Tuesday, July 20, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

This last weekend was a triumph for Monroeville, Alabama. It was the 50th anniversary of the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It may turn out to be the fiction bestseller of all time. Almost every student in America reads it at some time. It is a multilayered work telling the story of life in a small rural town with the good, the bad and the ugly with honesty and humor. Those of us who live in the area will find ourselves, our lives and our ancestors embedded somewhere in its pages. This book has probably done more for us in the South to examine our prejudices and lay them aside in honor of the plight of the whole human race than the author ever imagined as she pinned her narrative. It is a morality play told through the fresh eyes of a child.

We here in rural Southwest Alabama have learned to appreciate our lives and opportunities because of it, the people in Monroeville, Maycomb’s model, perhaps most of all. They never denied that these things could have happened here. They took the lemons of the situation that could have made they have fingers forever pointed at them and made lemonade. They have been doing it for years with the annual productions of the play about the book.

This weekend, they all banded together to welcome the world to celebrate the birthday. People literally came from all over the world to be part of this. There were four days of activities. The schedule included a variety of activities. All of them were successful. The biggest hit was the dinner party held at the Hybart House, a property owned by the Monroe County Heritage Museum. A dinner was prepared by a husband and wife chef team from the Little Savannah restaurant in Birmingham. The menu consisted of foods mentioned in the book. There were 275 people who showed up for supper. Some came without tickets, which were sold out, but like good southern hosts, they were allowed to come anyway. The vegetables were all locally grown and fresh. There was fried chicken, of course, because frying is a sacred ritual of the south. There was sweet tea, which has been called the table wine of the South. Nothing was served that could not have been found on the table in the 1930s.

There was something for everybody during the celebration. There were children’s games of the Mockingbird era every day on the Courthouse lawn. There were daily walking tours with local stories led by local volunteers. There was a continuous reading of The Book in the courtroom that Hollywood replicated for the movie. There was an art show at a local gallery across from the courthouse. There were barbeque lunches served every day on the courthouse lawn prepared by the locally famous Chrtty Street Barbeque. On Saturday night there was a premier of the documentary “Our Mockingbird” by producer Sandy Jaffe followed by a reception on the courthouse lawn billed as “under the stars”. At the evening events Tequila Mockingbird was served. It was invented especially for Monroeville and oculd be had in a commemorative glass for $10.

The best thing about the whole celebration was how excited and involved the whole community was about being host to the world. Lest you think I am exaggerating, check out the Monroe County Heritage Museum’s website to see the articles written and the broadcasts produced about the event. Two major networks spent three days in this small rural town. Major dailies did stories in advance that helped to promote the event. The people of the town volunteers in whatever capacity they were needed. They manned the museum, lead the tours, lent their art, sold the tickets and whatever else was needed. They were unfailingly polite and cooperative to visitors. The museum staff set the tone with their own style of hospitality and grace. They were never too busy to answer questions and greet guests. The Chamber of commerce supported them in every way. It is amazing how a small town can pull together to pull off an event of national prominence.

The locals were all around town to share their Mockingbird stories. One man in a store located right across the street from the site of Harper Lee’s childhood home shared a reference on the Boo Radley character’s prototype. He said such a person really did exist. The man really was kept in the house. He was spied on by local children just like the book described. He was often seen to beat a stick against the wall in a rhythmic pattern with his head pressed against the wall to listen to the vibrations. There were other stories, too that were shared – speculations as to why Harper Lee denied interviews. People are not defensive about the topic of the story that related to the rape of a white woman by a black man who was innocent but still convicted. Most recognize and verbalize that those were different times. Today, all the people of Monroeville work together to keep the message alive in its real location of the story that has been heard around the world.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Food Equals Love

I don’t think southern culture is the only one that equates food with love in the family sense.All cultures have their equivalent. I just think that here in rural Southwest Alabama we have distilled the tradition to a meaningful fine art.

Several things have happened recently, tht have brought this fact home to me in a personal way. The first was the gift of my Aunt Hazel. She was literally at death’s door 6 weeks ago. I mean literally. She quit breathing twice. She is on oxygen around the clock. She smoked her lungs away. She was so addicted to tobacco that she would slip and smoke after she was told it would kill her. She unhooked the oxygen and lit up a cigarette. She was in the hospital for weeks. I just had a birthday. She cooked me dinner for my birthday present. She knew I loved her cooking, so she prepared food for my special day. It was one of the greatest acts of love anybody has every given me. It was not just a simple meal. She had made stuffed peppers, fried eggplant and green tomatoes, her famous potato salad and a butterscotch pie for dessert. Each dish had several steps in its preparation. The fried eggplant and tomatoes had to be individually pan fried. I don’t know when I have enjoyed a meal more. There was love in every bite.

Another recent example was when a long lost relative we had never met came to town to put a marker in the family cemetery named for a relative who was the first person buried there. She knew who some of us were because we had emailed family genealogical information back and forth. The local family, who had never met this woman got together and fixed a special supper for her and her husband. When she remarked on how nice it was of the local branch of the family to do this, she was told “If you will come all the way from Texas to dedicate this marker, the least we can do is fix supper!”All the local relatives were invited. Several came, all bearing dishes. One friend of the hostess had a garden full of the fresh vegetables. She lived 18 miles away. She came on Saturday morning bringing fresh string beans, cucumbers, okra, squash, corn and new potatoes. Not only did she bring them, but she sat down and helped the hostess snap the beans. We are still eating leftovers, which is a really good thing. One of the out of town relatives came. She brought 6 people with her, who ended up being my houseguests. I was the fortunate recipient of the leftovers. We had barbeque, snapped beans, squash casserole, coleslaw ( 2 kinds – broccoli and regular), baked beans, lemon rice, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and bell pepper rings. For dessert, there was chocolate pound cake and strawberry cake. There was sweet tea and cherry limeade to be had by all. This was another labor of love, which the guests apparently enjoyed. They didn’t leave until midnight.

The gift of the leftovers has served me well. I fed 6 guests for 4 days on them. The guests left yesterday, but the leftovers remain. I had another guest yesterday from Arizona. He was here researching his own roots. I live in what was his family home. I treat any of the Dunnings who come through as family. I had a family reunion for them here several years ago, so they know that the door is always open. I fed this man more leftovers for his dinner yesterday. He said he wasn’t hungry and didn’t want much to eat, but he made a liar out of himself. He didn’t eat many choices, but ate a lot of what he did eat.

Southern hospitality is what most people would call having all these people in to feed. Did I mention that some of the people who came with my sister, I had never met in my life? They came highly recommended by my sister and included 4 teenagers. Yes, you heard me right – 4 teenagers. I have observed one thing about teenagers, If you treat them like people, they will act all right. They giggled a bit and spend a lot of time on the computer, but they were pleasant and helped eat up the leftovers. Alll in all, there was a lot of love and a lot of food floating around these past few days. It’s a southern thing and we are celebrating our culture. Hurray for rural Southwest Alabama!

Friday, May 7, 2010

It Just Had to be Cornbread

Sometimes, if you are from the South, nothing will do but cornbread. We in rural Southwest Alabama are the quintessential southern eaters. All my childhood growing up, we had it every day for dinner. Dinner was in the middle of the day. We had fresh vegetables, maybe a meat dish unless the vegetables were at their height of freshness and flavor and needed to be the centerpiece of the meal, and always, sweet tea. No meal was complete without the cornbread. Vegetables without cornbread were just not done.

I was a picky eater as a child. My mother as all southern mamas, was a food pusher. You had to eat.  I was thin little thing as were my brother and sister. None of us are now as a result of Mama’s food pushing and our subsequent love of food that developed through her persistence. My downfall was peas and cornbread with lots of pot liquor. Until they became a summer diet staple, I didn’t really savor food. I liked it, but didn’t live to eat. It was the potlikker (in southern vernacular) that did it.

For those of you not versed in the preparation of peas and beans southern style, I will explain the process. A piece or two of bacon or Conecuh sausage if you are lucky enough to live where you can get it, is put into the pot where it gets brown and leaves drippings. Water is added to the drippings to create a broth. The peas or beans are then added along with a pinch of sugar to bring out the flavor. Be careful not to put in too much water to dilute the broth. Note: when I refer to peas, I am speaking of the southern kind, not the English kind. There are tons of varieties from pink eyed purple hulls to red ripper to my personal favorite, white crowder pea. Frozen peas are equally delicious to the fresh, though there is something mystical about locally grown fresh peas or beans. Butterbeans are either the homegrown kind picked young, which have a nutty sweet flavor or if you MUST serve frozen, use butter peas, the fat little kind. The peas should just be covered in liquid. Do Not salt the broth until the peas are just tender. If you do, they will be hard and take a lot longer to cook. When the peas are almost done, whole pods of okra can be laid on top until they are tender. At this point, our family removes the okra and serves it on the side. I used to wonder why when other people mushed the okra up in the peas. I found out later that my aunt Mary Jim would not eat okra, so my grandmother both flavored the peas and fooled her by serving it on the side. The pot liquor is a byproduct of the process.
The way I learned to love pot liquor was by crumbling cornbread on a plate, then dousing it with pot liquor and peas. It was delicious. It is even more enhanced by slices of fresh tomato. The corn bread and peas have a nice texture, with the liquor providing the savory compliment of moisture. My daddy swore I made humming sounds, a sort of uuuhhmmm when I ate it.

There is no way to duplicate the flavor of this mixed up dish without the cornbread, and cornbread for this dish needs to be made in a skillet. The crust is good for just out of hand eating, but it’s the dense, firm interior of the cornbread that is needed to uphold the pot liquor. There is a special small skillet in all traditional southern kitchens that exists to hold a pone of cornbread. It is just the right size for a family meal. It is always served warm cut in triangles. It is also good served with gravy of any kind, soups and chili. It is the thing that makes the dish substantial enough to be a meal. There is no substitute for it. When I think of food of my youth, I always see cornbread right there.

Historically, cornbread was what we had. It is truly an American thing, but after the Civil War when food was scarce, it was the main thing. When there was nothing else, there was cornbread. It became wired into southern genetic makeup to represent security – home, family, food. John T Edge has called us in the south “the Cornbread Nation”. He was so right.

In my childhood, we ate our big meal in the middle of the day. If there were leftovers, we might have them for supper, but frequently, supper was a lighter meal. I can remember my grandmother electing to have cornbread crumbled into buttermilk for her supper many a night. In the winter, she’d pull up in front of the gas heater and eat. I tasted it, but didn’t develop the taste for it that she had.  I wanted my cornbread warm doused in pot liquor and studded with peas. Either way, we agreed on one thing. Nothing would do, but cornbread!