Adventures With Huckleberries

Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Yes, I’m Your Man.”  According to the authoritative  “Urban Dictionary, the phrase “I’m Your Huckleberry” was common slang in the 1880s for “Yes, I’m the man you’re looking for.”  So when Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday coyly answers Johnny Ringo’s challenge of who wants a fight, he’s saying he’s ready.

In Tombstone, that western pinnacle of guilty pleasure, I find my admiration of the Earp Brothers well-mixed with my (a-hem) appreciation of that fevered brow, natty handlebar mustache, and straight-shooting gun wielded by Doc Holiday.  Val Kilmer, the embodiment of the handsome, naughty, well-educated Doc is indeed ready for the job.  Filmed in 1993, Tombstone relays the story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral.  And truthfully, has nothing to do with this literary post other than the movie’s use of the word “huckleberry” gave me a chance to revel momentarily in my crush on Val Kilmer’s Doc.

Image

And really:  can you blame me?

So now, back to the real post:  The Adventures of Huckleberry, published in 1884, sweeps readers into another archetypal American story as Huckleberry Finn floats down the river with escaped slave Jim.    Mark Twain, the famous pseudonym for Samuel Clemons, begins the first-person narrative with this warning:

NOTICE

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narra- tive will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

I promise not to try to find a motive or a moral or a plot.  But I will say that many reviewers note that Huckleberry Finn is the foundation of modern American literature.  I will also say that the book seems as significant to those who want it banned as to those who want it to be part of every high school curriculum.  The language is tough and seems so unnecessary and downright evil to our modern sensibilities.  But Twain wrote this narrative in 1884 and was depicting the Antebellum South of approximately 1834-1844 according to Twain.  The language for the time and place was, sadly, accurate.

Interestingly, we chose this book for our book club this month and I was the only one who finished.  The six others said the language required too much concentration; they had to read the book in small doses in order to understand the dialects and dialogue.  I certainly see the point, but once you dive into the language and allow it to flow over you like the river Huck and Jim navigate, to me it becomes easy and entertaining.

And Huck’s descriptions of the natural world are gorgeous.

…It was a monstrous big river down there — sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up — nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them.  Then we set out our lines.  Next we slid into the river and had a swim so as to freshen up and cool oof; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come.  Not a sound, anywheres–perfectly still–just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull frogs a-cluttering, maybe.

huckleberry-finn

With respect to Mr. Twain’s wishes, Huck’s journey down the Mississippi river coincides with his growth from boy to man; and represents American’s own maturation from a gawky fledgling yearning to test and try itself through the Civil War.

Ernest Hemingway said:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where … Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

MENU & RECIPES

For book club, I served the following menu:

Watermelon daiquiris — 1/2 watermelon in chunks, 1/2 cup of spiced rum; 1/2 cup of triple sec, 1/2 cup of fresh lime juice.  Add ice and blend.  Makes 6-8.

Watermelon balls

Fried okra

Cornbread — 2 tablespoons grease or lard (EGADS!  I used olive oil), 1 1/2 cups self-rising corn meal, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Grease an iron skillet.  Preheat oven AND cast iron skillet to 450.  As oven heats, mix cornmeal, butter milk and salt.  When pan and oven are hot, slide the cornmeal mix into the skillet.  Bake for twenty minutes or until top and sides are browned.  Serve with butter.

Cornbread Battered Fried Catfish

Hop’n’John — Out of deference to some vegetarian eaters, I did not use bacon or ham and had to work to add flavor to the quinoa/black rice/black-eyed pea mixture.  I did it by sautéing half an onion in olive oil and adding red pepper flakes to heat and then stirring all of that into the grain-bean mixture.  Quinoa was a nice addition to the usual rice.

For dessert, I found some Huckleberry Jam and served that over brownies topped with ice cream.

MUSIC

The American Spiritual Ensemble, led by Dr. Everett McCorvey of the University of Kentucky School of Music, performs worldwide to great acclaim.  A c.d. of their recreations of spirituals would provide context and beauty for your discussion.  http://www.americanspiritualensemble.com/store.html

Well, as Huck would say, “there ain’t nothing more to write about,” so I’ll quit and wish you a grand adventure of your own with Huckleberry Finn.

Gaylussacia_brachycera

Advertisements

When Women Were Birds (That’s a book, not a theory)

Image

Terry Tempest Williams wrote a book called When Women Were Birds.  After finishing it, I don’t know that she ever theorizes, among the many theories and philosophies she espouses, that women were actually birds at any time.

I s’pose if women evolved from birds, and birds evolved from dinosaurs, then women were actually dinosaurs.  Terry doesn’t even mention this!

bird_dragon_by_shinyspartan-d58u8tg

 

She does yammer on about her mother’s legacy of dozens of empty journals and endlessly ponders what the significance of those white pages could be.  The significance of the empty journals could be that her mother had nothing to say; or she was, as Terry told us, unwilling to show her thoughts at all.  But if it was that simple, what would she have to write?

The Carnegie Center book club chose the book because Refuge, Ms. Williams’ earlier memoir of her mother, was beloved by readers everywhere.

There ARE birds scattered throughout the book:  Ms. Williams’ shared a bird-watching passion with her grandmother; married her husband because he requested a field guide from her while she was working at a book store; and she is an ecologist, scientist, wilderness advocate and teacher, thus encountering our two-legged friends frequently.

The book claims to be 54 variations on finding your voice.  I guess with the broadest possible interpretation there might be 30 variations on finding your voice.  The other 24 are variations on befuddling your readers with the unexplained dialogue inside the author’s own mind.

I didn’t care for the book, but should you choose to read it and talk about, the best I can suggest for food is:

Carrot and Beet Salad.  Shred 5 carrots and one beet in a food processor.  Toss them together with 1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. You could form this into a kind of nest if you wanted to be creative.  Put a hard-boiled egg in the center, if you are into that kind of thing.

Pasta:  if you get thick spaghetti and cook it according to package directions, then dress it with olive oil, it will look somewhat like the worms the little birdies eat.  It’s fun to actually set up a pasta bar and allow your guests to create their own dish.  I use turkey pepperoni, shredded parmesan, sun dried tomatoes, toasted almonds, pesto.  Whatever you like, put it in a small bowl and invite folks to dig in.

For dessert, if it’s Easter or thereabouts you could serve Cadbury eggs on a bed of whipped cream.  Jelly bean cookies might be fun.  Make the cookies according to the Toll House recipe on Nestle’s chips but don’t add chips or nuts.  Add jelly bean instead.

Cheap Cheap … that means enjoy.

birdwoman

 

Room: Reality v. Fiction

Image

“The man, Ariel Castro, 52, crossed the street to borrow a lawn mower on Monday afternoon from a neighbor to cut his mother’s postage stamp lawn, then left with a brother to spend the afternoon drinking, neighbors said.

“It was typical of the outwardly mundane life Mr. Castro led, which apparently included outings with a daughter he is believed to have fathered with one of the captives. Meanwhile, inside his house on Seymour Avenue, the three women, who last celebrated birthdays with their families about a decade ago, saw year after year perversely marked by Mr. Castro’s serving of a cake on each woman’s “abduction day,” according to one victim’s cousin.”
New York Times, May 7, 2013

In Emma Donoghue’s horrific novel, Room, five-year old Jake lives in a room with his mother, Ma.  He has games and toys; a television that he believes is a direct connection depicting reality on another planet; a wardrobe where he sleeps when “Old Nick” comes to make fearsome noises with Jake’s mother.

When Jake and Ma are rescued due to Ma’s ingenuity in faking Jake’s death, Jake leaves the only world he has ever known and Ma return to the world she left more than seven years ago.  The departure is violent, disturbing, upheaval in lives previously confined to four walls and eleven by eleven foot space.

As I’ve followed the situation unravelling in Cleveland, where Ariel Castro allegedly held three women and one child for 11, 10, 9 and 6 years (the child) in a basement, chained and repeatedly raped, I am haunted by the similarities to Room, Emma Donoghue’s Booker Prize-nominated, 2010 novel.  Jack loves Room — and Plant and Rug and Bed and Wall and Wardrobe– and after escaping longs to return.

In Cleveland, news reports, including one from the Daily Beast, inform us that “[w}hen Castro had guests over to his home on Seymour Avenue, he made sure they were invisible. “He would bring the women upstairs to the attic, tie them up, and tape their mouths,” reported Fox 8 Cleveland. The 52-year-old would then blast music throughout the house, silencing any attempts the women made to scream for help. According to one of DeJesus’s cousins, Castro further humiliated the women by forcing them to eat cake and “celebrate” National Abduction Day each year.”

In Room, Emma Donoghue explains “Old Nick has never gotten a good look at Jack or even really wanted one. What he wants is to visit Ma in Room, the soundproofed, lead-lined backyard shed where he has imprisoned her. Jack (who hides in a wardrobe at such moments) times the man’s visits by counting creaks of the bedsprings. And Ma accommodates her rapist in exchange for the supplies she needs to keep Jack alive.”

Ultimately, Emma Donoghue asks whether it is safer and more sane on the outside with the crush of media, psychiatrists and strange family members or inside Room.  Through the next few weeks, months and years, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus may be asking the same questions.

God help us all.

UPDATE: A movie version of the novel will be released October 16, 2015. Here’s a link to the movie trailer: https://youtu.be/6C6fZ-fwDws

Women at Work One Key at a Time, The Typewriter Girl (Review & Menu!)

Image     

     Long before Joan Harris worked her red hair and awesome curves to a partnership in Sterling-Cooper, women moved into the world of business as typewriter girls.  Alison Atlee’s novel, The Typewriter Girl, paints a vivid picture of the opportunities , limitations and prejudices the women of the late 1800s faced throughout the process of becoming working women.  But protagonist Betsey Dobson’s life was never easy.

Within the opening pages of the novel, a particularly nasty supervisor outlines the basic attitude and problem for Betsey and her compatriots:

“Ah, Miss Dobson, what I think you, and a great many others of your sex, misunderstand is the risk a business runs simply in taking you on.  You’re an unknown quality, so to speak, you young . . . ladies . . . in an establishment like this, or like that pier company you mean to go to.  Extracted from your feminine sphere, you create a precarious unnaturalness with your presence …”

     Ah yes, that ol’ taking the unknown quality out of the feminine sphere and placing it right into the fire diversionary tactic.  I’m not ruining the plot to say that shortly after the vile Mr. Wofford elucidates his viewpoint, Miss Dobson is out of work and hoping a promised position at a British holiday spot, Idensea, will come through.

     Atlee begins each chapter with a quotation from the very real book entitled “How to Become an Expert in Type-writing,” written by Mrs. Arthur J. Barnes and published in 1890.  She uses this tips to sometimes hilariously preview the awkward love affair Betsey Dobson launches with her supervisor at the seaside resort.  For example, “Exact rules cannot be given for every emergency in life.”

Image

     Grand parties on pavilions, mistakes in choosing mates, and several office romances march the pace forward with the staccato notes of an IBM Selectric.  It’s a fun, but not too serious, look into another time and place.  And it serves as a reminder to me, and most likely other women who take their opportunities in the workforce for granted, that our opportunities were there only because of the steps taken by our predecessors.

     Should you choose to read The Typewriter Girl, I suggest the following menu inspired by culinary descriptions and locations in the book:

Oysters on the half shell 

Victorian Tea including sugared almonds, cucumber finger sandwiches, sandwiches of butter on homemade bread, dainty candies.

Image

A genuine recipe from Godey’s Lady’s Book of 1863:  Apple Snow Balls

 
 Take a half a dozen fresh apples, cut them into quarters and carefully remove the cores from them: then put them together, having introduced into the cavity caused by the removal of the cores, two cloves and a thin slice of lemon-rind into each apple.  Have at hand half a dozen damp cloths, upon each dispose of a liberal layer of clean, picked rice; place each apple in an upright position in the middle of the grain, and draw the sides of the cloths containing the rice over the same, tying them at the top only sufficiently tight to admit of its swelling whilst under the operation of boiling-three quarters of an hour will suffice.  When released from the cloths they will resemble snow-balls.  Open, add sugar, butter, and nutmeg to the fruit, and serve them up to table.  The above will be found very wholesome and satisfactory food for children.

      About now, I would be craving something more substantial, so I would add a soup or peanut butter finger sandwiches.

Homemade vanilla ice cream

Lemonade:  1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 1 cup lemonade (AND VODKA!)

Make a simple sugar by heating the sugar in the water in a small pan until the sugar is dissolved.  Extract the juice from the lemons.  Add the lemon juice and the simple syrup to a pitcher and add 3-4 cups of water, and a 1/2 cup of vodka, more or less to the desired strength.  Place in the refrigerator and allow to sit and chill for 30 minutes.  Serve in large iced tea glasses with mint stems.

     Cheers!

 

Home . . . A Book and A Menu and Thoughts of Being Home

I returned home on Tuesday from a long, exhausting but productive and exciting week of criminal defense, legal training in San Diego.  The small group sessions offered new friendships and dinner with a high school friend revived a long-ago friendship.  It’s funny how no matter how much someone changes, there is at heart, a nugget or two of the one you used to know deep inside.

Which brings me to the book, A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash.  The charismatic, heavily scarred, snake-handling Brother Carson Chambliss who guides the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following in Marshall, North Carolina, would like to hide his past crimes from the congregation he now leads in a lonesome converted general store with windows blocked by newspaper.  No one can look in, and no one can see out; their  view and reason obscured by the newspaper and by Chambliss himself.

Some reviews call this a Southern Gothic novel.  I didn’t think it was Southern Gothic so much as horror.  The descriptions of Chambliss wielding his power by making his flock “pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them,” induce dread.

“[A] right good many of them get burned up and poisoned, and there wasn’t a single one of them that would go see a doctor if they got sick or hurt.  That’s why the snake bites bothered me the most.  Those copperheads and rattlers could only stand so much, especially with the music pounding like it did and all them folks dancing and hollering and falling out on the floor, kicking over chairs and laying their hands on each other.”

Image

(shiver)

The narrative has multiple voices: a child; a kind octogenarian and a sheriff who has seen just about everything.  Each is different, compelling and advances the horror and complexity toward the story’s nearly inevitable end.

My book club very much appreciated the writing while not so much enjoying the descriptions of the cultish church services.

Unless you particularly enjoy eating snake meat, there’s only one other food description in the book but it’s a lovely description by Miss Adelaide of a dream:

“I looked down and saw that I was holding a plate with a napkin over it and that was wet with grease, and when I lifted that napkin I saw that it covered a heap of fried chicken.  . . . I saw it was plum full of people in robes carrying food and instruments up the grassy hllside in the growing dark … and then it struck me that they might just be angels.  Jesus walked right up beside me, and we stood there watching them walk past us and on ahead of us … we were going to a Decoration Day and I knew they’d have the food set out and the hymns going and the sweet tea poured when I met them at the top of the hill.”

I think a fun themed menu would revolve around that vision (with the inclusion of a little devil’s food cake in Chambliss’ honor) and my menu takes the vision into account along with my memories of the potluck dinners at the Springfield Baptist Church from my own childhood.  No snakes there, luckily.  The recipes I’ve included are my grandmother’s — or her grandmother’s.

MENU

Fried Chicken

Corn Pudding

Green Bean Casserole

Devil’s Food Cake

Divinity

Corn Pudding:  1 can corn, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1 dash pepper, 1 1/4 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 tablespoon.  Bake 25 minutes at 420 degrees.

Divinity (In my grandmother’s own hand)

3 Cups Sugar    3 egg whites    2/3 cup water     1/2 teaspoon salt    1 cup dark karo syrup

Combine sugar, water and salt and bring to boil.  Cook until a few drops crackle when added to cold water.  Have Karo ready to heat in another pan.  Beat egg whites until stiff.  When sugar syrup is ready, remove from heat and place Karo on to boil.  Add sugar syrup to egg whites gradually while beating constantly.  Scrape mixture into electric mixer bowl and beat.  Heat Karo until it spins into thread.  Add to meringue, beating constantly at high speed.  Use two teaspoons to make individual servings.  3-4 dozen.

Put on some Southern gospel (The Blackwood Brothers, Happy Goodman) and have a wonderful time.