27 March 2016

Of poets and extension cords

On Easter Sunday, when so many people were thinking of the Risen Christ, I was thinking of poets, and duct tape and extension cords.  And that’s what I like about the South.

Instead of being in church this morning, I was watching a taped program featuring Lucinda Williams.  I am fond of girls named “Lucinda” and the show was Bluegrass Underground, not because bluegrass is in any way subversive, but because the show is taped underground.  Literally underground -- in a cave in Tennessee. 

Who thought this up?  Yes, the South is filled with much entrepreneurial spirit.  It is the home of moonshine and fast cars that deliver it, which led to NASCAR.  It is a place where you can find dinner on the side the road at more barbecue joints than you can name.  The South is a place where a guy with a sombrero and spicy ginger ale can build an empire “South of the Border,” in South Carolina. And it is a place where you can put your kids through college by stringing Christmas lights and charge people to visit that old cave on your property.

Well, I don’t know who thought up Bluegrass Underground.  My guess is a Stanford MBA who knew a producer or had a granddaddy that put him through Stanford B-School with proceeds from folks visiting his cave.  Personally, I like to think it was two guys with some Bud Light and boom box.  After loosing battery power, one looks at the other and says:

“Hey, Bubba, if we taped two extension cords together we could get electricity down here for the boom box.  Maybe an amp.  We could set up some chairs and get people to come and sing in our cave, like Lucinda Williams.  Hell, we could even get on the T.V.”

For many years now, my own chicken house has been powered by a duct taped extension cord. And that’s what I like about the South. 
 So there was Lucinda Williams, in a cave.  Now I have been a huge fan, but Williams has always been a bit unsure of her own sound and often, to her detriment, she has let producers lead her music.  Her new CD reminds me the cuts I’ve heard from the Hank Williams biopic featuring Tom Hiddleston.  Hiddleston is an English actor singing Hank Williams songs the way he thinks Hank would have sung them if he had been an English actor.  When you hear them, you think, “Is that Hank Williams?” but soon you think, well maybe not. On her last CD, Lucinda Williams (no relation to Hank) sounds like an actress singing on a biopic.  It is like she listed all the words used to describe her own singing style and then tried to sing like the real Lucinda Williams.  Only, she is the real Lucinda Williams. 

Today she started out impersonating herself and I almost erased it, but I didn’t.  Then she sang Pineola.  It really doesn’t matter what she sounds like when she recites those words.  I remembered that Pineola was written about poet Frank Stanford.  Not a household name, even in the rarified circle of famous poets, but a guy with a huge cult following. 

I know a lot of poets. I cannot off the top of my head, name a one of them that actually supports themselves being a poet.  They work other jobs to be poets.  Their ideal job is to teach poetry to other people who will never make a living at it.  They go to graduate schools for writing, they go to workshops, they teach workshops, they visit artist colonies, they publish in magazines, and still, they are often insecure in their poetry.

Frank Stanford was not.  He became a poet in grade school when he won forth prize in a poetry contest.  That was all he needed to be a poet.  He was employed as a surveyor.  Stanford is most often described as charismatic, a phrase that is overused and imprecise in the world of poetry.  When he died, shy of his 30th birthday, he was married to his second wife, or maybe his third, he was living with his mistress, and he was committed to 3 -5 other women, depending upon who tells the story.  One of those women was Lucinda Williams.  And that’s what I like about the South.

Poets were a common sight for Lucinda Williams as most of her life she lived with one, Miller Williams (blood relation: father).  She often gave her dad her lyrics to read over.  In one song, when a boy is abandoned by his mother, he is left with only a picture of her as a young woman.  It is according to Lucinda, "a girl in a faded blue dress." Miller didn’t like it.  It wasn’t exact enough.  She made a small change as “faded” became “sad” and in that simple edit made the most haunting of lyrics:

He Never Got Enough Love

His mama ran off when he was just a kid,
so he never really knew her at all.
Just a picture of a girl in a sad, blue dress
hanging beside a cross on the wall.

Not only did Miller Williams encourage the poetry in his daughter’s lyrics, he also supported other poets, including Frank Stanford and his lover, C.D. Wright.  Now philandering with a bunch of women might possibly work in New York or Los Angeles, but Pineola is another story. Frank’s wife, artist Ginny Stanford and C.D. Wright sat down with each other to sift through the numerous lies it takes to juggle so many women.  They decided to confront Frank. 

On June 3, 1978, Frank Stanford sent Lucinda Williams a bunch of flowers. She wasn’t home and Miller accepted the package for her.  Ginny and C.D. picked up Frank to take him home to talk about the untenable situation. Frank asked if they could stop by his office first to pick something up.  The women sat in the car and waited while Frank retrieved his gun.  When they got to the house, the women sat in the living room and Frank excused himself for a minute.

Ginny Stanford would later write she heard: “Pop. Oh!  Pop. Oh! Pop. Oh!”

C.D. Wright picked up the phone and called Miller Williams. 

Williams called the coroner and removed the bloody sheets.  When he returned home, he found Lucinda smiling and arranging the flowers.  She shares what happened in Pineola.

When daddy told me what happened,
I couldn’t believe what he just said.
Sonny shot himself with a 44
and they found him lyin’ on his bed.

Stanford was laid to rest in Subiaco, Arkansas.  Much of the truth about his life was obfuscated by his own tall tales and filtered through a long line of poets, priests, singers, and artists.  The body of his work, much if it by very small presses, has been too hard to come by.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t great poets out there in the vast plains and cities and tundra, but there is something especially poetic about living in places called Pineola and Subiaco and even Sylacauga.  My friend Harry Lowe is from Opelika, Alabama.  When people ask where he is from, he tells them Opelika and secretly crosses his fingers hoping that they ask the very predictable next question, “Where is Opelika?”  When they do, Harry Lowe smiles and says, “Opelika is between Notasulga and Loachapoka.”   And that’s what I like about the South.

One day Harry Lowe and I were talking about the end of one’s life. I asked him whether or not he wanted extraordinary measures or whether he wanted me to pull the plug.  He thought for a moment and said, “Keep me plugged in.”  He thought another minute and said, “If we can’t pay the electric bill, run an extension cord to the neighbors.”  We laughed, but I can honestly say I never go into his neighborhood with checking to see who has a new outdoor plug or a cracked window.

On New Years Day, 2015, Miller Williams died. 

In April of that year, Cooper Canyon Press released a collection of Stanford’s work entitled, What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford, a volume including most of his chapbooks. 

This January, C.D. Wright died in her sleep.  She was 67. 

My car is equipped with a jack, a first aid kit, a cooler, a blanket and there is always a book.  These days I keep duct tape and an extension cord, because you never know when you might need to light up a cave, or hook up an iron lung, or simply throw someone a lifeline.

We face everyday with stories of bombing, shootings, hateful politicians, sick children, injured puppies, and that’s just before breakfast.  But we still have poetry to read and music to blast in the night air. Spring is here, the jonquils are in bloom, the lilacs are budding and in the end, the world is pretty great place.

He is risen, indeed.

25 March 2016

Caleb Caudle

We do love the simple things in life -- good tunes, a nice cuppa joe, a warm afternoon.  Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Yesterday, the temperature hovered just below 80.  Today we are struggling to get up to 50.  These wild swings are not conducive to health, physical or mental. 

The clear recourse is to sit at the computer flooded with the SAD light and listen to tunes.  One of our new favorites is Carolina Ghost by Caleb Caudle. It is getting a lot, lot, lot of play here at Doe Run Farm. 

Many people have reviewed Carolina Ghost and most of them have had a hard time reviewing it. Not because they didn't like it,  it has been universally heralded, but because they can't really pigeonhole it. 

It is a thoughtful, well written, slightly poppy Americana record.  Alas, in a time when there are more more Americana artists out there, there are virtually no outlets to listen to new music.  Americana is actually what country music was meant to be in the old fashioned and still relevant Hank Williams/Patsy Cline way, before "country" became some sort of "bros before music" frat party.

Since Christmas, my iTunes has been filled with not only Caleb Caudle, but Freakwater, Dori Freeman, Julien Baker, as well as Lucinda Williams and Loretta Lynn. Other than my kitchen, where are you going to hear a set featuring these guys?  Yes, we have been listening to Chris Stapleton whose a bit of a "bros" kinda guy.  We gave Rhiannon Giddens a pass to channel that Billie Holiday vibe, though we miss the Chocolate Drops.  We loved the new David Wax Museum and even got a Christmas present from Duquette Johnston.  And still, you need to be in my kitchen.

And speaking of my kitchen...and Caleb Caudle...and coffee, my favorite coffee roaster is in the little town of Sugar Grove, Virginia. Dark Hollow Roasters makes wonderful coffee.  You can buy it out in the world, but if you order it from Dark Hollow Roasters, it is roasted the day you order it. 

So Dark Hollow is also a fan of Caleb Caudle and recently they blended a coffee in honor of Carolina Ghost.  We do love a good theme. On this wintry spring day, we got a package from Dark Hollow Roasters with Caleb Caudle's blend, Coffee (and a prayer); a line from  his song, The Reddest Rose. It was roasted a mere three days ago and the post office was jealous because the package was wafting warm coffee aromas. 

This afternoon we are sitting in the kitchen listening to Carolina Ghost and drinking Coffee (and a prayer).  Even the cold weather can't get us down!

21 March 2016

Bloody Butcher Benne Oil Cake

In the South, we have a pie called a chess pie. The joke goes that in a thick Southern accent, when a woman said "It's just pie" it came out sounding like "It's jes pie" which sounds a lot like "chess pie."  No one can swear to the origin, but I like this one so I am sticking with it.

The beauty of a chess pie comes from its simplicity as the ingredients that one needs to make it are almost always in the larder. You might not have what it takes to make chocolate cake or blackberry cobbler but on any given day, a chess pie could be whipped up in almost any kitchen.

In an Italian kitchen, the equivalent to the chess pie is the polenta olive oil cake. Like the chess pie, the ingredients are usually in the larder, it is easy to make, and comes through in a pinch.  In a bit of irony, the ingredients for both desserts are roughly the same.  Like a chess pie, a polenta olive oil cake can be flavored with a variety of seasonings, from vanilla to citrus to almond and most anything in between.  An olive oil polenta cake is a godsend for a canning kitchen.  It is a perfect foil for that last jar of stiff marmalade or runny jam.

Olive oil polenta cake recipes flood the Internet. Every chef and blogger has one. The ingredients are all basically the same.  One cup of the following: flour, corn meal, sugar, eggs, and oil plus baking powder and salt for leavening and a flavoring.  A cup of eggs is about 4 large eggs. Flour usually outweighs the corn meal, but these dry ingredients will still usually equal two cups, so less cornmeal (3/4 cup) with the rest being made up in the flour (1 1/4 cups).

Let us digress -- on a personal note, I love an organized pantry.

But some days...
it all goes to hell.

Recently, this was indeed the case and I ventured in to bring order from chaos. Face it, the more things I picked up, the more things I thought about cooking. Two item turned up in morass that made me start thinking about an old Italian polenta olive oil cake.  Neither of them was polenta nor olive oil.

Let us digress further -- as almost everything I do leads me back to the library.  One of my favorite books published last year was Southern Provisions by David Shields. Shields has a title so long we won't even go into it, needless to say the guy has serious chops. His passion is bringing about a revival of lost Southern foods and agricultural practises. Southern Provisions is part Southern history, part agricultural history, part mystery, part botany, part cookbook, and all around fantastic read. Every book he mentions, you want to read; every recipe, you want to cook; and every spare inch of soil, you want to plant. His work has helped revive real deal Southern cuisine, not the fictionalized romanticism of Southern food. Not to mention the man is married to a woman named, Lucinda!

In the last few years, one of the Southern crops seeing a huge revival is benne.  If you have read Southern Provisions you would know all this; if not buy yourself a copy. Benne is a type of sesame seed brought to America by African slaves. While Thomas Jefferson was trying to produce olive trees to establish a source of fine oil in America, he overlooked the oil producing benne. When Jefferson was presented with a bottle of benne oil from Georgia, he was smitten. Over the next two centuries, benne fell out of favor and production for the most part ceased.  Benne oil never became a larder staple...unless you happen to be searching in my larder.

While cleaning up my mess I ran across a bottle of benne seed oil.  Much like Thomas Jefferson, I too, received a bottle from Georgia.  Oliver Farms in Georgia is currently the only producer of benne oil. It makes a great finishing oil, drizzled over cooked vegetables, or topping a soup.  I love to take day-old cornbread, sliced thin and toasted, sprinkled with some dried fish peppers, then dipped in benne oil.  Another Appalachian favorite is a nutty pesto with ramps and  hickory nuts, bound with benne.  Then, I was gifted a couple of bottles of benne oil and it was quite a gift as the oil is quite pricey. The first gift bottle was quickly used up, but the second had languished, lost and unfinished in the clutter.

The first line in Southern Provisions reads, "Southern food, like Italian food, is a universally recognized category..." Now you are having the same "ah ha" moment that I had.  Especially when you consider that the other item I found lost and alone was less that a cup of a popular West Virgina corn variety, Bloody Butcher.  Bloody Butcher is a red dent corn grown and ground for years in West Virginia. When ground, bits of the red kernels fleck the dark, rich meal, giving it a toothy crunch. Normally, using benne oil in a cake would seem like an extravagance, but since oils will become rancid over time, and since I didn't have a lot of experience with the shelf life of benne oil, I decided it was a "use it or lose it" moment.

I checked the oil and ended up with a full cup and a touch more for one last hurrah. The corn meal was just a hair under 3/4 cup. The Bloody Butcher Benne Oil Cake was a go.

The Bloody Butcher Benne Oil Cake

3/4 cup Bloody Butcher corn meal
1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup benne oil
1 tablespoon grated orange peel

Preheat oven to 350.

Lightly oil a 9 inch spring form pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the AP flour, corn meal, baking powder and salt, whisk to mix.

In another bowl, cream the eggs and sugar, beating until light and lemony in color. Stir in the orange zest.

To the sugar/egg mixture alternate the dry ingredients and the oil using about 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then about 1/3 of the oil, so you will end with the oil.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the cake clean.

Allow the cake to rest in the pan another 10 - 20 minutes before unmolding.

Sprinkle the top with confectioners sugar.

Of course, one could make this cake with polenta and olive oil, but it loses its Appalachian/Southern cred if you do!

18 March 2016

Rural Studio

I'll be honest, I could never come up with a good reason say anything nice about Auburn. Then, Samuel Mockbee  co-founded Rural Studio at Auburn, and I must admit, it has been pretty great. Under Mockbee's guidance, the architecture students created affordable housing for some of the poorest residents of Hale County, Alabama.  After his death, Rural Studio continued to innovate and thrive.

Lately, Rural Studio has been working to take all their innovations and combine them into a simple house that is attractive, livable, and affordable.  By affordable, I don't mean $200,000, I mean a tenth of that -- a $20,000 house.

The first houses of this commercial endeavor were built at a development called Serenbe in Georgia.  The houses are used as artists residences.  There have been numerous articles about these two houses, but the best is by Adele Peters in Co-Exist.  It explains a lot of the problems such a good idea faces.

Sambo would be so proud!

Here's to working out all those problems. 

By the way I have some land...

09 March 2016

Clara Rockmore and GOOGLE

Today is Clara Rockmore's 105th birthday.  Clearly the virtuosos of the theremin would be a Pisces! In an homage to Rockmore, today's Google doodle offers a lesson in theremin playing.  Click and see.

While the theremin was the favorite instrument of 1950's and 60's science fiction, it was not, as is often reported, played in the theme song to Star Trek.

In 1927, the inventor of the theremin, a Russian physicist named Lev Sergeyevich Termen, played his instrument in London to a crowd that included George Bernard Shaw among others.  Thermen changed his name to Leon Theremin and boasted that one day every home would have a theremin.  One of the early theremin enthusiasts was a kid named Robert Moog.  He began building theremins and would later developed the synthesizer often called the Moog.  Today Moog's company not only sells synthesizers, but one of its best sellers is the theremin.

Theremin was an interesting cat! With all the repetitive biopics out there, one would think that Theremin's story is ripe for the picking.  Theremin might have been a Soviet spy.  He was madly in love with Clara Rockemore who refused to marry him.  He later married Lavinia Williams, a prima ballerina with the American Negro Ballet.  Williams believed that he was kidnapped by the Soviet Union and spirited out of America, but the actual reason he left abruptly has been greatly disputed.

As for Rockmore, her performance of Camille Saint-Saëns' The Swan is considered one of her finest.

If you want to here more of Rockmore, might I suggest her CD, The Art of the Theremin.
 Now click on that doodle and practice, practice, practice.

03 March 2016

Happy Birthday, Lee

I have always been a huge fan of Lee Radziwill. She is that one person I would love to have over for dinner. When I was a kid, I cut out every photo of her I could find. It made quite a collection and like my own personal "Rosebud" I dragged that collection around for years. My last move, the envelope the pictures were in broke, and most of the collection was lost.

I took it in stride, as I was much older, and there was much more in my complicated life than old newspaper clippings. Though I will admit to the fact that every time I see a new photo of Lee Radziwill, I think seriously of cutting it out!

So you can imagine how happy I was to Lee by Assouline. It was as if someone had taken my collection and bound it together for me. I couldn't wait to get my copy and I was not disappointed.

To this day, I still believe she is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.

Happy Birthday, Lee. 

02 March 2016

Duchess of Devonshire's Chickens

Today is the sale at Sotheby's for Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters. As one would expect, prices are soaring. As you know, the Duchess had a fondness for chickens. The sale did not dissappoint.  Here are some of the chicken related items.

 Model of a hen, by Nicholas Johnson, made from reclaimed pine.

 Two bespoke pine and plywood travelling poultry boxes with the specially engraved monogram DD.

A matched pair of large continental earthenware hen tureens and covers, 19th Century.

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Coq et Poules (Creuzet 181)

A Japanese bronze group, Meiji Period, late 19th century

A French bronze and marble presse-papier in the form of a cockerel, second half 19th century

Jonathan Sainsbury, Gossip - Hens

 English School, Farmyard Fowl

 T. Benson, Hens and Cockerels in a Farmyard

Harry Epworth Allen, Study of Poultry

A Collection of Books on Poultry, 1853-2001

 Anne Gascoigne, Buff Orpington Hen

 An Edwardian electroplated novelty egg cruet, Mappin & Webb, circa 1910

 Poultry related ceramics, late 19th/20th century
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