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Shells are proof that God loves us… July 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our hero and blog mentor, the great Doctor Franklin, once said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Or possibly, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Our friend Ben has seen the quote in both versions, and knowing old Ben, I wouldn’t put it past him to have said them both. But our friend Ben begs to differ.

It is our friend Ben’s opinion that shells are the definitive argument for the existence of God, should one need to muster an argument against people too ungrateful and too unimaginative to conceive of a Creator for the beautiful world that we are privileged to share. Shells, in their myriad exquisite colors and patterns, benefit no one except us, the collectors and observers who prize their beauty and infinite variety. In life, the shape of the shell may provide real benefit to its owner, but the colors and patterns are concealed by the fleshy foot and/or mantle of the occupant, and are revealed only after its death.

Once shed of their occupants, shells are a gift to us, the appreciative observers who can marvel and wonder at so great a treasure from the sea. They are a gift and a promise from the One who made us all, a delight for us and for our Creator. He that hath eyes and ears, let him see and hear. Shells are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Shells are proof of a Creator who has shaped the world for our and our world’s Creator’s delight.

If you’re not fortunate enough to live near a beach or be visiting one, as Silence Dogood and I are this week, our friend Ben suggests that you hit the books. Museums and shell shops here on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, have proved rich troves of books on shells, but I’m sure Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders could turn up some treasures of their own. Three new finds we’d recommend are The World’s Most Beautiful Shells, which won—deservedly, in our opinion—the “Best Coffee-table Book Award” from the National Association of Independent Booksellers; Seashells, by Josie Iselin and Sandy Carlson, smaller and less spectacular but also beautiful and informative; and Seashells of the Coast, an informative, no-nonsense but attractive ID guide for those who want to shell on the Carolina coasts and know what they’re finding.

Gone with the grits. July 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, our friend Ben and I went with the family to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, just down the road from the beach house where we’re staying this week. I was disappointed that the skates and stingrays—my favorites—weren’t on display (their tank was being repaired), but loved seeing the horseshoe crabs, turtles, and jellyfish. One tank held a pair of such bristly, repulsive-looking lobsters that I had to wonder how it ever occurred to anyone to try to eat one.

Of course, we all gathered around the huge shark tank and watched the big guys sail around. (Ever notice how avid-looking sharks’ eyes are? So different from the quiet, flat eyes of other fish. Brrrr. Talk about an “I’m gonna get you!” look.) Sadly, Ben didn’t have his camera phone with him, so we couldn’t get a picture of ourselves looking out from the big shark skeleton jaws in the lobby. Maybe next time…

Ahem, you’re probably thinking, what does this have to do with grits? Well, of course the aquarium has a gift shop. I rushed in, hoping they had a book on jellyfish, or at least a jellyfish postcard. Instead, they had a great selection of regional and Southern cookbooks. (They also had fish-related stuff for all ages, just no jellyfish stuff.) Naturally, I turned my back on the cookbooks and walked sedately out. Uh, right. Let’s rewind that: Naturally, I knocked our friend Ben, several family members, and a total stranger over as I raced for the cookbook table. And there it was: Gone with the Grits.

It’s true. Someone named Diane Pfeifer had written an entire, 158-page cookbook in which every single cotton-pickin’ recipe contained grits. (Well, except for the cream cheese icing. But the carrot cake it goes on does indeed contain grits.) What’s more, it’s a vegetarian cookbook. A vegetarian cookbook in which every recipe, from Sour Cream ‘N’ Chives Dip and Creamy Caesar Salad Dressing to Banana Cream Cookie Pudding and Georgia Peach Cobbler, contains grits. I had to have it.

Our friend Ben and I love grits: hot grits with tons of butter and salt, cheese grits, and especially fried grits. (Of course, they have to be cooked right—see Ben’s post “Ben Picks Ten: Southern Comfort Foods” for more on that. Otherwise, they’re horrific.) But it would not have occurred to me to cook other foods with grits as an ingredient. In fact, when I started looking at the cookbook in the gift shop, I assumed it was a joke. But the recipes looked like they’d actually taste good. And I could see grits adding a moist richness to other dishes. Hmmmm.

Back at the beach house, I continued to be pleased by what I saw. The recipes were real food using real ingredients, not toss this packet into this box into this can and microwave, the end. True, I will not make the Ricotta Dumplings (with, of course, grits), or the Japanese Teriyaki Grits, or the New Year’s Eve Eggnog Pudding (also with grits). But I wouldn’t have made them without grits, either. And no, I’m not going to put grits in my Caesar dessing or my stuffed shells, pizza, or custard. I love grits, but not that much. However, I can definitely see grits enhancing cornbread, souffles, and veggie burgers, not to mention casseroles, Thanksgiving dressing, and yes, maybe even falafel patties. I’ll give those recipes—and many others—a try and see how they turn out. Stay tuned!

If you love grits and/or really unique, personable cookbooks, check out Gone with the Grits. It’s more than a corny (couldn’t resist that) gimmick: The author, Diane Pfeifer, is clearly willing to put her money where her mouth is. The cookbook appears to be self-published, and Ms. Pfeifer has her own grits products line, Grits Bits, which features Cheddar, Jalapeno, and Garlic-Parmesan grits snack biscuits and Sweet Cream Butter grits cookies. For more on the products and cookbook, their website is www.GritsBits.com. Who’da thunk?!

             ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

A natural spa treatment for your feet. July 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are spending a relaxing week on Emerald Isle off the North Carolina coast. We came down for the first time two years ago, so this time we knew what to expect. We were both looking forward to the beautiful sand beaches, to walking the shoreline looking for shells, to getting a little color on our office-bleached skins, and to the colorful, casual, Margaritaville atmosphere. But I was looking forward to something more—a little secret I discovered last time we were here.

We love shells and shelling, and it’s endless fun walking the coastline, splashing around in the waves and feeling the sand beneath your toes while trying to find especially lovely tellins or whole scallops or maybe a piece of a sand dollar. But I quickly found out that barefoot was the only way to go, after fighting sand in my sandals on the first walk. Ouch! Yuck!

So on the second walk, I skipped the shoes. And as I continued walking and shelling each day, I began to notice something wonderful: The sand and salt water were polishng my toenails. The pink part of each nail was lustrous and shiny, and the white part so cleanly white that it looked like I’d gone to a salon for French nails for my toes! I was so glad I’d skipped the nailpolish when I came down to the beach.

Not only did my toenails get a deluxe spa treatment, but my feet did, too. The sand and salt water exfoliated them perfectly (and painlessly), revealing smooth, soft skin on top and wearing off any callouses on the soles.

I can already see it happening this time. My feet never looked so beautiful as after that last trip down, and I’m luxuriating in watching the transformation again now. I know from before that the effect will last for months. I wish I could take back a washtub of sea sand and salt water and just stick my feet in and slide them around every once in a while to maintain those gorgeous, shiny nails. Spas, are you listening?

I’d love to add that another benefit is that this deluxe spa treatment is free as well as all-natural, but unless you live within walking or driving distance of a sand beach, I fear that would be a lie. Adding in the cost of the vacation makes it one expensive treatment! But the the sea air, the ocean view, feeling the ocean swirling around your ankles, the search for wonderful shells that could appear every second, the tangy scent of the sea, and the joy of being on vacation have to make it the best spa treatment ever. After all, you get to take home memories (and shells) as well as beautiful feet. I encourage you to try it. Tell ‘em Silence sent you!

              ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

A most peculiar pair. July 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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If you’re thinking that the title of this post refers to our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, we can only say that we’d have an awfully long way to go to catch up to this couple. Silence and I are spending a week at the beach in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, with Silence’s family. The family patriarch was reminiscing this morning over some of Silence’s blueberry muffins about his most eccentric relatives. And our friend Ben has to admit that they sounded like something right out of a James Bond movie. They were simply too priceless not to share with you all!

The couple in question had a home in Nassau that they shared with the wife’s pet, a cheetah. It resided in the couple’s living room, except for those times that it strolled outside to pursue its chosen vocation, which happened to be reducing the island’s poodle population. Eventually, the pileup of bereaved and aggrieved pet owners reached epic proportions, and the couple was forced to turn the cheetah over to a wild animal park.

This was the least eccentric thing I learned about them.

The husband had begun his working life as the owner of a brick-making establishment, but quickly abandoned this to devote himself to his two ruling passions, inventions and big-game hunting. His crowning achievement as an inventor was the paper casket. Made of compressed paper, it was, our friend Ben has to think, the ultimate recyclable. Unfortunately for our story, Mr. Hays was unable to tell us how it went over with potential customers.

He did, however, share one more irresistible tidbit about his inventor cousin-in-law. While hunting grizzlies in Alaska, the erstwhile inventor lost an eye in a hunting accident. Like many another in similar circumstances, he replaced the missing orb with a glass eye. But unlike any eye our friend Ben has ever heard of, instead of a pupil, his glass eye sported an American flag. One can only pity the people who had to converse with the man while trying not to stare at the flag.

You might think that the loss of an eye would dampen someone’s enthusiasm for hunting, but no. (Our friend Ben is reminded of early photos in my books on falconry in which German falconers proudly held their golden eagles on their arms, the birds’ beaks not coincidentally in perfect proximity to their eyepatches.) The inventor’s next project was establishing a big-game safari park in Maryland, presumably so budget-minded hunters could get a little target practice without heading for the African veldt. 

Our friend Ben is left to wonder if the inventor and his wife eventually went to their reward in paper coffins. I suppose we’ll never know. But the next time someone accuses you of being too eccentric, you can now defend yourself by telling them the story of this couple. And then remind them that British research has shown that eccentrics live longer, happier lives. (Assuming, of course, that they’re not literally consumed by their passions, as might in fact have happened in this case…)

Our pets, ourselves. July 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were looking through an L.L. Bean home catalogue the other day, hoping to find outdoor cushions for our deck that were comfortable, didn’t look atrocious, and would hold up in rain, heat, and humidity. But our attention was diverted as always by the pet products section. We’re suckers for those pictures of adorable pets, especially if they’re types we own or have owned like springer spaniels and golden retrievers, or puppies and kittens of any type or stripe. What can you say but “Aaaawww”?! We also enjoy seeing what marketers have come up with in the way of new pet products.

Marketers, being no fools, know how we all feel about our pets, and as a result, many of the products shown in the Bean catalogue (and, our friend Ben recalls, in the Orvis pet catalogue, too) proudly displayed the names of the pet “owners.” Silence and I especially noted a tote that featured an embroidered golden retriever and the name “Molly,” just like our own beloved golden. Then our friend Ben started noting the other pet names. All of them were “people names.” Our friend Ben remembers when Bean first started putting pet products in its catalogues. Then, the pets had “thing names:” Boom, Lady, Rover, Spot, Prince. The marketers, with their usual savvy, had picked up on a shift in the way we think of our pets and were making the most of it.

Nowadays, unless a small child has been allowed to choose a pet’s name, it’s almost always a “people name” like Maggie, Beau, or Bridget. It’s cetainly true at our house: Our indoor cats, Layla, Linus, and Athena (and Jessie and Seamus before them) have people names. Before Molly, we had a golden named Annie; our neighbor’s big golden male is Jackson, and on the other side, our neighbors have a little Molly dog, too. Even our chickens have people names.

The names, and the nature of the products (luxury dog beds, pet sofas, cat nests), tell a story that’s reinforced at the pet-food aisle. Pet food companies must spend bazillion dollars on packaging and advertising that tries to make pet food sound like people food, giving it names and attributes that would sound delicious to people: stews and braises and gravies and, in the immortal words, whatnot all. Cats and dogs have other criteria, and, not speaking or reading English, are probably less impressed by names like beef Stroganoff, mixed grill, surf’n’turf, and the like than their human families. And let’s not even talk about treats. Suffice it to say that we humans, sadly, aren’t the only ones contending with an obesity crisis.

All of which is to say that, in many ways, our pets have become us. They have become our best friends in a literal sense, a sense certainly not intended by the guy who coined that phrase. As more people live alone, as more people delay having children or never have them, as more people find themselves stressed and isolated even in the midst of busy work and social schedules, they turn to their pets for companionship and solace. Pets can bring everyone, from our youngest toddlers to our oldest citizens, the kind of patient, uncritical love and presence that is ever-harder to find in our multitasking, driven, speed-worshiping, screen- and gadget-obsessed society.

Our pets don’t care if we stay up all night and sleep all day, eat an entire half-gallon of ice cream from the carton, wear the same dirty sweats all week. Our pets don’t see our cellulite, balding heads, bad hair, grease-spotted shirt, or wrinkles. They will listen to whatever we want to say to them, even if we’ve already said it 5,000 times. They will not leave us for another man, or grow up and leave the nest, or rack up huge credit card bills and not tell us until the creditors start callng. They reach out to us. They love us. They are constant. They do not judge. Whatever we do, whatever we are, we’re good enough for them.

Thinking of the attributes of pets of course reminds our friend Ben of the famous passage from Saint Paul on the qualities of love (“Love is patient, love is kind…”). These are marvelous qualities to find in our pets. And even more marvelous to find in our fellow humans. Perhaps it takes a Mother Teresa or a Dalai Lama or an Eckhart Tolle to slow down, listen, and love, to offer respect, patience, and courtesy. Silence told me that she was so ashamed the other day when a good friend, speaking of another acquaintance, said that he was too impatient to even let Silence’s friend finish a sentence. “She could just as well have been talking about me,” Silence said sheepishly.

Our friend Ben fears that our ever-increasing isolation has been our undoing. Whether we’re a ninety-something alone in our tiny apartment, a teen spending every free second in front of the computer, or a professional (love that word; just what are we professing?) trapped all day in the cube farm, our aloneness makes us wrap up ever more tightly in ourselves. (The last time I flew, I was shocked: Two people actually spoke to me instead of screeching at their cell phones or drifting in an iPod daze. It was the first time that had happened in over a year.) No wonder we have lost the sense of community, the once-automatic courtesy that would even let us really listen to the people we care most about—if we’re lucky enough to have some. 

I doubt that we can ever hope to be as patient, loving, and nonjudgmental as our pets. But I pray that we may learn a better way from them, relearn at least a little patience, kindness, and outreach to others, before it’s too late. Bless them for being there as role models as well as friends! Silence reminds me that there’s another wonderful lesson our pets can teach us: not to take ourselves so seriously. We’d all be happier (and healthier) if we could make fools of ourselves with the cheerful grace of a dog or kitten. Our friend Ben (who has considerable experience in the “making a fool of myself” department) says amen to that!

Sinfully scrumptious spreads. July 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. On Wednesday, my friend Amy and I went to the notoriously named village of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, to do some serious shopping. Intercourse (near the equally infamous Blue Ball, PA) is deep in the heart of Lancaster County—Amish Country—and we saw almost as many buggies as cars as we headed towards one of Amy’s favorite shopping destinations, Kitchen Kettle Village.

One of the best quilt stores in the country is in Intercourse, so I was excited about going, and there’s also a bookstore that specializes in topics of interest to the Amish and Mennonite communities, and that means cooking and putting food by. (Thinking about my room-sized fabric stash, I managed to drag myself out of the quilt shop without buying anything—not even the adorable micro-mini-iron that looked just perfect for flattening seams and making sharp points. But I couldn’t resist a new canning book at the bookstore.)

Speaking of canning and preserving, the heart of Kitchen Kettle Village is a large store that specializes in jellies, jams, pickles, salsas, relishes, and the like, and it was this store that Amy especially wanted to visit: Her father had run out of seedless black raspberry jam, his favorite, and she wanted to stock up for him. The beautiful jars of jewel-like jellies, jams, and so on are made on-premises—the day we were there, they were making pickles, and a group had gathered to watch and sample. You could also sample everything else in the store (bins of tiny crackers gave you something to put all those jellies, salsas, etc. on) so you could make sure you liked something before you plunked your money down. And they have jar sizes from about a half-cup to what looks like a half-gallon, so you can match the size of your purchase to your budget or enthusiasm.

After tasting the Wickles—wicked good pickles—and realizing that they were really hot and really good, I knew I had to bring some back for our friend Ben and our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders. But what truly caught my attention were the beautiful pepper jams. Gorgeous, glowing jars of Pepper Jam and Jalapeno Jam shone ruby-red in the sunlight. I just had to try them. And oh, yes, they were good. I especially liked the hot-sweet flavor of the Jalapeno Jam. And then I saw the recipes.

The simplest recipe calls for an 8-ounce block of cream cheese, brought to room temperature and topped with a half-pint (10 ounces) of Jalapeno or Pepper Jam, which guests could spread on crackers. As the Kitchen Kettle folks point out, “This is known as the caviar of Lancaster County.” I can see why. Yummy!

Then they move on to brie. As you may know, our friend Ben and I have a thing about cheese. And if you really have a thing about cheese, you have a thing about brie, that melt-in-your-mouth, sinfully delicious stuff that just screams to be smeared on a piece of crusty baguette and served with gorgeous grapes or other berries in season and tart green apple slices. Add champagne or a dry rose or Riesling and you have the perfect romantic picnic fare. Brie, berries, champagne, sensuality: It all goes together like white on rice. Forget oysters! Try this next time you want to set a romantic mood. Light some candles, dim the lights, sit on the sofa, enjoy that wonderful food and wine, and relax. Put some Ella and Louis on the CD player. Trust me.

Brie on a baguette is good. But hot brie on a baguette is great. Kitchen Kettle Village suggests topping a wheel of brie with an 8-ounce jar of Pepper or Jalapeno Jam and 1/2 cup of toasted almonds, then putting it in the oven for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. Oh, my. I have my jar, and we’re going to try it when we get back from our North Carolina beach vacation. It sounds so good! But now we’re in the realm of party fare. We’ll invite our friends Delilah and Chaz or Mary and Dave over to enjoy it with us, or maybe take the raw materials over to our Friday Night Supper Club and share it with everyone. (Even Ben and I can’t manage to consume an entire wheel of brie at a sitting, and once you’ve topped and heated it, you’d better eat it all.)  

Reading the Kitchen Kettle recipe brought to mind the best brie I’d ever eaten. It was at a party at our friend Erana’s house. She topped a wheel of brie with packed brown sugar and put it in the oven to warm through (again, I’d try 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees F while keeping a close eye on it). Brown sugar on brie would not have occurred to me, but it was so, so delicious, smeared on thin, crusty slices of baguette. Oh, yes! Try it and see for yourself. It’s so good, it just has to be sinful. But at least we’re just sinning against our waistlines instead of other people. I say, go for it! You’ll be so glad you did.

            ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

The downside of Southernness. July 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben considers myself a Southerner at heart, despite living my entire adult life in the scenic middle of nowhere, PA. My father is a native Nashvillian, and has that classic Southern accent, as in “The bay-ah is ovah thay-ah.” (That’s “The bear is over there” for non-Southerners.) My mother was a native of Kentucky, and despite living her adult life in Tennessee, maintained a distinctive Kentucky twang when she spoke. To this day, our friend Ben’s brother speaks in a somewhat more magisterial Southern accent along the lines of our father’s (I’m sure his super-exclusive Southern prep school had something to do with this), and my sister bears the heavy Alabama accent she’s acquired after a lifetime in Montgomery.

But our friend Ben never, ever had a Southern accent. This continues to confuse me to this day. After a lifetime of being mocked by my fellow Southerners for “talking like a Yankee,” and by my fellow Pennsylvanians for “managing to lose the Southern accent,” our friend Ben is no closer to figuring out why I grew up with what’s apparently perceived as an upscale but neutral accent. (When I first moved to PA, people continually accused me of being from England. Speechless at first, it finally dawned on me to say blandly, “No, I’m from the South,” which apparently was considered as exotic as England and brought the whole matter to an end. Until the time that a store clerk piped up with, “The South of England?!” Sheesh.) Our friend Ben has wondered if, as a child growing up with television, I simply adopted a neutral television-announcer accent, but since that was hardly an advantage among my fellow Southerners, it seems unlikely. I still don’t know where my accent came from. And I still wonder.

But to repeat, wherever I am, however I speak, I still consider myself a child of the South. If I didn’t think it would get my windshield bashed in, I’d get one of those bumper stickers that says, “American by birth. Southern by the grace of God.” And yes, I do have a tie-dyed Lynyrd Skynyrd tee-shirt.

However, I’m drifting from the point here, so let’s try to get back to it. Silence Dogood, who as you all know loves cooking more than life, discovered a few choice books for $1 at a library benefit sale last week, including a history of cooking in the Fifties and autobiographies of food gurus Ruth Reichl and Paula Deen. Silence decided to dig into her massive stack of books with Paula Deen’s autobiography, It Ain’t All About the Cookin’. She was reading along, updating our friend Ben about the melodrama that was Paula’s life, when she suddenly turned up at my computer with the book and a very serious expression. I asked what was going on now.

Now, Silence and our friend Ben both salute Paula Deen for being just who she is: an overweight, sixty-something, white-haired Southern cook who tells it like she sees it. Bravo, Paula!!! But Silence was deeply disturbed by a sentence in Paula’s autobiography. She declaimed the whole paragraph aloud, beginning with “I never want to get so uppity that I forget who I am and where I came from.” Vintage Paula, right on, hooray. But then, three sentences later: “Food that is rooted in Southern history, food that Stonewall Jackson’s momma might have given him.” Ending the paragraph with “That’s what I want to serve my family and friends.”

Many Civil War historians believe that Stonewall Jackson was the South’s most brilliant general, and that his ludicrous death—shot down by his own troops returning to his camp from a reconnaissance mission—proved the death knell for the South. Our dear friend Rob, a Civil War buff from the North with ancestors in Puritan New England and no inherent Southern sympathy, is convinced that Stonewall Jackson would have won the war for the South had he lived. And that, later, slavery in the Confederate States would have died a natural death much as the British Empire was forced to relinquish its hold over its territories, including India. But of course, then the States would not have remained united, and no great nation would have risen from this soil to play its part on the world stage. General Lee was a great man, but simply not the great general that the eccentric, less charismatic Stonewall Jackson was. General Jackson’s death doomed the Confederacy.

By now, you may be saying okay fine, so what’s your point? Our friend Ben’s point—and Silence’s point in bringing that passage to my attention—is this: How can Southerners continue to be so oblivious, so hurtful?! Paula Deen begins her autobiography by talking about segregation, how she grew up with it but wasn’t aware of it. She apologizes for her oblivion before returning to her life story. All right, we forgive her… until that sentence about Stonewall Jackson.

Our friend Ben and Silence were lucky—segregation was history by the time we were growing up. Woodstock was a movie, psychedelic drugs were illegal, “free love” was a naive, archaic concept like the Beatles, Go-Go Boots and Twiggy. Vietnam? History. Race Riots? History. JFK’s assassination? History. We grew up assuming that integration was a fait accompli. And we probably would never have thought otherwise had our more aware friend, Susan, not pointed out that in her home state, Virginia, the Confederacy was still alive and well.

Say what?!! We’re not talking about the KKK or even rednecks here. Our friend Ben and Silence had visited Virginia many times, staying with our dear friends Cole and Bruce, enjoying the delights of Charlottesville and Front Royal and Monticello, Ash Lawn, and Montpelier. Until Susan’s wake-up call, we hadn’t noticed the Civil War holdovers. Our own native Nashville didn’t have even one. We’d assumed the Civil War was ancient history. But Susan drew our attention to the many Southern generals immortalized in county names, city names, street names, and so on in Virginia. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson figured prominently, as we saw for ourselves the next time we went down there. Yikes!!!

Of course, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves what black Virginians must think when confronted by the names of Southern generals on their schools, counties, and capitals. Not to mention the rest of the South, the Deep South, and our own proud heritage. Oh no, oh no!!! How humiliating. Like Paula Deen, we all have been oblivious. But our friend Susan awakened us.

The next time we headed South, we too saw the Confederate military heroes enshrined all around us. And sheesh, these guys must be people’s ancestors, too, a source of pride for them just as our own Simms and Semmes and Wall and Merritt and Montgomery and Mattingly ancestors are for us. We know Stonewall Jackson was married, but we don’t know if he had any progeny. Is any descendant still alive who’d be thrilled that Paula Deen chose Stonewall Jackson as her example to epitomize Southern cooking? Couldn’t she have chosen a more neutral example?

Our friend Ben and Silence adore old-time Southern cooking. But, no matter where we go in the South, we have a hell of a time finding it. Our best hope is to find a soul food restaurant. It seems to us that white folks just can’t bear to cook good old traditional Southern food, at least not in restaurants or for publication. I guess they think fried chicken, biscuits, corn cakes, cole slaw, real iced tea, grits, and the like is declasse. Silence has looked at endless Southern cookbooks, and found generic “upscale” cooking, except in parody cookbooks like the Sweet Potato Queens’ and Ruby Ann Boxcar’s books. When we go home, we’re desperate for real Southern food, and damned if we ever find it. Heartaches, and nothin’ but!

Our friend Ben and Silence love our Southern heritage. We love Southern cooking. But oh God, we hate the thought of hurting Southern blacks—who after all are as Southern as any of us—by grinding the Southern Confederate generals in their faces. Can’t we be a little more sensitive?! Our friend Ben can’t help but draw an obvious parallel: What if you were Jewish and your hometown had streets, schools, and other public buildings named for Hitler and his minions? Ugh.

Perhaps we Southerners and Southern cooks could make more of an effort to recognize the contribution that Cajun, Native American, African, and other cuisines brought to our unique culinary efforts. And perhaps we could also bring a bit more sensitivity to that acknowledgement.

Spread the (good) news. July 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Yesterday, our friend Ben was reporting on the latest vegetable scare, some salmonella-tainted jalapenos that the media are blowing out of all proportion into their usual “We’re all gonna die!!!”-fest. (See the post “Here we go again” for my take on that.) Writing that post and reading the comments on it made our friend Ben think about the sorry state of news reporting, and what I’d like to do about it.

Now, our friend Ben realizes that, to be successful, to get viewer or reader share, newspapers and news programs must be in the entertainment business. The success of USA Today proved that beyond doubt, and changed the face of newspaper publishing, almost certainly for all time. Our friend Ben has no problem with this. What I do have a problem with is the nature of “entertainment” today. A quick scan of popular TV shows and movies tells the story: violence and gore galore. True crime, fictional crime, true surgery (in graphic detail), fictional emergency room and hospital shows, disaster shows, horror shows. It’s blood, guts, and terror, folks. Please tell our friend Ben what’s entertaining about that.

Not being fools, the news shows and newspapers figure that, if that’s what people like to watch for enjoyment, they’d better make themselves competitive. So they do. War! Murder! Abduction! Terror! Robbery! Torture! Fatal multi-vehicle wreck! All brought to us in the most graphic full color to make sure we don’t miss one nightmare-inducing real life detail! Even the weather shows, which you’d think would be harmless, have taken their cue from this, making their bread and butter from natural disasters: wildfires, volcanic eruptions, twisters, hurricanes, floods, hazardous, record-breaking snowstorms.

As a result, “news” has become synonymous with “bad news,” and we’ve been turned into a nation of voyeurs and ambulance-chasers by default, our minds suffused with violence, blood, and crime every time we turn on the TV or radio or pick up a paper to hear the latest news. Frankly, our friend Ben can’t take it. I’ve stopped watching the news and get my updates from the internet or the local paper, where I can pass over the most horrific, graphic coverage. I don’t want to fill my mind with images of gore and violence. It’s just not healthy. And the election year has done this much, at least: It’s focused some media attention on the campaigns, so every single headline has not, for once, been about crime, disaster, or corruption.

What happened to all the good news?! As all of us know who see the kindness, beauty, good deeds, and small triumphs around us every day, it’s still out there. But, as one media-savvy wag said (playing on “No news is good news”), “Good news is no news.” Our friend Ben would like to do something about that.

If I had the financial resources of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, I would start a little Good News empire. I would have a Good News channel and a Good News paper. Our friend Ben is an optimist. I believe that people like upbeat programming, that they turn to the sports, cooking, gardening, and home-improvement channels to find some relief from the unremitting violence on the other channels. I would like to have programming that emphasizes what people are doing right, from the amazing art, film, and science projects that kids come up with to inventions that are changing the world for the better, acts of selflessness and generosity, places of natural or man-made beauty and wonder.

Would anybody tune in? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. The important thing, as far as our friend Ben is concerned, is to provide a positive alternative in a negative environment. It’s not that our friend Ben thinks that war, corruption, and other serious, sobering topics should be ignored in a kind of plastic, Stepford-Wives environment where everything is rosy. But there are ways to cover these important topics without resorting to sensationalism, and they are not the only things worth reporting. They are just part of our story. We need equal time for the other part, the part that shows human beings at our best.

Sadly, our friend Ben does not have the resources of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. My Good News empire remains a pipe dream. But I can still share some good news: This is our 200th post on Poor Richard’s Almanac. Today, WordPress stats tell us, we’ll pass 20,000 visits on our blog. We—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—are thrilled to have reached these milestones just six months after launching Poor Richard’s Almanac. We are so grateful to all our readers, for your support, for your comments, for taking the time to see what we have to say. From all of us, thank you!!! And please, feel free to share your own good news with us.

Here we go again. July 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,
3 comments

First it was spinach. Then lettuce. Then tomatoes. Now jalapenos are taking their turn as the Typhoid Marys of the vegetable world. Apparently, jalapenos from a small packing plant on the Texas-Mexican border are contaminated with the strain of salmonella that has been making people sick all summer, and all eyes are turning to the little peppers as the original source of the tomato scare. So far, tomato growers estimate their losses as a result of the public’s fleeing tomato consumption at some $250 million dollars. (Er, I think that was million, not billion…) And the pepper crop is just starting to come in as the new scare hits, threatening countless more growers with financial ruin in the wake of the bad publicity.

Once again, our friend Ben would like to join our old friend Tom Paine in making a plea for common sense. Rather than panicking and avoiding produce altogether, or punishing innocent, hardworking veggie growers for one bad crop produced by someone else, let’s take this as a wake-up call, a reminder that knowing who’s growing your food really matters.

If you’re able to grow your own, you know exactly what goes into it—and what stays out of it. We’re passionate, lifelong organic gardeners here at Hawk’s Haven, and would as soon roll around in a vat of plutonium as dump toxic chemicals on our crops. We know our food is safe to eat right off the plant, and we like it that way. Ditto for the eggs that our healthy, well-fed chickens provide for us. No frantic sterilizing of eggshells around here!

But we don’t grow everything we eat, not by a long stretch. We’ll get our jalapenos from our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, who grows a variety of hot peppers in containers in his small-town backyard. And if we need more hot peppers, we’ll pick them from the U-Pick garden at our CSA, Quiet Creek Farm. Or buy some from the farmers who grow them at our local farmer’s market. Or stock up at the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival in September, which features locally-grown hot peppers. Or head out to hot pepper headquarters, Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, for a few cartons of his colorful heirloom peppers or one of his custom hot-pepper powders or a beautiful ristra of dried peppers.

Worried about salmonella? Not us. We know where our food is coming from. We know who’s growing it, and how. We plan to enjoy an abundance of veggies—including spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapenos—all summer, and support local growers (and the local economy) in the process. Everybody wins!

So please, don’t turn your back on tomatoes, hot peppers, or whatever the next veggie in the typhoid train is this year. Instead, check out the locally-grown produce at your grocery and/or farmers’ market. You may be lucky enough to live in an area, like we do, that has a wealth of farm stands selling produce directly from the farms themselves. We also have health-food stores that carry a range of organic produce, and buy from them (selectively; they tend to be pricey) in winter, when local sources are less available. But we refuse to be intimidated or panicked by food scares, which, after all, are blown out of all proportion to make more exciting news. It’s all about ratings, isn’t it?

So be an informed consumer. Make a point of knowing who’s growing your family’s food. Then, instead of obsessing about whether it’s safe to eat, you can focus on enjoying its delicious flavor and healthful properties. Or, say, the good companionship and conversation of your fellow diners.

Our friend Ben feels that America’s had an unhealthy relationship to food (not even counting these salmonella and E. coli scares) long enough. It’s time to stop endlessly analyzing our food to the last carb or calorie, obsessing about food, hating ourselves for eating food, and eating prepackaged chemical conglomerations that are sold as food. To me, this is the worst form of narcissism, yet another way to waste our time and energy on our precious, precious selves instead of focusing outward. Surely we have better things to think about!

Tell me why: Goat’s milk butter July 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , , ,
8 comments

Silence Dogood here (again). After writing this morning’s post, “When life gives you curdled milk, make butter,” about an experience some friends and I just had making homemade butter, I began to wonder why I never saw any goat’s milk butter in stores. (Or anywhere else, for that matter. Even at the nearby Emmaus Farmers’ Market, where a family-owned organic goat dairy has a stand, they sell everything but butter.) I’ve had great experiences making homemade yogurt from goat’s milk—it’s rich and wonderful—and of course, we love chevre and other goat’s milk cheeses. Milk, cheese, yogurt… but no butter. Why? I had the feeling that goat’s milk butter would be delicious.

Curious, I had a little talk with my good friend Google and turned up all sorts of interesting tidbits. First, I found that Meyenberg goat’s milk butter is available in upscale stores for $7.99 per half-pound. (Guess that proves that no store around here qualifies as “upscale,” since nobody carries goat’s milk butter in our area. And alas, it also proved that even if it were available, we couldn’t afford it.) The butter was described by the lucky tasters as luscious and smooth, with a slight chevre tang, and they revealed that it didn’t harden in the fridge, making it perfect for spreading on a crusty baguette or the bread or cracker of your choice.

Mmmmm. Our friend Ben and I are ready to grab a baguette and some goat’s milk butter right now and serve it with a salad of ‘Brandywine’ tomato slices, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil, topped with some kalamata olives, drizzled with green olive oil and Real Salt, and enjoyed with a glass of Cabernet or Shiraz. Ahhhh. So, okay, if it’s that good, why isn’t it readily available?

An article on the Mother Earth News site (www.motherearthnews.com) with the unlikely title of “Yes, you can make goat without a separator” (we’d rather not, thanks; we’ll leave that to Monsanto) provided some answers. First, it revealed that goat’s milk had very little cream, and that it was quite difficult to separate it out unless you had a hugely expensive separator.

But then the article went on to tell how the author had overcome these obstacles by skimming off a little cream from a gallon of chilled milk every day (starting with a new gallon of fresh milk each day) until, after five days, she had about a pint of cream. Then she whipped the cream in her mixer and rinsed it numerous times with ice water, pressed out all the water from the butter, compressed the butter into a butter mold, refrigerated the mold for 15 minutes, and turned the molded butter out to use as needed. (See the article for details.)

Of course, this article was published in 1978, and much about making butter from goat’s milk may have changed since then. But I’m intrigued nonetheless. Sadly, I’m sure that 5 gallons of goat’s milk would cost significantly more than $7.99, so I probably won’t be making goat’s milk butter anytime soon. But if you do, or if you’ve ever tasted it, please share your experience with us. I would love to know more!

             ‘Til next time,

                   Silence

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