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

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Stumble, Fumble….

I despise the New Year. My birth year ends in a zero so it’s easy to figure out your age and realize the path behind you is significantly longer than the path ahead. I’m not concerned about my age…well…maybe I am since I’m posting about it. Okay, I’m not concerned about my death…unless it is lingering and painful. Okay, okay! So, I’m concerned.

I despise the New Year because of the resolutions I make that I know I’m going to break or stumble over…” stumble, bumble, fart, and fall….” Odd things that stick in your head. It’s the fourth and I’m already stumbling…and I’m always smelly.

I made simple resolutions. Easy to accomplish even if a few roadblocks arise. Maintain or, notice the “or”, improve my fitness. Maintain my 2016 weight which I was unable to maintain in 2017. That means losing the ten pounds from last year that I picked up when I was supposed to be maintaining. Just walk a little more…we got this.

I wish I had told my wife. Obviously, her New Year’s resolution is to cook this year. The veggie and beef homemade soup, following the traditional greens, peas and pork roast on New Year’s Day. Would have been healthy…maybe…but she had to make cornbread. I love her cornbread…did I have to have the second piece? Yes, I did…and the third. I just forgot about her tomato pie…oh my.

Well, I expect her to break her resolution soon, “I’m not cooking anymore this year!”

“But….”

“But nothing!”

My second resolution was also a simple, easy to accomplish, I want to be a better person and make a difference. You know, better for the wife, daughter, grandkids, asshole brother…sorry, non-asshole brother. Not best…just better.

My beloved has thrown a roadblock in front of that too. Thirty-one years together and I still find a way to not be able to get out of my own way.

“I need for you to…” fill in the blank.

A “better person” would simply go do it. A “better person” would not wait until he forgot what she asked him to do in the first place. A “better person” wouldn’t want to hear, “I asked you six months ago to…” fill in the blank. So, with a hand driver, I jumped on it! Bam!

“What are you doing?”

“You asked me to….”

“I didn’t mean now. You are in my way. Go do something else.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t ask me questions now, can’t you see I’m busy?”

A “better person” won’t use the hand driver as a weapon. Great, resolution accomplished! Maybe this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

For more of Don Miller’s musings, try the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Kicking and Screaming into 2018

 

Is it just normal to be this hopeful for the upcoming year or is this just because 2017 was such a bloody hemorrhoidal tissue kind of year?  2017 was like a cockleburr suppository and I didn’t much like it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have much to be thankful for.  I survived!!!!!!!  2018 has got to be better…didn’t I say that about 2017?  I guess I did and 2017 was the worse year since 1968 in my humble opinion.

I don’t do resolutions…I do have ambitions like certain fitness goals, and once again I have fallen short as 2017 closes.  It’s not my fault I’ve gained weight.  My body just doesn’t absorb doughnut calories as well as it used to…could be that bone on bone rubbing in my knee slowing calorie absorption down.  It is also keeping from doing any kind of running so the marathon is probably out.

Back to the subject. I don’t do resolutions but if I did I would use the trite, too often used, “Be the man my puppies think I am.” While I am good to them, I treat them better than I treat my fellow man.  I realize that I need to be a part of something bigger than me and my puppies.

Our world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket…but in my little part of the world, I’m not sure that is true although I know there are many people suffering.  My puppies don’t think it’s true.

I watch the people I interact with and see what their love can do to improve the world I am lucky enough to live in.  My best friend, Mike Hawkins, carries blankets around to give to the homeless he runs into.  My brother, Steve Miller, saw a need and works tirelessly to support a soup kitchen. Leland and Emily Browder models what it means to be a follower of Christ and have passed on their beliefs of service to their God and humanity to their children and grandchildren.  I give thanks to them and others.

In a climate that seems to breed boorish behavior, that seems to extol disrespect for those who you disagree with.  When humility is portrayed as a weakness rather than a strength, men, and women like Mike, Steve, Emily, and Leland go about their daily business of doing good.

Watching their efforts has made me aware of my shortcomings as a caring and gracious human being.  It is time to get off the sidelines and quit watching.  We all need to start acting,  get into the game and leave our political beliefs in the stands.

I’m not going to attempt to start a movement, run for office or pontificate ad nauseum.  I’m just going to try and make a difference, one person at a time,.

For more of Don Miller’s pontifications, you might be interested in clicking on the following link:   https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

BAGGAGE

It is 2017. Time to make those resolutions that if I’m lucky I will not break by February. I make ten resolutions, one of which is “I will not beat myself up if I break a resolution.” Rather than beat myself up I will reassess where I am, what went wrong and create another goal. For instance, one of my measurable goals is I want to double my running mileage for this coming year but what happens if I injure myself like I did this past year, only running half the mileage I resolved to run in 2016. It’s not the end of the world, just readjust. Another goal might be, I’m going to work hard not to injure myself this year. That one might be a bit tougher to meet if 2017 is anything like 2017.

For some reason, not beating myself up might be the hardest resolution to keep because I equate failure with guilt…sometimes even when I have no control over the failure. A bird dies in China and somehow, I could have prevented it. Therefore, I feel guilty about it. I have a suitcase full of guilt. How full? I ain’t gonna try to pick it up. Jesus Christ forgives me with much more ease than I forgive myself. Believe in him, ask for forgiveness, sins are washed away. My sins are purged and I am whiter than snow. Easy! Except for my head. I participate in a type of self-flagellation, the voices in my head mentally whipping me every time the metaphorical pigeon dies…or the metaphorical suitcase full of sins suddenly opens in the middle of the night.

I’m not an evil person…am I? Sometimes good people do bad things…I have two ex-wives that might disagree. The suitcase is chuck full of people I feel I have wronged. I even feel guilty because I don’t feel guilt for having married a third time…successfully this time I might add…although I am sure I’ve wronged her too. Does serving her coffee in bed every morning off set my wrongs?
My resolution is to dump the baggage. No negative self-speak about how terrible I was. Some of those folks aren’t of this world anymore. One especially. An attractive brunette I should have treated better. Have I already broken my resolution?

I probably should just change my resolution to JUST BE THANKFUL. My wife and family, the grandbabies, a red headed monkey and one I haven’t had time to figure out yet. More friends than I deserve, my blind puppies, one who, as I write this, is trying to get my attention by pawing at a chair I’m not sitting in. The fire roaring in my fire place, dry wood popping. The beautiful sunrises and sunsets, memories of a bluegill causing my line to cut through the water, a red bird visiting my feeders. Being able to get out of bed in the morning and make my own coffee. Early morning walks, the crisp air blowing in my face. Rain or sleet pelting down on the metal roof. Writing even when I do it badly.

Yes, pausing to be thankful is a resolution I think I can keep.

May 2017 be the best year of your life…so far.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

OPTIMISM DESPITE SCIATICA AND 2016

I find it interesting, in a bad way, that I am finishing 2016 the same way I began it…limping to the finish line while battling sciatica. The pinching of the sciatic nerve because…well…WHO THE F@#$ KNOWS…all I did was reach across my body with my right arm to pick up a hammer. OKAY I GOT IT…sciatica is caused by work. Now I know how to cure it.

My particular brand of sciatica runs across my left ass cheek and down my left leg…in other words, it is the “royal pain in the ass” and for me a physical reminder of what a pain in the ass 2016 was…except on a personal level it really wasn’t that bad. I lost my favorite uncle and several friends, but I have a family and friends whom I love, food on the table, a roof over my head even though, in order to heat the rooms under that roof, it cost me an arm and a leg…and the sciatica triggered by spitting wood to begin the year of 2016. All and all I ain’t got it that bad…except for the sciatica and a tractor I want to set on fire…kinda like 2016.

I won’t miss 2016…unless 2017 is worse. Worse? 2016, the year of political witch hunts and the hatred that fed it, religious and racial divisiveness, war and rumors of more war, fake news or real news, defining who should have the right to marry and who is what gender along with arguments that will never give love a chance…STOP IT DON! JUST STOP IT!

Yes, at midnight December 31, if I am still awake, I will kiss my significant other passionately and, with great enthusiasm sing “Auld Lang Syne”, Robert Burns’ poem now set to the tune of a Scottish folk song. The reason I will sing enthusiastically are the words, “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Despite the divisiveness and pain of 2016, I face 2017 with the renewed enthusiasm that “we’ll take a cup of kindness yet”, the kindness that was sorely absent in 2016. I am optimistic we will ALL reach across the gulfs that are our differences and find understanding. I am offering you “a cup of kindness yet” in hopes you will take it, along with a hand of mutual friendship, respect and mutual understanding. In other words, because Burns said it better than I ever could “And there’s a hand my trusty friend! And give me a hand o’ thine! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.” For those of you who are saying, “that’s like world peace, it will never happen,” I say, “There has to be hope. Someone has to make the effort.”

Whether you are a “taste great” person or a “less filling” person, in 2017 I will raise a toast to you, even though I don’t drink lite beer ever. Here’s to you and yours with the hope you have a productive, prosperous and kind new year. May peace be with thee!

PINK COCONUT AND OTHER CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

Normally when I can’t run, it is a bad thing. My head, knees or hips won’t let me. Today it was a good thing to quote Martha. My running interfered with where I wanted to be in my head. Usually, I create stories when I run to avoid the pain endured while running. This was not the case today. In my head, I was remembering the “Ghosts’ of Christmases Past.” Consider this a Merry Christmas or Happy Holiday present to you regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not. I don’t think it will offend anyone’s sensibilities and, rest assured, I love all your sensibilities…and idiocrasies. Peace on Earth! We can all agree on that along with good will toward men…and women. I miss my wide-eyed wonderment during the Christmases of my youth. Having to grow up was and is a trap and I have been caught in it for far too long. Hopefully, my memories will help free me from my snare…although considering the alternative….

A most vivid memory is a Christmas Eve trip to Monroe, North Carolina where my family normally shopped. It was just my father and a seven or eight-year-old me. Mom was busy at home preparing for the onslaught of people who would attend our evening celebration and little Stevie was too young to make the trip. This was a type of yearly tradition for my father. He didn’t have to go; all the presents had been wrapped and placed under our tree…or hidden away until Santa Claus made his appearance. My father would go and buy nuts and fruit…maybe a trinket or two. I just think he liked being in the Christmas crowd…and Woolworth’s warm and salted cashews was something he could never pass up.

Had people been raindrops, Monroe would have been awash in a torrential downpour. Usually a small and quiet Southern town, it was bursting with activity. As we made our way toward Woolworth’s and Belk’s on Main Street I remember being maneuvered through a throng that included several panhandlers who we avoided like the plague. We paused in front of the Belk’s storefront to look at the mechanical Christmas scene…or so I thought. Sitting below the storefront Christmas scene was a man near my father’s age. He sat on a pad which was attached to a board with small wheels. The unknown man had lost his legs just below his hips and his pants legs were folded and neatly pinned under him. In his hand was a small tin cup containing new yellow pencils. My father had paused in front of the man with no legs, not the windows. Reaching into his pocket my father withdrew his billfold and placed a ten-dollar bill into the man’s cup. It was a considerable donation for the time. I watched my father’s eyes tear as he bent and accepted the pencil and the man’s tearful “Bless You.” My father took my hand and while looking over his shoulder choked out, “No, bless you and Merry Christmas!” In my mind, it is easy to create a story involving a World War Two veteran who paid the same high price our vets are still paying today.

In the small rural community where I lived, most of our activities revolved around our school and our churches. Christmas was no different. Church Christmas plays featured shepherds in bathrobes with towels wrapped around their heads, angels with coat hanger halos and wings covered in Christmas tinsel and Wise Men with homemade crowns. A Betsy Wetsy Doll starred as baby Jesus. Taken straight from the Gospels, the story of the birth was read and acted out. Familiar Christmas hymns were sung by the congregation or choir with “Joy to the World” bringing the play to a close. Downstairs in the fellowship hall, Christmas cookies and cakes waited to be shared as the children waited impatiently to see a secular Santa Claus who looked and sounded a lot like my Uncle James. In later years, there would be Aunt Joyce’s Christmas Cantatas, my favorite being the one including “Jubilate, jubilate, King of kings he’s born today” performed by the combined choirs of my church, Belair, and Osceola.

In my day (Doesn’t that sound old?), in my day Christmas break began with a half-day celebration of Christmas at school. Classes had drawn names and presents were traded as we sat around a freshly cut donated evergreen tree decorated with ornaments made from construction paper. It would seem socks were the gifts of choice. Our teacher began our sugar high with decorated sugar cookies in the shape of reindeers, stars or elves. For their trouble, our teachers received small ornaments, many handmade pastries and desserts, and, of course, socks. A concert featuring the band and chorus would close the day and, if you were not in the Christmas spirit by then, you had no pulse.

At home, there was a fresh cut cedar tree with multi-colored bubble lights that had to warm up before they began to bubble. White plastic ice cycles hanging with very fragile glass ornaments all covered with tinsel. My mother pausing to listen to “Stille Niche” or playing Billy Vaughn’s “Christmas Carols” ad nauseum. Sorry. I never learned to play the saxophone as well as Billy and his band. A robot that smoked, sparked and reversed path when it met an obstruction. A model of a twenty-mule team borax wagon. My first full-sized bicycle, a red and white Schwinn Phantom, arrived the same Christmas as a freak ice storm. Can you imagine the pain of waiting to get outside? It was almost as bad as the wait for Santa. Lying in bed hoping I had been just good enough not to be getting a bag of coal. A plastic Thompson Sub-Machine gun so I could pretend to be Vic Morrow pretending to be Sgt. Saunders in “Combat.” My grandmother’s gifts, a patchwork quilt Christmas stocking she had made filled with butter mints and peppermint along with healthier fruits and nuts. There were the more practical pocket notebooks, pencils, and pens, too. “These are a few of my favorite things…”

After my mother’s death, I found the first gift I had given her that I had picked out and paid for with the sweat of my brow. A cheap, red and green, cut glass Christmas tree broach from Woolworth’s. I guess she must have liked it. There was always one evening anticipating the arrival of church carolers and another to drive through the community looking at Christmas lights. Perhaps there would be a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” A much simpler time.

My mother was a child who failed to fall into the adult trap when it came to Christmas. Activity swirled for what seemed like weeks as she prepared for our Christmas Eve family celebration. Baking was one of my mother’s chores. Fruitcake, fruitcake cookies, yule candy logs, Missouri “no-bake” cookies, pies and cakes galore and her very favorite ambrosia. In the days before shredded coconut could be purchased at your local supermarket, it was my father’s responsibility to break open and shred the coconut Mom would use for her ambrosia and coconut cake. He would use a small ball peen hammer to punch a hole in one of the coconut’s eyes so the milk could be drained. A larger hammer would break the coconut open and a sharp knife would separate the meat from the husk. If my father was not bleeding by this time he soon would be as his knuckles contacted the hand grater. My Christmas memories always include pink shredded coconut. It also may be why I don’t like coconut desserts very much although I will eat one dessert in memory of him. Hopefully, it won’t be pink.

My wife and I have attempted to continue the Christmas Eve tradition, short of pink coconut. I enjoy having my brother and daughter and their families…despite the pain of getting ready. I could never do for my brother what our family did for us but I hope he understands that I try and hope my daughter’s memories are as rich as mine. If her memories are warm, it is due, in most part, to the influence of my wife, Linda Gail, a little elf who never fell into the trap of growing up but whose own memories include recent losses of and distance from family. Being from a blended-family I always had to return Ashley to her mother late on Christmas Eve. It was bitter-sweet. Bitter for obvious reasons but there was something sweet about our trip home. It is a time of private sharing between the two of us, a special time that I cherish and miss. To accommodate the red-headed little monkey, Miller Kate, along with her new brother Nolan, we have moved Christmas Eve to Ashley’s and Justin’s. My wife says it is temporary. She likes to oversee our memories.

I wish anyone reading this a Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Dattatreya Jayanti, Mawlid an-Nabi or any other celebrations I have missed. For true “Peace on Earth,” I wish to embrace our diversity, each for each other. That is my wish as we close 2017 and enter 2018. May 2018 be the year of “Understanding” and a step toward “Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men!” Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a happy and productive New Year!

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf