of milk and honey.") Before any of this, however, there would be church--a Thanksgiving morning pancake breakfast (probably designed to get the kids out of the kitchen), followed by a worship service at which we sang, "Come, ye thankful people, come/ raise the song of harvest home/All is safely gathered in/ 'Ere the winter storms begin."

It was the faint chill of those last three words that always struck me--a dark background for a brilliant present, a reminder that winter would come, and death would overtake us, and we would not always be together. And indeed those things have happened. But somehow it's okay; those memories exist for me in some kind of Eternal Now, protected from time and decay and death. Come to think of it, that Eternal Now is all I really have right now, today. It's all I've ever had, or needed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Born Fighting

The Scotch-Irish, the dominant ethnic group that settled the inland South starting about 250 years ago, were not pleasant people. They were from the border area between England and Scotland (or, in some cases, from Ulster)--dirt poor craftsmen, tenant farmers and horse thieves. They tended to be quarrelsome, clannish, quick to violence and dead set against top-down authority in any form. I can say this because these are my people--a fact I'm proud of, overall--and I bring it up because I think you have to go all the way back to explain why folks in the South--and Georgia in particular--have their shorts in such a knot over something called Agenda 21.

If you look up Agenda 21 on the United Nations website, you will find a long and rather boring document adopted by that body back in 1997 as a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first global meetings called to address issues such as climate change, development and environmental damage in Third World countries. But according to the far right-wing/Tea Party folks, as described in an an article yesterday in Salon, Agenda 21 is a "UN conspiracy to deny private property rights, which Obama will help accomplish through a mind-control technique known as Delphi." Part of the government's agenda is a plan to move all suburbanites to the city, the conspiracy theorists believe, according to a presentation made at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta last month and attended by several members of the state legislature. (And this, boys and girls, is not the weirdest/dumbest thing that body has ever done, by a long shot.)

What explains the readiness with which so white folks in the Deep South believe that the government is out to confiscate their property, brainwash their kids, relocate them to slums and force them to toil as peons? There are lots of immediate reasons, but the mind-set that provides such fertile soil for these things in any era is one which never accepted any government to begin with. Today's Tea Partier, the school busing protester of the 1970s, the 1960s era John Bircher, the 1950s segregationist, those guys giving the Rebel yell at Chickamauga--a good many of them trace their roots all the way back to those scurvy-looking immigrants David Hackett Fisher described in Albion's Seed as people who had the gall to "[demand] to be treated with respect even when dressed in rags." At its best, this kind of stubborn pride gave us folks like Davy Crockett; it was the force behind the Populist Movement, and it's given us a disproportionate number of genius-level military leaders over the last two centuries. The flip side is this: a nasty mean-spiritedness that sees everybody outside a small network of kin and like-minded neighbors as one vast conspiracy out to take what's theirs.   

Friday, November 9, 2012


So I am sitting at my computer at about 10 a.m. and I have just figured out my way through a particular problem I was having in an op-ed piece I was hoping to pitch somewhere, when the phone rings.

"Mom!" says the frantic 11-year-old on the other end. "I need khaki pants! Hurry! They're loading the buses!"

It turns out that her class is going on a field trip, which I actually had known about; what I hadn't know was that a requirement for going on said field trip was khaki pants. The 11-year-old knew this, but it had slid off her ADHD brain pan before she could convey this to me. Apparently this information was also contained in the form letter that had come home a week earlier, the one I had scanned quickly, noting only the part where it said "$5.00" and then the part where it said "Parent's signature." Public schools these days send home a bewildering blizzard of paperwork, and you have to go through it fast to have any hope of making it to be before midnight, so I go through these things fast. Too fast, as it turned out. Sonofabitch.

So I go upstairs and root through this child's closet, which is a horror, and finally I pull out a very wrinkled pair of lightweight khaki capris with ketchup stains on one leg. It is approximately 45 degrees outside--not exactly capri weather. But this is the only khaki there is, so it will have to do. I race down the hall and turn on the iron and try to make it look halfway presentable, ketchup stain and all, and the whole time I am muttering nasty things about stupid rules that say kids have to look color-coordinated when they venture off campus, even though there is no school uniform policy and it's not like I send my kid off to school every day looking like a pole dancer, for God's sake. Then I race down the stairs and manage to find my car keys and squeal out the driveway and down the road toward school--remembering, too late, the goddamn speed camera they've just installed on one stretch, which means I am going to get another $40 greeting from the city in the mail in a few days just because I was probably going 42 miles an hour in a 30-mph zone, which is one mile over the 11-mile-per-hour wiggle room that everybody knows the cops use but which puts me in the same company as a meth addict screaming down the road at 80. And you can't complain about that, because then all the priss pots in the world will come out from under the kitchen sink where they live and say "If you don't want a ticket, you shouldn't speed" in their best I-told-you-so voice. Sonofabitch.

So I manage to slow down to a somewhat more stately pace and pull into the school parking lot right behind the big yellow bus that is sitting out front, and as I pull up to the front door with khaki pants in hand, my child comes out of the school and runs toward the car and says, "It's okay, Mom, she said I can go dressed the way I am." Sonofabitch.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Nation, Divided, by Race and Class

I am no expert in demographics, but take a look at the New York Times election map, and drill down to the county level. What's clear as day to me is that we are a nation starkly divided along lines of race and class--and my native region is one of the starkest examples.

On the state level, the South is a solid sea of red. But on the county level, there are distinct patches of blue: along the Mississippi River and up through the heart of the old cotton plantation country, known as the Black Belt. That's majority-minority land. Then there are the urban islands: Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Richmond, Nashville. These are increasingly places for the more affluent: gentrification has been driving out inner-city blacks for a while now, and Atlanta--the largest majority black city in the nation--has seen unprecedented growth in its white population over the last decade. Although there are plenty of affluent black people living in Atlanta, that city also has the starkest wealth disparity statistics of any city in the nation. The South's urban areas are job meccas for the better educated, and for those people who represent the South's rapidly increasing ethnic diversity. Urban, relatively affluent, educated and ethnically diverse populations tend, all things considered, to vote Democratic. They have a communitarian approach to government, and tend to see it less as "the enemy" than as a mechanism for regulating the excesses of capitalism and allocating resources.

Then there's the Other South, the part Romney won most decisively--is the mountain South. We're talking here about the Ozarks and the Appalachian band that starts in northern Alabama and curves up through Tennessee, southwest Virginia and West Virginia (and up into Pennsylvania). Those areas are rural, majority white and home to voters whose median age skews well over 40. The rest of the South won by Romney also fits that general description, though to a lesser degree. These voters value individual initiative and freedom from government restraint; they're also motivated to a huge degree by "values" issues that affect their faith and their family--mainly, same-sex marriage and abortion.

The first group sees the other as narrow-minded, selfish and bigoted about other races and cultures--and they have a point; the second sees the first as lazy, unprincipled, native about real-world threats and suffering from a massive case of entitlement--and they, too, have a point (much as it pains me, a member of the first group, to admit it). We are like a dysfunctional family, where everyone contributes to the problem, nobody has a lock on what we need to do, and emotions are too raw to even think about having a productive conversation. I don't think even Dr. Phil can fix this.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Harvey's South Georgia Vichyssoise

I didn't have much hope for this one, being as how I'd also run across a recipe in my mother's old green book for something called "Chicken Tetrazenie"--but this one, at least, looked pretty good. Harvey, bless his heart, knew his onions, because this one called for three large (or four medium) Vidalia onions, and anyone who is from Georgia or those parts knows that real Vidalia onions are to regular onions what Harvey's Bristol Creme is to a jug of moonshine. So you sautee the onions in butter until they are soft; add 2 i/2 cups peeled, diced potatoes, 2 cups of chicken broth, some paprika, salt and pepper. Simmer for a while, then run it through a food processor and chill; when ready to serve, add 1 1/2 cups of milk, 1 cup heavy cream, and fresh dill for garnish. Martha Stewart uses leeks and throw in a pinch of nutmeg, but otherwise this is a simple but sophisticated bit of cookery.

How it wound up in my mother's recipe book is a mystery.

Next up: something called "Harlequin Casserole," and it turned out to be as hideous as its name. You take butter and flour and make a white sauce. So far, so good--but then! Then you pour in two cups of tomato juice and cook until it is thick. Into this pot of congealed blood you throw celery salt, paprika, thyme, chopped onion, chopped bell peppers,  grated cheddar cheese and (because you can't have blood without flesh) one cup of "tuna, or salmon, or cooked diced chicken." In short, whatever canned meat you can find in the fallout shelter, and if nothing else I guess you could open a can of Spam. Then put a layer of canned mushrooms on top of that, and, just for the hell of it, throw in four hard boiled eggs. You pour this glop into a casserole, and because the horror is not complete without one last finishing touch, put some biscuit dough on top, sprinkle some cheese on top and throw the whole thing into a 425 oven....where, we can hope, it will burst into flames. Let us never speak of this again.

Short one here: "Carrot Balls." I've heard of Carrot Top, but Carrot Balls?  

And, finally: "Holiday Ideas," which deserves to be quoted in full: "Mix one-pound can drained whole cranberry sauce with a 9-ounce can of drained crushed pineapple; fold into 1 cup sour cream. Freeze in fluted cups for special salads in a hurry." Yes! Because you never know when company will drop in and say, "Tracy, I am just dying to eat something that will really spike my cholesterol out of a fluted cup. Do you have anything like that in your freezer?" You definitely want to be able to say, "Why, yes! Yes I do."

But I am not throwing any of these recipes away--and even though they are good for a hoot, I'm not keeping them to laugh at, either. They remind me of the person my mother was--the ambitious young 1960s homemaker who had been forced to eat out of garbage cans during the Depression, but who was determined, how that she was a married lady and a mother, to learn how to be a gracious hostess and good cook. I loved her, and I loved everything she cooked.

Except for the salmon croquettes. Those things I wouldn't feed to the dog.

Drown in Mayonnaise, Bake Until Puffy

This green book had been sitting on my kitchen shelf for years, a relic of my mother's kitchen that I hadn't looked at but was unwilling to throw away because it reminded me of her. This morning the hubster said, "Do we have any room in your recipe book to put in this recipe for smoked ribs? Because if not, why don't we use that other green book?" So I got down the green book and took a look, and Oh. My. God.

These things dated back to the early 1960s, remnants of the time my mother had two little girls under foot in a house at the very edge of the south Atlanta exurbs. Our house didn't even have a street number: there were several fliers in there addressed to "Rt. 3, College Park." These were relics of an era in cooking when  nobody was counting calories, all seafood came in cans (at least for those of us in the deep inland South) and you could make a salad out of a pair of old saddle oxfords if you just had some unflavored gelatin, canned fruit, miniature marshmallows and sour cream--or, possibly a gallon or two of mayonnaise. I only recognized one or two of these recipes as things I'd actually eaten, which I guess means they represented my mother's culinary aspirations as opposed to daily reality. But what aspirations!

1. No-name recipe: "In a shallow buttered baking dish, arrange stalks of cooked and drained broccoli. Lay thin strips of chicken on top. Cover with sauce made by folding one beaten egg white into one cup of mayonnaise. Set just below broiler just long enough to allow sauce to swell up into something resembling human flesh involved in blunt force trauma become brown and puffy." Let us move on. Quickly.

2. "Spiced Grapes." Why, Lord? Why?

3. "Skillet Supper. Take 8 small potatoes, 12 small carrots, one package frozen peas, one bunch green onions and one recipe meat balls. [I guess everybody knew what "one recipe meat balls" meant.] Arrange in large skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Add condensed consomme. Cover and cook about 20 minutes. Serves 6."  Six what? On second thought, maybe this was what the housewife of the 1960s set out on the back stoop for the hired man, assumed he still had the strength to stagger up to the house from the south 40.

4. "Egg Curry Ring. 2 envelopes plain gelatin, 1 and 1/2 cups cold chicken brother, 4 teaspoons curry power, some lemon juice, some Worcestershire, grated onion, 1 and 1/2 cups mayonnaise [you knew that was coming, didn't you?] 8 hard cooked eggs and and some chopped olives. Mix up everything but the last three ingredients and refrigerate until it looks like pus unbeaten egg whites. Blend in mayonnaise, eggs and olives; pour in a mold and chill until  firm." Transport directly to the nearest EPA toxic waste dump. (That last part is my tweak.)

5. "South Georgia Vichyssoise." I'm afraid to look.

More later.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

How to Screw Up A Saturday

1. Walk into the kitchen to get lunch and notice an aromatic candle that has almost burned down. Think to yourself, "I'm gonna pour off that melted wax so the wick can burn down and I can get every last penny out of that sucker. This'll only take a sec."
2. Pour off wax only piece of paper towel on counter. Quickly realize: Big Mistake.
3. Grab paper towel and hurry to trash can, dripping candle wax all over floor, counter and several utensils on counter.
4. Quickly put towel BACK on counter, where it proceeds to spill over.
5. Grab a spatula and go to work on the floor, scraping off congealed wax.
6. Go look up "how to get candle wax off laminate floors," because it's not all coming up.
7. After 10 minutes with the index in the Home Comforts book that is your bible for all household accidents, say to hell with it.
8. Finish scraping up what your can, vacuum up the rest.
9. Pour yourself a glass of iced tea and make a sandwich.
10. Take a big swig of tea and realize that those little gray specks floating around in your glass are....candle wax.

Friday, November 2, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again

I just finished writing a book about the South, and I've been watching the Presidential race polls closely--not because there's any doubt about which way the Deep South will go. The South is Romney Land, as this map from the  from the New York Times' 538 blog makes clear.

In the 20 years since I've lived in the Deep South, it has grown steadily more conservative and Republican, while I've grown steadily more liberal and Democratic (for lack of any other party that better represents my interests). I guess that's why these days, when I go back home (as Georgia will always be to me, at some deep level), I meet a cold and alienating climate. If I were to move back to Georgia--as my husband and I have talked about doing, maybe, IF we ever get to retire--I would be living among people who speak with the Southern accent I love, cook the foods I grew up eating, share the same sense of the importance of extended family, and have many of the same memories of the distance we have come in terms of race relations. But I wouldn't be at home: I'm pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-Obama--unless, that is, I stuck to living in a handful of urban enclaves where people of my ilk tend to congregate.

The latter is what Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort is talking about: we are all living these days "in Balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible." Divisions these days aren't dictated by geography, the way they were in the days before the Civil War, because we no longer live in an agrarian economy. But geography still reflects the fault lines of politics, religion and class that divide us--and the South, as it always has, reflects the most extreme of those divisions. I can still go home again, but I'll never feel completely at home there anymore.