Snow Days!

There is something insanely exhilarating about a snow day. Not just for children, who kind of expect such things to happen, but for adults especially. We don’t have to go anywhere, worry about anything and we can busy ourselves with our favorite activities, inside or out. It’s this notion of play that gets adults and children alike so excited about snow days. I remember as a kid literally leaping for joy over a major snow event. Bear in mind that back then, in the stone ages (I once innocently asked my Dad if he remembered the dinosaurs – my Mom roared with laughter, Dad just looked annoyed until he seized the moment and told me all about the dinosaurs and how they would hunt them when he was a little boy. I was enthralled.) Weather forecasts were rarely right. I guess it’s kind of like today, we just weren’t overloaded with news, facebook, twitter, texts and alerts every time a butterfly sneezed in Hong Kong.

For me, the biggest emotional trigger that I have is the desire to cook. Whenever we were not at school due to snow, my Mom would literally cook all day long. Huge breakfasts with eggs, sausage, gravy and cat-head biscuits. A mid-morning snack after we’d romped in the snow all morning of hot chocolate and cookies, usually but not always chocolate chip. A big lunch with canned tomato soup from the summer before, hot sourdough bread that had been rising behind our big wood stove with grilled cheese and pickle sandwiches topped with pork loaf. I think that might have been more fun than sledding down the driveway, which was nearly a mile long and very, very steep! We would take turns pulling one another back up the mountain on our ATV until it became too slick for even that rugged vehicle. We had only one family of neighbors, an elderly couple who were by themselves on their family farm a few miles past us, further into the Appalachian wilds. They would stop and fuss at us in their old jeep that we were making the road too slick. We hardly paid attention.

Mom would try to confine us to specific areas to undress, with our soaked clothes and frozen shoes, but seven children are hard to confine in any way, especially when there are leftover biscuits and cookies to snag out of the kitchen jars, applesauce just made out of fall apples that had been stored in our cellar from days spent with our fruit trees under the bright October sun as the leaves transformed into magical color and the days became shorter and nights colder.

There would always be a bean soup of some kind simmering on the wood stove, usually with onions, potatoes, garlic, dried herbs and a soup bone of some sort. Combine that with slab-cut bacon, applesauce and sourdough bread and you had yourself a meal fit for the gods.

As poor as we were, we really never noticed. We never went hungry, we were never fat as children (it took years of fast food and alcohol consumption for any of us to actually get fat) and our nutrition levels were off the charts.

So, the last two days, as the snow has poured down nearly incessantly, I have been gripped with a desire to cook. Chores that I once found to be heinous, such as canning, I now do out of pure enjoyment. So, Laura and I went to work. We made spaghetti sauce for freezing, peeled and cored apples for canning, baked apple cake, played in the snow with Nolan despite all three of us having head colds and in general had a wonderful time.

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I rarely bake, but our apple cake was wonderful and the applesauce and applebutter will be a delight, especially for Nolan, who loves the stuff. He also loves olives, bread – and nearly everything else that you stick in the kids face. I guess he is like us!

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Applesauce Spice Cake (Adapted from “Canning for a New Generation” by Liana Krissoff

Dry Ingredients: 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, one cup of light brown sugar, one teaspoon of cinnamon, ½ a teaspoon of nutmeg, ½ teaspoon cloves, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Wet Ingredients: One cup of applesauce, ¼ cup of softened butter, ¾ cup of water.

Optional: ½ cup of nuts, ½ cup of raisins. You can also substitute for other dried fruit. My personal favorite is dried apricots, but I rarely buy them as I eat them all!

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl until well combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix until “pourable.” Pour into a lightly greased nine-inch cake pan or well-greased iron skillet and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a chopstick or toothpick, inserted into the middle, comes out clean. Let it stand for ten to fifteen minutes and then enjoy!!

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Lest I forget, Happy Valentines Day!

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Tire Chains and Spaghetti

“Are you sure?” My brother, seven years younger than me, was looking at the snow covered mountainside a little dubiously. That sounded just about as close to a challenge to me as you could possibly issue. I replied with some comically heroic answer about no mountain too steep or “No Fear” or something boneheaded like that as I revved the engine in my seriously underpowered little 4×4 Nissan Pickup. No doubt I was imagining something from a Mountain Dew Commercial or maybe a Kid Rock Video at the doubt, complete with spouting champagne and bikini-clad, peroxide blondes with too much makeup and no scruples, the kind who would, in time, become the bane of my existence and constant weakness.

Not that day. I was eighteen and my brother and I had been out most of the day since there was no work or school due to the blizzard, doing what most rural, redneck, country boys do when it’s snowing: Go Four-Wheeling! I mean, what’s to stop you? It’s not like there is nothing else to do, what watch T.V.? Hah! Why? Play X-Box? Sorry, they hadn’t been invented. Teenagers still behaved like teenagers in the early 1990’s, in that if given an opportunity to play with an electronic game or a chainsaw, well, you know the answer. There were far more chainsaws than electronic games in our part of the world, which made our entertainment much more accessible.

I revved the engine and threw away the clutch, redlining the engine and taking advantage of all sixty horsepower that the massive (in my mind, it was a Chevy big-block with about the same horsepower rating of a fighter jet) engine had to offer. Just as James said, “Maybe we should put the tire chains on?”

Too late. Fully committed to the events at hand, I launched the truck, with wheels spinning furiously, towards the mountainside, which we had not checked for things under the snow, such as stumps, ditches, rocks, someone’s cow or any of the other objects that could be subject to a high speed collision. Luckily for us, there were no such objects buried in the snow. Not so lucky for us, there was a drift of snow piled against the bottom of the hill, into which I recklessly plowed, as gung-ho as a Marine on my first assignment.

Full speed ahead, we ran square into the snowdrift, the tires clawing their way down to the frozen earth beneath, where they found absolutely no traction, despite my repeated attempts to free us from the icy grip. James looked at me sideways. “I guess we’ll put the chains on now.” Smartass. He was wise beyond his years. I still listen to him.

Maybe it was him I was listening to today, his voice in the back of my head somewhere. Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe it’s because I now have a child. Whatever the reason, I put chains on the truck before the projected snowfall began. They’re relatively easy to install when it’s dry, not snowing, and you’re not stuck. It’s not when all the above conditions are occurring at once, in the dark, while your wife is trying unsuccessfully to give you directions as you roll around in the snow and mud with a tiny flashlight in your mouth in a violent attempt to place what appears to be frozen strands of incredibly heavy spaghetti around your tire without moving the vehicle, because it won’t move BECAUSE IT’S STUCK!!

So, here are a few pictures on how to install chains.

First, already have the chains. If you live in the eastern U.S., the chances of a store having a set that will fit on the eve of a major snow even is slim to none. In that case, stay home.

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Stretch the chains out on the ground, working out as many kinks as you can. Remember, the hooks need to be pointed DOWN towards the ground. They’re also easier to install if the locking side of the chain is on the outside of the tire.

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Drive your vehicle onto the chains as they are positioned on the ground. See why this is hard when you are stuck?

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Fasten the chains loosely around the tires making sure that they are positioned evenly.

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Go for a drive, then re-tighten. Even if it doesn’t snow, now you are ready for nature’s worst! Your truck or SUV is now nearly unstoppable! Test drive it again, then go inside, make some hot tea or cocoa and help your son and wife taste the spaghetti sauce she’s been busy making while you’ve been rolling around on the frozen ground cursing the day you moved to the country and need tire chains to get out of your drive.

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Biscuits and Footraces

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It was one of those spring afternoons. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly cool and everything smelled of growing and blooming things. Strawberries and rhubarb were already ripe with the promise of early morning snacking in the gardens and homemade jam with biscuits from my Grandmother. The air was redolent with pollen and the soothing sounds of bees and tree frogs, everything in existence seemed to be celebrating spring.

That day in the late 1980’s, all of us children and teenagers were also celebrating. It was difficult to get us to pay attention to anything whatsoever. There were baby chicks just hatched, piglets begging to be caught at a great risk to the pursuer, baby goats bleating and running for their bottles when you showed up in the late afternoon as the mist poured down the impossibly steep terrain of the Appalachian Plateau.

It was honey harvesting time and most matriarchs had thrown open their pantries, moving it seemed almost simultaneously from a mood of hoarding and rationing to gorging on last year’s jams and canned fruit. The first eggs of the spring were being gathered and cooked in every way imaginable, especially easy-over in bacon grease with the ever-present jar of peach preserves and lard biscuits occupying the center spot on the kitchen table.

There are four brothers in my immediately family, with three sisters. Altogether, back then, we were probably an overwhelming sight. My mother drove a VW Van, bright yellow with a white top. It seemed that it was always either broken down or about to be, but it was cheap, easy to repair and went like a tank in the snow. It was also incredibly slow and the defroster never worked and there was no A/C at all. We didn’t care. We didn’t know enough to realize that by the time and geographical place in which we lived, that van was considered one step above walking. We loved the thing.

We were coming home from school that particular day, wild with energy and so anxious to get to Grandmother’s house we could barely wait. Only about three miles from school, her tiny house was a gathering place for the entire Matney clan. We would gather on holidays or whenever we happened to wander in, picking apples and helping with gardens and of course, always eating.

The brother closest to me in age, by virtue of being the oldest I got to sit in the front of the van and hold my youngest sister while Mom drove, was already wildly competitive with me. I guess that’s to be expected with a large family of brothers. We would fight each other just as quickly and savagely as we would fight anyone who opposed us or bullied any of our family members, particularly our sisters.

So, in the spirit of competition, our new game was to see who could win a footrace from the parking spot in front of the garage to Grandma’s front door. She would always be there in her simple dress and apron, ready to dictate a winner, which would sometimes be me and sometimes be James, based on who she thought deserved it that day. Despite the fact he was younger, he was incredibly fast and it was getting harder to beat him, despite my being a few years older.

I heard the door behind me bang open before Mom even stopped the van. I realized that James would get a few seconds head start and hastily handed my sister to my Mom, even as she was telling me to get things out of the back. Nearly deaf, I had the perfect way to not listen: Just turn my head. Voices faded into the distance and I was in a near-silent place where the only thing that mattered was outrunning my brother to the front door, where I could already see Grandmother waiting, ready to declare a winner and a reward of a freshly baked cookie.

We ran as only little boys can, heedless of footing and safety, worried only about speed and the thrill of the competition. James had taken the shorter track, straight down the mountain past the oil pit where our Grandfather and nearly everyone else in our community changed their oil, allowing it to spill heedlessly into the ground, where it was supposedly rendered inert, somehow.

James took the lead and I realized that there wasn’t much chance of catching him. He went through the front gate and I went over the fence, an easy-for-me-then-impossible-now leap nearly seven feet in the air from the hillside, over the fence and into the yard, where I rolled to my feet and bolted for the door. James was still ahead and laughing hysterically, knowing he had won the race. I was one step behind him when he hit the front swinging door.

It had been a cold winter, colder than normal and a chilly spring. The swinging front door was still armored with its glass planes, protection against the wind gusts and helping with a barrier to the rest of the house.

Traveling as fast as a little boy could possibly go, with me one step behind, James ran through the glass. He tried to stop, last second, then just put his arms up and went through. I had only a split second to realize what had happened and then we were on our way to the emergency room with an eight-inch gash in James’ arm.

Why were we racing? Besides the cookie, Grandma always kept an old crock with a cork top full of cat’s-head biscuits. She made them with lard every single morning and they were still delicious in the afternoon, topped with honey, sorghum, peach jam, fresh strawberries, old gravy, fatback or whatever else she happened to have around. We would eat until we were stuffed, much to my mother’s dismay as she would try to restrain us enough to make sure we would eat dinner when we got home, which would be much healthier, in her mind, than what we were scarfing down at the moment. After biscuits, it was time to play with the chickens, gather firewood, chase the cats out of the sheds and look for new flowers.

As time progressed, lard fell out of favor and became nearly obsolete, replaced by its distant and government sponsored cousin, Crisco. Vegetable oil replaced emulsified butter and olive oil fell to the side. People started getting fatter and fatter, all the time wondering why. Grandma finally gave up lard under pressure from the family and bemoaned her weight gain immediately after.

I’ve missed those biscuits for years and I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate them or something like it, with absolutely no luck. I couldn’t find lard, full-fat buttermilk or the old self-rising flour that Grandma Audrey used. I then discovered a local flour source, a place to buy lard at the farmer’s market and full-fat buttermilk at the country grocery near us.

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I was ready, but with no recipe. My Aunt Vickie Baldwin, raised in the deep south and with all the traditions that entails, sent me the following recipe:

“OK Ron, try this: Place approx. 4 cups self-rising flour (not plain like I had said earlier, I was having a “senior moment”) in a large bowl. Make a “well”, or indentation, in the middle of the flour. In this indentation put approx. 1 cup lard. Slowly pinch the lard with the flour between your fingers, mixing it. When you get it half incorporated, slowly add 1 cup buttermilk, continuing to incorporate the mixture with your fingers. Once it is all mixed and of a consistency of dough, pinch double walnut sized amount of dough off, roll it lightly in more self-rising flour, and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 until golden brown, maybe 15 minutes, maybe longer. The key is to work the dough as little as possible, the more it is kneaded or messed with, the tougher your biscuits will be. Pull them out, split them, add butter and either your honey or sorghum syrup, or maybe homemade fig preserves, and eat. If I lived closer, I would make them with you.”

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I did find that they are better, in my opinion, in a cast iron skillet that is over one-hundred years old handed down from my Grandmother. Maybe her spirit still lives in the shiny black surface. I found myself a little superstitiously studying this dark, liquid-like surface after breakfast, after Laura and Nolan had eaten most of the biscuits. Maybe I could sense her presence, I’m not really for sure. But when I closed my eyes, I felt I could smell the faintest aroma of a coal and wood fired cook stove, hear the singing of the tree frogs and I thought that for one brief moment, I was a teenager again, racing my brother towards the smell of good things in the kitchen.

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A Baby’s (Excuse Me, Toddler’s) Review of Pink Cadillac

Note: Daddy is going through some writer’s block and working a lot on projects around the house and hasn’t really kept up with his writing, so I’m going to help him out today.

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I woke up the other day in my warm crib and listened for sounds of Mommy or Daddy. I could hear Mommy in the kitchen and it sounded like Dad was filling up the wood stove with wood. I like the wood stove and I really wish that I could convince my parents that it’s ok for me to play with it. They won’t let me, repeating over and over that it is “hot” and will “burn the baby.” I really think that they underestimate my intelligence sometimes. I know that it’s hot but I don’t know who this “baby” is to which they refer. After all, from what I’ve read, at thirteen months I’m a toddler! I can walk, I’m learning to run, I can climb all the stairs, everywhere, which I like to do because I always get chased and I get to show everyone how fast I can go up. Sometimes I get caught before I make it to the top, which always makes me mad. I don’t have to be carried all the time!

I do like to be carried though. It’s fun. I think about riding Dad’s shoulders and giving Mommy kisses while I jump up and down in the bed. It’s time for them to get me out, and from the sounds below my bedroom I can tell that we’re going somewhere!! That’s doubly exciting.

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I give up and start to throw my blankets out while yelling “Uh-Oh!” Parents are so funny. They think that it is awesome that I can say that, but as Sadie, my friend that I play with, and I have discussed, it’s hard to get parents to take you seriously when you are still so little. So I just do what I can for them and feel sorry that they can’t understand everything that I say. I understand them!

After throwing all my blankets in the floor I realize I’ve made a mistake, for now I’m a bit sleepy and my blankets are out of reach. So, embarrassingly enough, I do what always works. I cry. Not a minute goes by before I hear both my parents coming up the stairs in a mad rush. I like how they always run for me. It makes me feel special.

Dad has made breakfast, ‘cause he smells like oats, fruit and honey. Yummm. One of my favorites. Oatmeal with fruit! We are definitely going somewhere, their suitcases and my diaper bag are by the door and Dad loads the car while I show Mommy how far I can throw the oatmeal. I eat too much and I feel full and sleepy and I need to poop. I’ll be in the car for a few hours, and it’s time for my nap so I go ahead and poop so Mommy can change my diaper while Dad is outside. Dad means well and he tries, but sometimes he gets my diaper wrong. I have to show him how to dress me every time too, so I’d rather Mom do it this morning so we can get on the road and I can take a nap. We get in the car and the sound of the radio and my parents talking soon put me to sleep…

I wake up a little hungry and thirsty! Dad spins round in his seat and gives me milk, but my stomach is growling! I remind them it’s time to eat and they have a place in mind! The Pink Cadillac! I’m excited, I like Cadillac Cars. My Mommy has one and I like it a lot. Daddy likes it too, I can tell, ‘cause he always sleeps while Mommy is driving. Mommy likes to drive fast!

We get off exit 180 off I-81 North and pull into a gravel parking lot with lots of cars and an old pink Cadillac out front! The waitresses are all so nice and they tell me I’m so cute and handsome, but I already know that. I smile at them and hope they don’t try to hold me. I don’t like it when strangers hold me unless they are pretty.

I can tell that Mom and Dad have been here before. They order cheeseburgers immediately with fries and I cheer up. I like homemade cheeseburgers a lot, especially my Daddy’s and this seems like the kind of place that would have a good burger. There are lots of stuff on the walls and I blow bubbles in my apple juice and play peek-a-boo with the people behind us. They looked bored and unhappy.

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The burgers come fast! With lots of fries and ketchup and pickles and onions and tomatoes and mayo and American Cheese! Yummm. My favorites. Mom and Dad feed me their burgers and I try not to drool on them, but it’s really hard with all my new teeth coming in. I eat a lot and feel like I’m sleepy again.

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We say goodbye to everyone and I wave, which seems to make everyone happy. I don’t know why, so I just wave some more. I can tell we’ll be coming back to this place when we can and I think about how cool it is to be a toddler now while Mommy puts me in my car seat. I hear her say that we’re going to Nana’s house, so I’m happy – I’m going to get lots of presents. And oysters. And stew. And lamb, and risotto, and chocolate cake and carrots and her special pasta sauce and all kinds of stuff.

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I need to poop.

Babyfood and Books

I’m sitting on the floor with my one-year old son, playing with his blanket and unsuccessfully trying to teach him to count to, well, one. It’s unbelievable what babies already know, as he watches me with his huge eyes and soaks in everything around him in a world which must be, to him, full of wonder, novelty and challenge. He changes every single day, walking faster today than he did yesterday, climbing steps more rapidly and learning to put his toys in the trash while repeating “Uh-Oh” over and over again.

So maybe he has learned to count and just lacks the communication skills to project what he has learned in a way that I can understand. In that case, just who is the teacher here? I think most of the time that he is the educator and I am the learner as I follow him about the house and observe his behavior, recognizing his body language and predicting when he is going to make an all-out, Marine Corp style attack on one of the several flights of stairs in our house.

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He’s also playing with one of our cast-off cell phones, which is much more complicated and versatile than the one that I carry, an old flip phone that has proven to be mostly indestructible in all the years that I’ve had it. I feel like a hypocrite, allowing him to imprint on a phone at such an early age when I am so anti-phone.

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He starts to fuss a bit, so I get up to get him some juice and sourdough bread and for the first time I take a really hard look at our pantry, fridge and freezer and wonder what someone else would think if they were evaluating our lifestyle and who we are based on those contents. I’ve always felt that you could tell a lot about a person by what’s in those spaces along with what is on our bookshelves.

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Aside from a cookbook on cooking for toddlers, which we have barely touched, there is very little trace that we have a baby in our pantry or on our bookshelves. Not one can of processed baby food, not one jar of anything Gerber, no rice cereal, no frozen fish sticks or chicken nuggets. To my knowledge, he’s never had anything that isn’t organic, local, raised by us or a neighbor – or all three, except for restaurants, where I’m sure he has eaten a multitude of things that aren’t, but then we are very picky about restaurants. (Note: My wife corrected me on this statement and reminded me that we have indeed bought things that are none of the above since we’ve had the baby, such as chicken, baby cereal and squeeze snacks, although the squeeze were labeled so called organic.) We avoid chains at all costs, dining out at our favorite places where we know the chefs and have a relatively good idea of what is going into the food. He’s never had a fast food meal, period.

With all that said, how far is too far? Are we too picky? I’m sure at some point that he is going to discover McDonalds, Bojangles, and God forbid, Taco Bell. I had never eaten at a Taco Bell until a couple of years ago when my boss at an engineering firm insisted that we go there for lunch. I was sick for hours afterward. We didn’t eat fast food when I was a kid for two reasons: We were too poor and our choices were limited to KFC and Long John Silvers, both of which my mother had pronounced as disgusting. The Colonel was there, but the King and the Clown were still a few years away from my town.

All I know is that it is easier to take what we are eating and just give it to baby. We’ve been doing that since the doctor pronounced that it was ok for him to eat solid foods and so far it has worked like a charm. We just make a little more of whatever we’re having. He loves mashed potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, rice, lamb, chili, honey, oatmeal, venison, oysters, stews of all kinds, sourdough bread with butter, French toast, pancakes, eggs, his Nana’s spaghetti sauce with meatballs (also not labeled any of the above, but the contents of the meatball are from an Amish market, which his Nana loves) and just about anything else that we can put in his mouth, except for grits. He doesn’t care much for those.

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So, are we taking it too far? How far should we go to protect our children from their environment and from themselves?  In the 1970’s and 80’s this was of small concern to anyone, really. Beer, cigarettes and T.V. dinners were what adults seem to subsist on. Children ate whatever they could generally get their hands on in most cases, enjoying a lack of parental supervision that would be gasped at today. Is it better to go ahead and just break down and feed him Mickey D’s in a couple of years? It’s not a question of would he like it – corporations have spent millions upon millions of dollars in research in marketing and taste preferences to ensure that he will like it. Will that be all he wants?

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For me there are the immediate repercussions of eating fast food, or anything high in saturated fats, salt, refined sugars and processed food. I don’t think my system could tolerate a full diet of that sort of food, nor do I care to try it on for size. I don’t like to feel like I have a hangover from the food I foolishly consumed the day before.

Our child will likely have his mother’s ability to consume nearly anything without an upset stomach and so her food preferences are driven by long-term health benefits, not short-term consequence. He will have a tendency to eat whatever he likes after we can no longer control his nutritional intake, which to me extends far beyond the contents of the food.

In a final note: My experience with a toddler has taught me that you should make your own choices on what to feed yourself and your offspring. I have no right to tell you what you can or cannot eat, and the government sure as hell doesn’t. Eat what you like, enjoy what you eat – just remember that there are consequences. We just don’t know exactly yet what all of them are.  “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Or, maybe he’ll hate you for it. So, what do you think, Gerber? Can you supply my son with baby food that will meet all the requirements? I highly doubt it, but I anything if not fair. If I’m wrong, I’ll gleefully say so.

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Christmas Prisoner of War

I close my eyes in the dim lighting, trying to keep my palms from sweating. I nervously dry them on my pants, for I really have no idea what is coming. I’ve talked to others who have inadvertently ended up in my situation, and their only assurances were that you do heal and the mental anguish is the worst, coupled with the humiliation of the event. I imagine that this is what it must have been like to be a warrior a long time ago, abandoned by your tribe, pushed down the path of torture and violence, proving that you can take whatever pain that can be dished out.

I think of the Sioux Indians, who would hang by hooks in the muscle and sinew of their chests by hooks, slowing spinning over an open fire while chanting their chosen death songs until the hooks tore free from their flesh, rudely dumping their numb and throbbing body into coal and flames while they were cheered on by members of their tribe. I think of the Cherokee, my mother’s ancestors, and how they would scar themselves during the rite of manhood with a knife heated to glowing over the coals of a smelting fire to ensure that the wounds carved would carterize during the process, leaving behind only the grisly reminders of such courage.

There is no one here to cheer, nobody to acknowledge the pain that I am about to undergo of my own free will. Then I wonder internally as I seek the core of myself, that place that I can go hide in while everything sensory fades away. I wonder, “Is this truly my own free will?” I don’t think it is. I think that I have fallen victim to a society and to the whims of those who decide such things for us, how we should look, what is acceptable, what is considered attractive.

My sole companion is another male about my age, Caucasion like me, visibly nervous. Sweat dots his brow and I surreptiously touch my brow to ensure that I am not following suit, that his visible demonstration of fear is somehow transmitted through the air via pheremones. They say that you can smell fear, and I wonder if our captors, demure as they are in their heels and make-up and perfect hair, are truly aware of the trauma they are inflicting. I don’t think they do. They are distant and cold, yet polite as they ready the equipment and tools of their trade.

They finally call my name. I am startled, then relieved to be first. Now it will be over and I will be able to face this situation head on instead of wondering what was going to happen. Were those in power relieved that I am joining the masses that have been mutilated in this fashion? I realize as I make my way down the hall that men will truly do anything for women. I wish that it was a few hundred years ago when I could have just beat on a drum and brought home a mastadon leg or something to impress the females with. But this is now and this is happening. I think of 007, Jack Reacher, Carter and all those actors before me impersonating spies that have this same procedure done to prove their worth. The hall becomes impossibly long.

The technician orders me, gently enough, but it’s still an order, to remove my shirt, unbutton my pants and lie on the bench on my stomach with my face down. I attempt to relax, but cannot. My skin jerks inadvertently as she brushes on the scalding hot wax, taking careful even strokes. My panic increases and I think of my family and son and wonder if I will be the same when I see them again.

I find out that having your back waxed isn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be, but not exactly a walk in the park, either. All my fears of torture were a bit unfounded, but still justifiable. I was assured by the technician that this would be the very best Christmas present I could have given my wife. That makes me happy. I don’t say a word when I go home, thinking to surprise her with my baby-butt smooth back at some romantic interval that will make her realize just how much I love her, being willing to go through so much pain.

Four weeks later, she still hasn’t noticed. Oh, well. At least I know not to have that done again and I can enter the silent ranks of those who have walked that humiliating and painful path.

Racism and Fried Chicken

I met my wife ten years ago this coming June. Although we’ve only been married for a few years of those ten, we’ve been largely inseparable since we met in 2004. I like to think that she and I complement one another and together are better people than not. I know that I am.

Our tenure as cooks and, although I am hesitant to use the term as it implies a certain amount of arrogance, foodies began shortly after we met, mainly due to necessity. We were living on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., working relatively low-paying jobs for the area and completely strapped for cash. Cooking together became a way to save money on food costs, allowed us to experiment with foods that we would otherwise not be able to afford and helped us bond as a couple much deeper and faster than any other situation.

She also introduced me to other foods and cultures along the way. I’d never spent a lot of time on the true Eastern Shore, where I found to my astonishment that the people were friendly, down to earth and spent a lot of time doing things that I like to do, such as crabbing, hunting, oyster gathering (and eating!), gardening and working on old cars and trucks. I tried real crab cakes, ate half my body weight in raw oysters, learned to clean and shuck those tasty morsels, tried different types of roe, learned how soft-shelled crabs are harvested and why they are so tasty and expensive and expanded my horizons rather dramatically.

Which brings us to our annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The first year that we were dating, my then girlfriend, and to-be wife was seriously looking forward to celebrating MLK Day. At first I thought she was joking – it just seemed wrong, somehow. Why? We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (a bit too much), Cinco De Mayo, Thanksgiving (which seems wrong somehow as it is supposed to honor the Native Americans), Hanukah, and a whole host of international holidays which are wrapped around food as a honor to that culture.

So why did celebrating MLK Day with Fried Chicken, Collard Greens, Grits, Cornbread and reading Dr. King’s quotes make me so uncomfortable? For one thing, I think that it was my total lack of exposure to other cultures growing up where I did, in a holler between the small towns of Richlands and Grundy in deep Southwest Virginia.

Is it then, racist, to celebrate, as a white American, black culture through food on a major holiday? Why do we even question such a thing? Why are we, as a couple who are serious about honoring a southern black culture and embracing it’s positive effect on our own, hesitant to even admit that we do such a thing?

For one reason, nearly every white person that we have told about our celebrations of MLK Day through distinctly black southern, or one could argue just southern, food has hesitantly laughed, coughed and changed the subject. Rapidly. It’s as if we aren’t supposed to talk about Jim Crow laws, or segregation or this little thing called the Civil War. Why is that so wrong? Is it a southern white thing? Are we inherently ashamed?

All I know is that we made the best fried chicken, black-eyed peas and cornbread that I have ever had except for my Mom’s last night, invited some friends over and admired how much courage that it must have taken for Dr. King to deliver his message of equality and peace in a time of turmoil and outrage.

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