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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memories of Grandma

All quiet on the blog front in the last week, I know. Where my motivation went, I’ll never know.

I do know that if I don’t plant my butt in front of a computer more often and actually start typing, I won’t be getting to the Asheville part of my road trip until December! Geez.

And yet, this post has little to do with my road trip and everything to do with missing my Grandma, whose grave and old home I visited while back. I realize this blog is mostly about food, but I was going through three years worth of papers stuffed into boxes last Sunday and found a copy of an interview my mother did with my grandma shortly before she died.

Let me testify: if you don’t do something like this (an interview) with your own family, you might regret it. I simply wasn’t around my grandmother enough to learn the things mentioned in this interview on my own. And, unfortunately, she died during a period of my youth where I busy trying to get away from my family. I rarely spoke to her by phone since she was hard of hearing, and most of our conversations had to be done face to face.

So, this interview means a lot to me. It’s one of the few pieces of my grandmother’s life I have left, and I cherish it more than anyone could ever know. No amount on earth could ever be worth what these few paragraphs mean to me.

Note: The following is written the way my grandma spoke, as transcribed by my mother. Since she was speaking to my mother, “your grandpa” and “your daddy” refers to my great-grandpa and grandpa respectively. Last names have been replaced with initials...just because. Translation of uncommon terms provided in parentheses.

A little more background: My grandmother, Nellie, was born up in a holler in
Relief, North Carolina, in an area of the Blue Ridge Mountains her family had lived in for several generations. Despite being unable to read or write, she provided for her large family and worked hard all her life, growing and preserving food, cooking, sewing, cleaning, and raising young’uns.

Some, ahem, interesting things you might notice in the interview: drunkenness, marriage between cousins, race mixing, bootlegging, wild game hunting, and child labor. It is likely that a few folks reading this today will frown upon some of these things, much as people did back then. It is also likely that my grandparents didn’t give a shit what those people thought, so long as they minded their own damn business. I’m comfortable in saying that I’m of the same mind.


I can remember back when I was 3 years old. The way we played, we’d go to the branch (creek), get rocks and build play houses. We’d travel the mountains...we’d go for miles back in the mountains, a playin’, pick up chestnuts, and I’d lay on the hillside in the brush...make grasshopper cages (you do this with grass needles), and I’d look far away, playin’ alone and think, someday, how I’d want to be in those places…go places. And the first train I’d seen, I was up on a hill where my daddy worked in the corn and I’d watch the train as it passed by. When we left the mountains, the first river I’d ever seen we’d moved to Erwin. I was 9. My daddy bought a T-Model car, so he’d take us to a movie. The first show I’d seen was scary. It scared us all...about a woman with big eyes. Yeah, we’d make trips. My Daddy worked in a shop making parts for trains. He made $4.50 an hour. That was good money back then.

The way we washed clothes, we’d boil water, drop some clothes in, take ‘em out and put ‘em on a stump from a sawed off tree. We’d use boat paddles, they called ‘em bats, and we’d bat our clothes. You could hear everyone down at the branch batting their clothes. We’d make our own soap out of lye and meat skin, hog meat skin. People would bathe in it, too. We’d put it in a big iron kettle and cook it until it became thick. We’d have to wait ‘till it cooked, then cut it in blocks.

When I was 12, we moved to Elizabethton where my daddy worked in a silk factory. I took care of Bob. (Her nephew.) He was a baby.

They wouldn’t let me go to school. The truant officer would come around and they’d tell him that I was older...didn’t have to go. I worked in the house. They always used me as a slave. Well, I used to sew and make my own clothes by the time I was 13. You can imagine what my clothes looked like!

Thirteen, that’s how old I was when I’d stay with people…I’d take care of those who were sick. I’d cook for them, clean their house, dust, wash clothes. They paid me $2.50 a week. After awhile, we moved to Johnson City...I was 14. Well, I done the same thing there. I’d wash their clothes on a wash board. I’d take care of 4 or 5 young’uns. And you know the kind of pleasure I’d see? Me and a bunch of girls would start walking the road. There wasn’t many cars back then. We’d walk for miles, and we’d laugh and carry on. Every so often, there’d be a T-Model pass and we’d holler at them. And next we’d, ’bout 4 or 5 of us, walk to the country church hoping to find a handsome boy...never could find any. We’d stay at church and walk home in the dark. We were never afraid.

Your grandma always stayed at home. She went to church a lot. Her and my daddy argued all the time. That was back in the Hoover days. We liked to starved to death. When my daddy got the job at the Foundry, we lived a little better. They made steel parts for trains, cars. I’m trying to remember how old I was when I met your daddy...about 16. I met him at King Springs. There was a spring and there was a dance hall built over it. We’d go there on Sundays and sit. The way we dated, we’d go for walks...to friends houses. We’d go to the cow pasture and practice football. I was 22 when we got married. He went into the Army about 17...served 3 years the first time. We had 3 young’uns when he had to go in again. Jane was about 2 years old. He stayed in one year...he went overseas. That was when he got his leg broke.

Back when we lived in the mountains, my daddy got mad at my mother...said he’d just kill himself. And they had a place where they hung hogs over at the house. We looked over there, us kids. My daddy had his legs over that pole and his head hangin’ down and his arms just a-shakin’...had us kids cryin’. Then another time he said my mammy didn’t love him…he got drunk. He said he’d just leave. He went up in the holler. My mammy got his brother and they went up on the hillside where they could see up that holler where those legs was, and they saw his heels. He had his head hung down in the branch. He was drunk...cussing. They dragged him out, carried him to the house. They put him to bed to sober up.

Another time, he and my mammy got into a fuss. He wasn’t drunk then. He told her he’d just leave. Well, when he went outside, he took his gun off the rack...said he’d just kill himself. The moon was full that night and the cows had been feeding out in the yard that day. We heard a shot go off. My mammy took out, running. My daddy hadn’t shaved in 2-3 days. He shot up between his hat. He fell in a cow pile. My brother ran out to him...he ran his hand up underneath my daddy’s head. He said, “Yeah, mom he shot himself. Here’s his brains under his head.” So my mom passed out and my brother had to carry her in. My daddy got up and walked in with him.

My Grandpa M came from Cherokee. He was raised there…he was Indian. He was in the Civil war. He died when my oldest sister was born. Grandpa H was 104 when he died. He was Dutch. My grandma M and Joe H were brother and sister. Grandpa H was a preacher. My mother was 12 when they married.

Grandma M...when they moved to the mountains, they had to sleep in the woods at night. They had to hide their personal belongings in the bushes because the Rebels came through. They’d (the Rebels) take cows and anything away. There was a woman who lived there and always knew when the Rebels were about to invade. She’d let everyone know so they could hide their things. The Rebels found out about her, and she was shot in the chest. She had a little girl.

My grandpa got shot. They threw him up in a wagon, and they drove through a thicket, and he worked his way off the wagon and escaped. He crawled to a haystack and stayed there for 3 weeks. He got well enough to go home. They came and got him…took him back. A drove of them went through again, back to the river. They shot the democrats and buried them in the river bottom. That was the end of them.

My grandma thought he was coming in one night. She had a bullet that had come out of one of the soldiers who had been killed. She looked out the window and saw a white horse coming. There was a man on it. She ran to meet him. The horse reared back. The dogs were barking...her little sister was clinging to her. She went back to the house. She sat at the chimney corner and watched the man on the horse. When grandpa got home, he took the bullet and threw it away. She didn’t see the man on the white horse again. He was dead. It was his bullet...the one that killed him.

My daddy and mother used to make moonshine. They’d sprout the corn to make the beer. They kept it hid from us young’uns. Between 2 bedrooms, there was a wood stove. Somehow, they dug a place in the floor that led to the basement. They had a stove pipe that leg through. We didn’t suspect anything...the stove pipe would never get hot. In one bedroom that had canned food, and behind those is where they stored the jugs of moonshine.

There was a sawmill near the house. They’d haul out lumber and had toe sacks (potato sacks) filled with straw for the workers to sit. They’d throw them in the yard. My mother would put half gallons of moonshine in those sacks. The workers would haul the sacks on the trucks with the lumber. She’d get the money from the sacks. That’s how they made a living in the mountains.

They got tired makin’ moonshine in the basement, so they’d put us kids to bed early and decided to make it upstairs using the fireplace. It blew up! My mother was burnt. She went to the doctor the next day. He told her the sparks from the fireplace caused it. She didn’t tell him what they were doing. We didn’t know this until we were much older. We never knew while they were doing this. That’s why my daddy was getting drunk. When your daddy was living we went up toward Relief, but couldn’t get to the back roads that would lead us there.

At Christmastime my daddy would ride the horse to Bakersville to buy Christmas. He’d buy stick candy, fruit. That was one Christmas. I can remember one time my daddy bought my sister and I a doll. We went barefoot in the wintertime. We were happy to get shoes for Christmas. When we wanted a doll, we’d make our own with tied rags and charcoal for eyes. We didn’t have toys.

They’d grow late cabbage. They’d dig a ridge and bury the cabbage heads leaving the roots sticking up. We’d have cabbage all winter. They’d dig holes with straw in them and keep potatoes that way. We’d have Hanover potatoes for all winter. We’d eat birds. My daddy would catch them in a trap, and my mother would cook them in a big iron pot over the wood stove. We’d have gravy from that. They called them snowbirds. We ate a lot of wild meat...like groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits. There were none of the disease back then in those animals. They’d kill sheep, too. They called it “Mutton” meat.

Love Always,


Friday, August 10, 2007

Let Me Show You Something!

After leaving Calabash, we arrived in Carolina Beach - a small and somewhat impoverished beach town with a military base nearby. The town is on an island, called Paradise Island, and is within the greater Wilmington area. This is where we wanted to go for two reasons: the obligatory beach visit and to see carnivorous plants in their natural habitat.

The food was secondary on our agenda during this part of the trip, but we did find one seafood restaurant worthy of a visit from the pork mobile called Bowman's. Although it wasn't up to Calabash standards, it was the best meal we ate between a so-so barbecue joint on the island and a mediocre restaurant in downtown Wilmington.

This post is all about vacation pictures, so enjoy!

Tall, Long Needle Pines - Green Swamp, NC

Sarracenia flava, aka Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant

Venus Fly-Trap

Common sundew, aka Drosera intermedia

Celebrate the moments of your life


Thursday, August 09, 2007

The One True Calabash

There are two towns in North Carolina that will lead you to believe you have died and are seated at the Pearly Plates.

Depending on your religion, you’re either in barbecue heaven (Lexington, NC) or seafood heaven (Calabash, NC). There’s a third heaven for all you fine lovers of livermush (Shelby, NC) - but don’t bother telling anyone, lest you feel inclined to sit through the lip curls and squinched faces.

Unfortunately, Shelby wasn’t on our itinerary this last road trip. I’ll discuss Lexington later on, but let’s talk about Calabash: the myth and the reality.

Myth? Whachu talkin’ bout Willis?

The prevailing myth in the Carolinas is that one can say their cuisine is Calabash without actually being from Calabash. In fact the name, “Calabash”, and the term, “Calabash-style”, has been bandied about by any and everyone serving deep-fried seafood from the shores of the Outer Banks to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet technically, if it isn’t from the town of Calabash, it isn’t real Calabash seafood.

"Calabash" Restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, SC

Why they do so is obvious: Calabash has the reputation for delivering simple, fresh, and delicious seafood (mainly fried, but offered as boiled or broiled as well) with a distinctive style. For a restaurant to say it serves “Calabash-style” seafood conjures up images of nets teaming with fish just hauled off a boat and ultimately delivered steaming hot to your table. Actually, those boats are quite real in Calabash and are literally down the street from the restaurants.

I’ve mentioned previously my own upbringing as a North Carolinian raised in a food environment that was more pizza than pinto beans; more burgers than barbecue. Like many Southerners of their generation, my parents were products of the last half of the 20th century and none too excited to worship at the feet of tradition. Music-wise, my Dad listened to the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson rather than traditional bluegrass, while my mother distanced herself from her Appalachian roots entirely in the soothing sounds of Chuck Mangione, Anita Baker, and Kenny G.

Despite this, my parents were huge Calabash-style seafood fanatics. Being in the mountains, we often got our fix from the only two fish camps in the area – one in the boonies near Leicester and another sitting on a lone highway between Swannanoa and Black Mountain; neither of which are still in business.

My parents not only loved (still love) seafood, but their love of the ocean and all things associated with it left an indelible mark on me; so much so, I’ve lived by the sea since I left home.

My parents weren’t perfect (neither was I), but they tried. One thing is clear: they done right the minute they set me down in front of that red and white-checked plastic tablecloth covered table and introduced me to the deep-fried holiness of popcorn shrimp, deviled crabs, and hushpuppies.

For me, coming to Calabash was not only a great stop between Charleston and the Wilmington area, but it was also a pilgrimage to a culinary shrine and a tribute to the tastes and loves of my parents. I won’t deny that there was also a quest for authenticity – to say I had been to the source, to experience “the real”, and to judge it for better or worse.

It’s a helluva weight to put on such a small town. It’s an even bigger weight to put on one restaurant in said small town, and yet something tells me the Calabash Seafood Hut, much like Atlas balancing the weight of the sky on his shoulders, is use to such challenges.

We rolled into the town of Calabash shortly before noon, stopping at the first second hand store we saw. After browsing through the dusty old clothes and even dustier old books, we asked the clerk where River Road was. Oddly, she had never heard of it. Two older women who were shopping overheard us and we asked if they were local. When they said yes, we asked them: “where is River Road?” They seemed stumped and asked us where we were going. When we said the Calabash Seafood Hut, it was as if all of a sudden the clouds opened up and a beam of light shone down.

“Oh, just go up to the stop light and turn right! You can’t miss it! We’re getting ready to eat across the street from there.”

So much for Mapquest.

After disembarking from our pork mobile and entering the restaurant, we seem to arrive between the fishing boat captains leaving and the “spending our grandkids’ inheritance” crowd following behind us. Our waitress gave us a moment to look at the menu while she brought out a basket of hushpuppies to start with.

Important Side Note: You know, in the Carolinas someone is always making a big deal over who’s barbecue is the most authentic or tastiest. And yet, consider the lowly hushpuppy.

Hushpuppies vary wildly from region to region, cuisine to cuisine. Sometimes they are perfectly round, sometimes they are oblong, and sometimes they look like a Ferran Adria experiment gone wrong. Some have onions in them, while others do not. Some are savory and some are sweet. Some are mostly cornmeal, some are partially corn meal, and some are mostly flour.

I’ve noticed that hushpuppies served with barbecue tend to consist mainly of corn meal and contain no sugar, while hushpuppies served with seafood tend to have more flour and contain some sugar. These bits of fried bread are dense and soft on the inside while crunchy and slightly sweet on the outside.

If you ask me, that’s a damn delicious combination, dangerous for any diet.

When it came time to order, Bruce and I basically ordered the same platter; a platter loaded with deviled crab, shrimp, oysters, whiting, cole slaw and french fries. Bruce, not an oyster fan, substituted scallops instead.

Our plates of food arrived not long after we placed our order, along with a pitcher each of sweet and unsweet tea. Sitting on the table were bottles of ketchup, cocktail sauce, and Texas Pete hot sauce – not that I needed to use much of anything with seafood this good.

In fact, things weren’t as good as I remembered: they were better. And why shouldn’t they be? Here I was in Calabash having real Calabash seafood and it was rocking my world! The seafood was lightly breaded, crisp, and hot. Each bite was a clean, fresh, succulent, and rich rebuke to all pretenders and challengers to the throne.

The best part of this whole experience was sharing my love of deviled crab with Bruce. Deviled crab was definitely a favorite of mine growing up. I ordered it, along with boiled or fried shrimp, every time my parents and I stopped by the fish camp. Deviled crab is definitely a specialty of this region and I honestly don’t think it’s available in California (though I could be wrong). Naturally, Bruce was hooked.

In general, deviled crab is blue crab that is cooked, stripped of meat, that meat is added to bread crumbs and spices, it is all stuffed back into the shell, and then it is deep fried. Not only a cool presentation, but OOOHH so good.

So good, in fact, one doesn’t have time to truly appreciate its beauty before it’s all gone.

In a way, I’m glad Calabash seafood isn’t available where I live. First of all, watching my weight would be damn near impossible (it’s already difficult having Little Lucca just down the peninsula). Second, I appreciate having to travel for good food. I don’t want everything to be everywhere, and often is the case where some dish I enjoyed in one place (such as a Cuban sandwich) is brought to another (San Francisco), and those who make it never get it right. I just end up disappointed and wanting to travel.

I guess the lesson here is that good food waits for you. It stays in one place, welcoming you to come back for more.

You just have to know where to go.


Friday, August 03, 2007

I'm Cranky and Gassy

It's been a hell of a week.

I was watching Dr. Phil the other night instead of writing for this blog and I think I have something explosive in me. Not from the beans, but anger management stuff. Actually, I'm not getting enough sleep and I think it's making me cranky. Added to that, I just haven't had the time to do what I love to do: like take hikes, such as the one I took above in Morgan Territory near Mount Diablo about a month ago.

Or even write about food!

Well, I promise I'll have something for you next week, if not sooner.

In the meantime, be sure to check out some of my other writing that goes more in depth about my quirks, temperaments, and deeply disturbing family issues. You can read it all HERE.

Chek u latr, playa hatr