Like A Bowl of Gumbo….

 

I was triggered but I was proud of myself.  I said my peace and disengaged.  I recognized that anything I might say would make no difference.  I think most arguments these days are best left…unargued.  There was an upside, my “triggering” sent me down a pig trail to Alice’s rabbit hole.  I found the Mad Hatter, but he wasn’t drinking tea, he was offering me a bowl of gumbo and an Abita instead.

The tiff was over a “Fun Fact” I had posted about Black History Month.  I share “Daily Doses” of witticisms or “Fun Facts” about the world we live in.  Anything to cut the greasy derision abounding today.  Since we celebrate Black History Month in February, I decided to avail myself of the subject although I am sure there will be fun facts about Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras thrown in for good measure.

A comment made about my “Fun Fact” ruffled my feathers.  I felt the response was inappropriate and told the responder so.  He didn’t take it well…or maybe I didn’t take it well.  I opted to say my peace and disengage.  Instead, I punched up a playlist that included Jimmy Buffett’s “I Will Play for Gumbo.”  One of the choruses goes….

“A piece of French bread

With which to wipe my bowl,

Good for the body.

Good for the soul.

It’s a little like religion

And a lot like sex.

You should never know

When you’re gonna get it next.

At midnight in the quarter or noon in Thibodeaux

I will play for gumbo

Yes, I will play for gumbo.”

 

It’s a fun song and it had me seat dancing in my recliner, forgetting about my triggered self.  I might have had a Pavlovian response to boot.  The ditty made me think about diversity…also a good subject for Black History Month.  I know of no other bowls of goodness that are more diverse in ingredients, origin…and full of tasty joy.  If I had to come up with the last meal it would probably include gumbo with a side of shrimp and grits.

The word gumbo derives from West Africa, ki ngombo or quingombo, from the Niger-Congo language spoken by many of the West African slaves who survived the Middle Passage and were forced to settle and perform back-breaking labor.  The words mean okra, a plant the slaves brought with them.

Gumbo can be served without okra but why would one want it without okra?  It was also Africans who introduced serving okra with rice, and rice is generally served with gumbo.

Sometime later, it was the Louisiana French, some who came by way of Canada, who probably shortened the African words to gumbo.

The Choctaw, who gave the dish filé, ground sassafras leaves, called the tasty dish, kombo.

The dish is most closely associated with Nawlins, Loo-see-Anna but can be found in bowls across the United States.

Like gumbo, New Orleans is about as diverse as one place can be.  The Spanish conquistadores wrestled the area from the Natives in the middle 1760s while fighting off the French before secretly giving it to Napoleon’s France in 1800.  The area was heavily explored and settled by both the French and Spanish lending to the diversity.  Napoleon, feeling a money pinch from his many wars, sold New Orleans and a bunch more to the United States in 1803.  All the while, African slaves and Native Americans added to the diversity whether they wanted to or not.

Gumbo varies according to the Cajun style or Creole style…or your style.  All make use of a dark roux (French, although darker than most French styles), some use okra (African) to thicken, others use filé powder, (Choctaw).  Still, others use both.  Seafood or chicken, both or none, can be combined with Andouille sausage (French but with a heavy German influence).  Gumbo’s first cousins, Jambalaya and red beans and rice, are probably Spanish introductions and akin to the Spanish rice dish, paella, so I must believe there are Spanish influences in gumbo too.

What I like about gumbo, besides its taste, is its diversity.  It is made with diverse ingredients that vary, of course, depending on who’s making it.  It can be made with table scraps, shrimp, sausage, chicken or alligator, I guess.

Gumbo in a wide mouth bowl crosses lines of class, rich or poor.  It crosses race and ethnicity and probably religion too.  Louisiana cooks call the combination of celery, bell pepper and onion the “Holy Trinity” after all.  As tasty as it is, I’m sure there might be a bit of West African Voodoo involved.  Gumbo is truly a melding of ingredients, tastes, and people.

Gumbo is both labor and love intensive.  You just can’t put it all together and then walk away.  There is much stirring before you can cut the temperature down to low and let those flavors get to know each other.  People should cut the temperature down and get to know each other too.

Sometimes I wonder if it is the sweat off the chief’s brow that adds to the spice as much as that “Loo-see-Anna” hot sauce…Its gotta be love that makes it so tasty.

“Maybe it’s the sausage or those pretty pink shrimp

Or that popcorn rice that makes me blow up like a blimp.

Maybe it’s that voodoo from Marie Leveaux,

But I will play for gumbo

Yeah, I will play for gumbo

The sauce boss does his cookin’ on the stage,

Stirrin’ and a singing for his nightly wage.

Sweating and frettin’ from his head to his toe,

Playin’ and swayin’ with the gumbo

Prayin’ and buffetin’ with the gumbo.”

 

Lyrics courtesy of AZlyrics.com, Jimmy Buffett, I Will Play For Gumbo, written and performed by Jimmy Buffett.  From the 1999 album Beach House on the Moon.  Video courtesy of YouTube

Featured Image of New Orleans Creole Gumbo from Big Oven https://www.bigoven.com/recipe/new-orleans-creole-gumbo/170608

My favorite Gumbo Recipe from Emeril Lagasse, Gumbo Ya-Ya https://parade.com/27003/emerillagasse/gumbo-ya-ya/

Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

From “the Rooter to the Tooter”

Sorry.  The year is only three hours or so old and I am entering it like a derailing steam locomotive.  I have completely run off the rails.  It’s three-thirty in the morning, do you know where your mind is?  I don’t.  I apologize for my rambling.

I got food on my mind while researching how a Southern community might have survived in the days following the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I was led down a pig trail by an article on “Southern Poverty Food, How the Other 90% Ate.”1   The article brought back childhood memories of my most favorite subject, food and the diversity of the people who created it.

I never thought about growing up poor but understand being in the “Other 90%”.  We certainly weren’t rich and compared to the rest of the families living along the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, we all appeared to be in the same boat…a boat full of the rural working class.

While never having everything I wished for, I certainly had everything I needed.  I was surrounded by family and there were always vittles on the table.  The food certainly wasn’t filet mignon and caviar, but I never thought of it as “Poverty Food”.

“You chaps go on out an get me a mess of greens,” echoes brightly in my head.  I ate a bunch of greens, and then some, through those first two decades of life; mustard, turnip, collards.  Like green beans in the summer, there was usually a mess of greens warming on my grandmother’s stove in the winter.  She never threw any away, she just added to the pot liquor that might have been fermenting for weeks it seems.  Sometimes I thought, “If I have to eat one more bite of turnip greens….”  But I ate it anyway or went hungry.

Cooked in the renderings of fried, salt pork, what we called fatback, greens were seasoned with a bit of this and a bit of that.  Maybe some vinegar, hot sauce or left-over bacon or ham.  It was always accompanied with cornbread and a glass of tart buttermilk. One had to have something to sop up the pot liquor.

If we were eating “high on the hog,” the garden’s bounty was accompanied by a cut of meat, usually pork.  The greens might be served with the fried fatback itself, salty and crunchy between two pieces of cornbread or maybe short ribs slow cooked in the Dutch oven.

Pigs were important to Southern Poverty Food it seems…thankfully.  High on the hog….  Pigs were always one of the mainstays of Southern cuisine.  Easy to raise, with eight to twelve in a litter.  Left alone they would “root hog or die” and even a blind one “will find an acorn if they root hog hard enough.”

Recognizable cuts were usually breaded and fried or roasted over open fires or above hardwood coals.  Sometimes, on special or large celebrations, whole hogs were buried in a deep hole filled with hardwood, then covered with wet burlap bags and left to slow cook all day.  Thinking of it has triggered a Pavlovian reaction.

Unrecognizable portions were turned into sausage,  livermush, hash or head cheese…which is not cheese at all.  There was also fresh bacon to serve with brains and eggs the first morning after a hog was slaughtered.

Slow cookin’ over glowing embers was something we picked up from indigenous folk before we uprooted them and marched them west to the “Indian Lands”.  Something else we picked up was using the hog “from rooter to the tooter” but not from the Native Americans.  From pig’s snouts to chitlins’, loin to pig’s feet, little was wasted.  We picked that up that habit from folks bought, paid for and shipped from another continent.  People who weren’t allowed to eat “high off the hog” during earlier times.

Pigs were not indigenous to North America, either.  Interestingly, I was “today old” when I discovered the infamous explorer, Hernando de Soto, brought the first pigs to North America.  Thirteen originally, they must be prodigious breeders if the wild hogs in our area are an indication.  I was a history major and teacher, shouldn’t I have known that?  I guess I wasn’t paying attention that day or maybe I did know it and forgot it.

The Spanish invaders saw Taino Indians of the West Indies cooking meat and fish over a pit of coals on a framework of green wooden sticks. The Spanish spelling of the Indian name for that framework was “barbacoa”.  A tradition and a name were born.

I wonder why my own Southern “rearing” had so much in common with the people of color or Native Americans that lived in nearby enclaves.  Enclaves created by the enforced segregation of the period.  I remember the wariness and fear that undercut the period and the relationships, the period of hard fought for Civil Rights.

Our food was the same…just not seasoned as well.

There were a few people of color who lived in old sharecropper shanties in the area of my childhood and many Native Americans who had adopted the same names as my Scot-Irish forefathers, intermarrying and moving to a place named “Indian Land”, just south of “Indian Trail”, west of “the Waxhaws” and east of the Catawba River.  What is in a name?

Regardless of race, creed or color, we all seemed to share the same love affair for slow-cooked pork, and the creative use of “certain” pig parts.  Served with a wedge of cornbread, red-hulled peas with onion and the “greens de jour.”  When I say we, I am speaking of the family I grew up with, in the area I grew up in although it seems Neo-Southern cuisine has caught on again, both above and west of the Mason-Dixon.  A “new” cuisine that features greens and pork extensively.

I have drawn a line.  I draw it just before the tooter in “from rooter to the tooter.”  I probably shouldn’t limit myself but I have not participated in a chitlin strut or dined on the porcine version of Mountain Oysters, sometimes called”pig fries”.  I probably won’t…although I can’t guarantee what might have been in the barbeque hash served over white rice…don’t know what’s in it, don’t care what’s in it…um, um, good…as are pig knuckles, brains and eggs, and livermush.   Okay, maybe I should rethink the chitlins and pig fries.  Nothing ventured…a New Year’s resolution?

By the time you read this, it will be New Year’s Day.  The tradition of serving collard greens and black-eyed peas will be observed in my little piece of heaven…a tradition I have not varied from ever during my lifetime.  A superstitious fear.  Peas for luck and collards for money.  Not that I have great amounts of luck or money, I’ m just afraid I will lose what little I have.

The meal will be seasoned with pig renderings, a dash of vinegar and hot sauce.  Pork chops and cornbread will accompany but they won’t be the main course.  Greens and black-eyed peas are the stars on this day.

May your 2019 be everything you want…or at least everything you need.

From The Cook’s Cook: Southern Poverty Food: How the Other 90% Ate,  May 2018,  https://thecookscook.com/features/southern-poverty-food-how-the-other-90-ate/

The Image was lifted from Wikipedia with malice and forethought.

 

For further readings about any subjects under the sun, go to https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Old Ghosts Calling to Me 

I have a “thing” for old structures; old farmhouses, slab-sided barns or an aging general mercantile.  I grew up in and around them…like ghosts, they are only memories.  It is not the architecture they represent, but the history that speaks to me.  Old ghosts calling my name.

Decaying, hand-hewn structures…I just wonder about the hands that constructed them.  I feel the same way about fields of rusting cars covered in kudzu or the tools that once maintained them I find in antique shops or “high dollar” junkyards.  It’s about who drove the car, who repaired it…it’s about the history…about the ghosts.

Image result for dorothea lange country store.  Who colorized the picture

I first saw this photograph while researching lesson plans on the depression.  The black and white Dorothea Lange photograph whispered softly to me for some reason.  It was titled, “Country store on a dirt road. Sunday afternoon. July 1939. Gordonton, North Carolina.”

The structure spoke to me, but the ghosts were quiet.  My eyes were drawn to the old metal signs advertising different brands of cigarettes, Coca-Cola, the “Sweet Scotch Snuff.”  I listened to the Texaco gas and kerosene pumps, rough cut and unfinished lumber, a long porch gallery supported by stacked stones.  Cedar trees stripped of limbs used as porch columns and roof rafters that aren’t quite plumb.  I “heard” it, rather than “heard” them.

What I “heard” changed when I discovered the colorized version by Jordan J. Lloyd.  It drew my attention to the men and their ghosts spoke to me.  It became about the people instead of the structure.

Related image

The picture is described as “A lazy Sunday afternoon on a country road.”  Five black men relaxing on a “workless” Sunday with the brother of the white owner leaning in the doorway.  Smiles to go around as stories were told…embellished for listening enjoyment I’m quite sure.  The ghosts spoke but I am hard of hearing and I don’t really know their voices.  But I can research and create.

The colors are vivid…as vivid as khaki and denim can be.  Overalls over a white shirt, rolled up shirt sleeves and pant’s legs.  Dusty, beat up shoes and brogans.  Sweat stained fedoras and baseball caps pushed back on heads.  A “dope” drained to the last drop and the aroma of fine Virginia tobacco wafting in the breeze, “mildness with no unpleasant aftertaste.”

July 1939 in the South…in North Carolina…in the cotton belt.  The depression had been ongoing for ten years and would continue until the soaring production of World War Two finally buried it.  Farmers had been steamrolled by the depression as early as 1920 while boll weevils ate their fill and cotton prices dropping as low as five cents a pound….  Ever pick cotton?  I have.  A pound of cotton is a lot of picking for a nickel and boll weevils wiped out as much as eighty percent of cotton crops during the Twenties.

The depression was particularly hard on people of color in the South.  Many, only sixty or seventy years removed from slavery, found themselves forced into a type of pseudo-slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming…except many poor whites found themselves paddling in the same boat.  The difference? Post-slavery Jim Crow segregation.  As bad as things are, at least you “ain’t colored.” Separate and “unequal.”

Except maybe on “A lazy Sunday afternoon on a country road.”  I smile.  I see four men of color reacting to something said by the fifth man on the left while the white man is slow to get the point or at least react.  A slow smile coming to his face.  Men gathering to shoot the bull on their day of rest.  The simple enjoyment of not having to be someplace…not having to work your fingers to the bone for someone else’s profit.

Image result for dorothea lange country store.  Who colorized the picture

The old store on a dusty, country road still exists.  The road is now paved and the store is no longer open which for me seems a shame.  Boarded up and abandoned, I wonder if the ghosts still gather on the porch, talking of days past and the hard times they endured.  Seeing it closed I am sad for them…and for me.

The first photo is by Dorothea Lang.

The colorized photo is by Jordan J. Lloyd

The last photo was made by Wayne Jacobs.

For more musings go to https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

IN PRAISE OF DIVERSITY

I thought I would avoid this question but I got the dreaded “When are you going to teach white history?” Why are some of “white” America so “butthurt” over Black History Month? I have seen social memes and comments that have included “When is White America going to have a Month?” “Black History Month is Racist!” “Why do we have to have a Black History Month?” In a perfect world, YOU WOULDN’T. Nor would you have Women’s History Month, in March, a Native American Heritage Month, in November, a Hispanic Heritage Month beginning in the middle September or any of the others you can take the time to look up…including Irish-American Heritage Month in March. Unfortunately, we are not, nor have we been, living in a perfect world. To quote a former student, “We celebrate white history in all months which don’t begin with F.” Well, there are those two months teachers are NOT on vacation.

As a retired, high school history teacher I know history books are written from a decidedly European-American point of view…well…at least where I taught and if any of the research I have done is to be believed. Asians are mentioned about four times. Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese involvement in World War Two and China goes communist and the Cold War. That makes five. Hispanic contributions, maybe a bit more. Spanish colonization, Mexican-American War, Imperialism, Pancho Villa, and then a jump to NAFTA and the question “Why are they taking our jobs?” Notice, these are all mostly decidedly negative when viewed from a European point of view. Native Americans are prominent but disappear after Wounded Knee unless you happen to bring them back up in the Sixties with the many social movements. Again, until recently, Custer’s Last Stand was viewed negatively by European America. Damn Redskins stepping on our Manifest Destiny and the only good Indian…! I digress.

I rarely taught Black history during Black History Month. I was wrong. I deluded myself into thinking I taught ALL HISTORY ALL YEAR LONG and didn’t need to focus on Black history. Then I began to assess what I had taught. I’m not happy. Kind of like ALL HISTORY CAN’T MATTER UNTIL BLACK HISTORY MATTERS. Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriett Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois versus Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and maybe Malcomb X. There were others but most were only related to only two aspects of African-American lives and American history, slavery and Civil Rights. Decidedly important aspects but besides George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes there little about other contributions.

Black History Month should be viewed as an opportunity to spotlight contributions by African Americans. Musicians, artist, writers, poets, inventors, explorers, scientists, business people, soldiers, etc. As a teen, I picked up one of my father’s books, Foxes of Harrow. It was written by Frank Yerby. I read all his books my father had and along the way picked up a few more. They featured historical fiction and a bit of…latent eroticism. Nothing graphic! As a young adult, I was looking for more of his books and found out he was bi-racial and from Georgia. Who knew and it didn’t matter. Just like celebrating Black History Month shouldn’t matter to those railing against it. It should be a positive educational experience.

Three of my last four years teaching were teaching “cultural” geography. I loved it. One, I had no end of school testing pressure and could go off on any tangent I desired to go off on. I could be creative and allow creativity from my students. It became about cultural diversity. It also reminds me of a paragraph I wrote in a story about a former student. “Today I look at diversity as a smorgasbord of delights. I believe we should just focus on how diversely different people party. How can you be distrustful of people who produce such wonderful food? My life without Latin, Soul, Oriental and Cajun foods would not be life ending but life would not be as joyous, especially without a Belgian, Mexican, Jamaican or German beer or maybe some Tennessee whiskey to go with it and a Cuban cigar for afterward. Someone might as well play some Blues, Reggae or a little Zydeco to help the atmosphere along. It is just as easy to focus on the positives about diversity as it is the negatives and again with knowledge comes understanding.”

I realize I am a social liberal and make no excuses. I believe the rights someone else is given doesn’t take my rights away from me despite what I might think, including the right to celebrate Black History Month…or Cinco De Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day for that matter. In fact, I have joined in. Who knows? This old dog might just learn a new trick or twenty.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf