Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Dec. 25 Birthday Worth Celebrating - Quentin Crisp

I'd like to state that by the time Nick and I met him, Quentin Crisp--born December 25th, 1908--was famous. Of course, if he and his mauve hair were still inhabiting this planet, and Lord knows I wish they were, Quentin would quickly correct me by insisting he was merely "notorious."

Either way, at the time I became aware of his glorious existence (the early 1980s), Quentin Crisp was listed in the Manhattan phone book. Despite his notoriety, he believed--insisted--on being completely "available." He adored strangers in general, Americans in particular. 

After reading his witty, wise, and brave autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which I still consider among my favorites, I passed the book onto Nick. He became equally enamored. Not long after, on a business trip to New York, Nick rang up Quentin.

Edward (left), Quentin Crisp, me, Nick, circa 1985
"Oh yesssss?," Quentin would answer. (This is how he always answered his phone.) He and Nick arranged to meet for lunch. When Nick told me about their date later, I was jealous. And so, on a New York vacation about six months later, Nick, our friend Edward, and I had lunch with Quentin. It was the first of multiple, delightful encounters with one of the world's true wits, gifted raconteurs, and one of my personal heroes.

Can one be sincere and highly theatrical at the same time? If so, Quentin was. I believe he sincerely loved being completely open and available to strangers, but at the same time, he rarely missed an opportunity to play the role of Quentin Crisp. For example, during a dinner I had with him on another New York visit, he brought along his mail. At one point, he handed over his E.F. Hutton investment account statement. "What do you suppose Mr. Hutton wants with me now?," he asked, seemingly perplexed. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Why was Quentin notorious? Born in England, his name was Denis Pratt "before I dyed it." Once he realized he was homosexual (his preferred term), he "became not merely a self-confessed homosexual but a self-evident one." To put a finer point on it, "I wore makeup at a time when even on women eye shadow was sinful." He "waltzed" around the streets of London in the 1920s dressed exactly as he pleased, in outrageously feminine attire. Needless to say, he was beaten multiple times and arrested. He was undeterred.

In the late 1960s, he published his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which eventually led to more books (most of them delightful reads), a fabulous one-man show, a move to New York, parts in movies and on stage (he played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest). Sting wrote a song about him, Englishman in New York. Several films have been made about him, most notably the 1975 TV version of The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York (2009), both starring John Hurt.

Quentin's thoughts about developing a style that is uniquely and immediately recognizable as yours may seem trivial to some. He wasn't advocating that you wear a particular style of clothes per se. Rather, he encouraged everyone to figure out exactly who they are, and then to amplify that individuality on as large a scale as possible. He believed in being transparent, even predictable, in your style.

One example is worth repeating. When Elizabeth Taylor was married to Richard Burton, the press followed their every move, to the point that Elizabeth even found paparazzi lurking outside her bathroom window. She was outraged, as most of us would be. But in Quentin's view, the solution was not to pull the curtains or build a high wall to keep out the peeping toms. The solution was to "learn to urinate with style."

Quentin lived to the age of 90, passing away during a trip to England--a shame, given how much he loved America and Americans. I miss him. Fortunately, I own a half-dozen of his books, dog-eared, underlined, and best of all, autographed by the man himself.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and thank you, Quentin. You made my life richer in many ways, though I've not quite figured out how to urinate with style.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Gift That Took Me Decades to Appreciate

When I was a boy, my father gave me a gift every Christmas morning. Funny thing is, I didn't think it was a gift at the time--in fact, quite the opposite.

C.W. Martin was a professional photographer. Every Christmas morning, he would insist that my sisters and I remain at the top of the stairs while he and our mother went downstairs and prepared. He would take what seemed to be 20 years, beginning with slipping on his bathrobe and freshening up, then mozying downstairs, setting up his camera equipment, making a pot of coffee, and then drinking his coffee. I think my mother even made him toast, for crying out loud. He may as well have taken a stroll down to South Carolina, too; it took him for-ev-er to finish all his preparations.

A photo my father took of my sisters and me (in the box)
Meanwhile, my sisters and I chomped at the bit, like race horses awaiting the start of the Kentucky Derby. Our excitement and anticipation was almost unbearable. I would get downright annoyed at my father. Would it have been so difficult to do a little prep work the night before, to spare us this needless torture? And how long did it take to get a camera ready to shoot pictures? You made sure there was film in the camera (remember film?), you turned on the camera, and boom, you're ready to go. Why the big production?

Many years later, I came to understand what my father was really doing. He was teaching his children patience, something in shockingly short supply among children most of the time and especially on December 25th.

This excruciating wait every year also helped me appreciate, eventually, the sweetness of anticipation at all times of the year. The waiting for something good can be nearly as rewarding as the thing itself (and sometimes, even more so). Anticipation can last for weeks, months, years, while the thing you're waiting for comes and goes all too quickly.

C.W. Martin (1911-1993)
The anticipation of something gives it special event status. I'll give you an example from the movies. When I was growing up, The Wizard of Oz was shown on TV once a year. I would look forward to it every year and get really excited as the TV broadcast neared. Now, of course, Dorothy and her pals are digits on a server somewhere, ready to be streamed into your living room any time you want. While instant gratification can be rewarding itself, it is the enemy of anticipation.

We all need something to look forward to; to appreciate while we have it; and to have fond memories of when it's gone. Life is pretty flat otherwise, and my father understood that delayed gratification helped enrich each of those experiences. Through his annual Christmas morning dawdle, he gave me a gift that I was only able to appreciate decades later. It was worth waiting for.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting Holiday Decorations With a Gun

Who the heck would shoot mistletoe out of a tree?
A Georgia resident named Bill Robinson, that’s who. Robinson was featured Tuesday on the “Ridiculist” segment of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN because he'd used a 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun to blast mistletoe out of a tree on private property. While Robinson may be applauded for his clever labor- and money-saving strategy, the authorities were not pleased and he was booked. 
Your mind may be reeling at the potential consequences this scenario presents, as mine did. For instance, would someone find it romantic if you went out and shot some mistletoe on their behalf? What if, as you were smootching your significant other under said mistletoe, a bullet dropped into your beehive hairdo? And if other people hear about what you've done, might you incur the wrath of some organization that advocates non violence toward holiday decorations? Would you be splashed with red paint in public as someone screams "Mistletoe is Murder!" in your face?

After considering these and other potential outcomes, my thoughts turned to Nick’s Uncle Burnley.
Burnley never married and lived with his mother in a large house on a sizeable plot of land in rural Georgia. Nick has often told me tales of how Uncle Burnley would sit on his front porch, take out his shotgun, and blast pecans out of the trees. Every Christmas, Burnley would mail Nick's mother (Mrs. P) a shoe box full of pecans. To my knowledge, no one ever broke a tooth biting into a buckshot-filled pecan.
I met Burnley twice. The first time was in the mid 80s, when I attended his mother's funeral with Nick and Mrs. P. After a Southern church service funeral, everyone gathers at the home of the bereaved to eat fried chicken, corn muffins, and such. (Funeral food in the South is good eating, I can assure you.) The home in which Burnley resided was decorated in a style best described as "Benign Neglect" or perhaps "Early Boo Radley." For example, when Nick and I sneaked away to check out the rambling, creaky, once-grand house, we discovered a broken second-floor window--with grass growing on the floor.
Nick's Aunt Doris, Nick, and Uncle Burnley
Many years later, in 2003, we visited Burnley again. We'd heard he was in declining health and decided we'd better see him while we could. I don't believe Nick had had the occasion to talk to his uncle in several years (they did correspond with Christmas cards for a while). And yet, here comes Burnley to greet us at the front door, and the first thing out of his mouth is, "Have you fixed Jimmy Carter yet?" 
A few years later, Burnley moved into a nursing home and gained notoriety by rolling down the hallways on occasion, naked, in his wheelchair. He passed away in 2007.
You probably have a relative like Burnley, if you're lucky and you're from the South. If not, well, bless your heart, happy holidays, and go get some mistletoe.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Just in Time for the Holidays - The Funniest Southern Novel Ever Written

If you've never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then please take a second and read the following excerpt. It may help you make up your mind whether you want to read what I absolutely believe is the funniest novel ever set in the South, if not the funniest novel ever written.

"Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Scenicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something."

That excerpt is just one of countless other parts of the book that made me laugh out loud as I read them, hungrily underline them with a yellow marker, and come back to re-read them again over the years.

The Ignatius mentioned in the excerpt is Ignatius J. Reilly, the book's protagonist, a wildly delusional French Quarter nut case who wanders the streets in a green hunting cap. His "full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs."

While Ignatius is the main character of A Confederacy of Dunces, his pyloric value plays at least a supporting role during their many French Quarter misadventures together. Yes, it's that kind of book.

The novel is priceless to me for so many reasons. It paints a vivid picture of New Orleans in the early 1960s, with actual stores and locations (some of them long gone but fondly remembered) woven into the narrative. (There's even a statue of Ignatius in New Orleans now.) The rogue's gallery of quirky characters is as rich as any you'll find in a novel. The author's writing style perfectly complements Ignatius' outrageous delusions of grandeur. This novel truly deserved the 1980 Pulitzer Prize it won for fiction.

But not all of Dunces is a laugh-out-loud experience. The backstory of how this book came to be published is tragic. The author, John Kennedy Toole, frustrated by so many rejections over so many years, committed suicide.  His mother took up the cause to get the book published and eventually brought it to the attention of noted author Walker Percy. He saw in the book what so many others hadn't: that Confederacy of Dunces is a rare novel of brilliance, humor, and surprising depths of sadness. Similarly, efforts to make a film of Ignatius' exploits have stopped and started over the years, with everyone from John Belushi to Will Farrell being considered for the role. As far as I know now, there is still no definite plan to make a movie of Dunces.

When I first read the book, I was about 23 or 24. I didn't dare read it in public because I never knew when I would erupt into volcanic laughter--a reading experience I have never had before or since.

And at that age, I didn't see the despair and melancholy just beneath the surface of the novel, either.

Rereading the book nearly 30 years later, that sadness is now on the surface for me. What's changed between my first and most recent readings? Not the book, certainly. I'm the one who's changed. I've been around long enough to recognize despair, isolation, insecurity, and misdirected rage when I see them, emotions that were too often invisible to me in my early 20s.

If you love Southern literature, have a slightly warped sense of humor, and have never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then by all means, please do it now and tell me what you think. Consider it a holiday gift to yourself, a fabulous antidote to the sometimes-forced seasonal cheer. And if you've read this book more than once over a span of time--or any book, for that matter--I'd love to know if your reactions were different.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How to Have Your Chick-fil-A Boycott & Eat Their Food, Too

How do you boycott a restaurant when you crave their food?

I didn't know I was supposed to be boycotting Chick-fil-A until my friend Bob forwarded me a link to an article from this past January entitled "Yes, Chick-fil-A Says, We Explicitly Do Not Like Same-Sex Couples." The story, posted on the site, says that Chick-fil-A is "a restaurant where franchises frequently donate to anti-gay organizations like the Pennsylvania Family Institute, Focus on the Family and others. The restaurant's charitable arm, WinShape, holds conferences for opponents of gay marriage and praises their work. And this charitable arm's Retreat program puts a blanket ban on gay couples using their facilities, because they 'do not accept homosexual couples.'"

Nick never hesitates to express an opinion
I'm not terribly surprised. I knew Chick-fil-A is known for promoting its founder's Christian values and is closed on Sundays. Every organization has the right to promote its values, of course; how boring this world would be if that weren't the case.

But in this case, my head is in conflict with my stomach (which is nothing unusual). So I've been thinking of ways I might boycott Chick-fil-A and still enjoy their scrumptious sandwiches, waffle fries, and fresh-made lemonade. And ooooh child, did you ever have their banana pudding milkshake? Or their breakfast chicken biscuit or their...

Okay, back on track here. These are a few schemes for getting Chick-fil-A sandwiches without supporting them financially.

Minnie wants her some Chick-fil-A
Plan A. My partner Nick suggests I dress up as Mickey Mouse and explain that my wife Minnie has never had a Chick-fil-A sandwich and wants one for her birthday. But given that I am Mickey Mouse, all my money is tied up in Disney stock options. This might work; I mean, who would dare refuse Mickey Mouse?

Plan B. Organize a flash mob. Using social media, I would arrange a flash mob that will, at a specific Chick-fil-A location and at a precise day and time, begin singing and dancing to Katy Perry's "Firework," complete with pyrotechnic bras. I will have placed my food order just a moment before the flash mob erupts. As the employees break out their own firework-spewing brassieres and join the dance, I sneak away.
Katy Perry's firework bra

Plan C. Go to work at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. Presumably employees get free Chick-fil-A sandwiches. I know this is probably true because when I was 16, I worked at a McDonald's in Greensboro. I got so much free food that my face quickly transformed into a pimple plantation. I quit after one week. However, the closest Chick-fil-A from our home in San Francisco is an hour away. Drive two hours every day just for a free Chick-fil-A sandwich? No one is that desperate (not even me).

How would you boycott Chick-fil-A without having to give up their food? I'd love to hear your ideas because, frankly, I may need them.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Do Not Approach, Feed or Taunt Alligators — Especially With Cocktails

Alligators horrify and fascinate me. I was reminded of this when reading a post about alligators on the Charleston travel blog Vacation Rick, which reminded me that "alligators are just as much a part of Charleston culture as sweet tea."

Here are a few facts from Vacation Rick that might keep you from sleeping tonight: "(Alligators) are carnivores, meat eaters that feed at night. If you think you are safe in a tree, think again. Alligators can leap 5 feet or more out of the water if they see something to their liking. They can even snatch a bird out of the air."

Now that I've just popped a Xanax, allow me to share a few anecdotes that illustrate (but don't even begin to explain) my love-hate attitude toward alligators.

Five Minutes at an Alligator Farm

Years ago, I went out of my way and paid good money to visit an alligator farm in Florida. I was excited as I walked through the gate, because I'd never seen an alligator (aside from movies and pictures). And then, when I spotted my first gator--a big toothy one--I broke into a sweat. A wave of panic seized my soul. What the hell was I doing?, I wondered. I was out of there in five minutes, tops.

You'd think I’d have learned a lesson. Nope.

At DeBordieu, Enough Was Enough

My friend Edward, who lives in Charlotte, is lucky enough to have friends who own homes in DeBordieu (which some pronounced “deb-uh-doo.”) It's a high-cotton gated community in South Carolina's coastal "low country." Several years ago, Edward had been given the use of one of his friends' homes in DeBordieu, and he invited me to join him. We spent several days relaxing, swimming, and enjoying the pristine natural environment.

But enough with the peace and quiet, already. Around the third day, the numerous warning signs about alligators had a hold on me. Late one afternoon, as I was making cocktails, I turned to Edward and said, "Let's go look for alligators."

Edward agreed a bit too easily for my nerves. We joked about taking pieces of raw chicken with us and calling out "Here, kitty kitty kitty." Instead, we took our cocktails, jumped into our hosts' golf cart (everyone drives around DeBordieu in golf carts), and headed for the various pools of brackish water in which these terrifying/compelling reptiles lurk.

Eyes Above the Water

It took effort, but here and there, we spotted a pair of eyes just above the surface of the murky water. At each pair of eyeballs, my heart pounded, my palms sweated. Edward got out of the cart to get a closer look. "Get back in!" I yelled. "Let's go!"

We drove on to other creeks and ponds, with me hoping for/fearing a closer look. I hasten to add we weren't the only ones 'hunting' in golf carts for alligators, and I don't even think we were the only ones with cocktails.

We were about to give up when, finally, a baby alligator rose to the surface briefly, then disappeared. I nearly passed out, for where there's a baby alligator there's likely to be a Mama Alligator and she would not be pleased and there we were in a golf cart with no real protection against Big Mama and Big Mama could probably outrun this ridiculous cart and just seeing Big Mama would probably cause us to lose all sense of reason and suddenly forget how to drive the golf cart and...and...and I just popped another Xanax.

Will I ever go looking for alligators again in a golf cart, with cocktails? I'd like to say "Of course not." But just today, I was reading about a recent novel that The New York Times' says is one of the year's best, and I'm tempted to buy it. It's called Swamplandia!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A HeliumBooth Holiday

Most people on Thanksgiving day are sharing stories, probably getting into fights, watching football, and eating way too much food. At a Thanksgiving dinner Nick and I attended in San Francisco, the guests sucked on a virtual helium balloon and quoted Blanche DuBois.

The virtual helium balloon came by way of HeliumBooth, a $1 iPhone app. You launch the app, start the video recording, and poof, everyone becomes a chipmunk. Check out the video below--and make sure you see the last clip. As we Southerners say, "It's a hoot."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How to Swallow an Overcooked Thanksgiving Turkey

I don’t know if it shows, but this blog has been on a diet. The last three posts contained not one mention of food or beverage. Naturally, this diet resulted in no weight loss whatsoever. Instead, it stirred up a peculiarly strong hankering for fried chicken.

But it’s Thanksgiving, so let’s talk about a different bird: turkey.

Every year around this time, my thoughts inevitably drift to my mother and her cooking. Ruth Martin firmly believed it wasn’t possible to overcook a turkey. She would wrap it in foil, slap some butter on it, and cook it overnight. As in: all night long.

When my father would attempt to carve the bird the next day, the turkey meat would transmogrify into turkey dust. As I stared at the turkey dust pile on my plate, I would always whisper under my breath what I was truly thankful for in that moment.

How could I have consumed turkey dust without gravy as a vessel for transporting it down my throat? Of course, the Cold Duck helped wash it down, too. (Does anyone still drink Cold Duck? And if so, have they been held for questioning?)

You may think I’m exaggerating about my mother’s culinary skills. I am not. My mother is not now and never has been a good cook. With all the Mrs. Butterworth bottles, potato mashers, pie birds, and Aunt Jemima recipe boxes to collect, she was more interested in accumulating the outdated artifacts of cooking than in the actual act of cooking itself. 

I wouldn’t have it any other way. Most mothers can cook and do it well. My mother had spirit, character, eccentricity, a passion for collecting, a love of her husband and children, and in her later years, a talent for painting. She still loves her family and possesses spirit and character, though Alzheimer’s, or whatever form of dementia she has, is slowly dimming the rest. 

And so, this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my mother--and for all mothers. Your children will never fully know the sacrifices you made for them, the pain you tried to protect them from, the opportunities you worked hard to give them. So what if you overcook the turkey? There will always be gravy.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Natalie Wood -- Why I Loved Her & Who Should Play Her

Natalie Wood is in the news again. The actress died under murky circumstances nearly 30 years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. Detectives are investigating the case again as some new information has come to light. I won't go into the details; you can read them on The Huffington Post and practically anywhere on the Internet.

However, I will say that of all the Hollywood star deaths in the past 30 years or so, Natalie's hit me hardest. She came to my attention in 1969, when her movie Penelope was shown on CBS Friday Night at the Movies. Even as a boy of 11, I realized the movie was a dud. But Wood's big brown eyes and immense charm captivated me. I was in love.

From that moment on, I scanned TV Guide for showings of her movies, which I devoured: Gypsy, Love With the Proper Stranger, This Property is CondemnedRebel Without a Cause, Inside Daisy Clover, and probably my favorite, Splendor in the Grass. And of course, nearly every Christmas I adore her all over again Susan, the wise little girl in Miracle on 34th Street.

Wood was not what I'd call a great actress; sometimes, to be honest, she wasn't very good at all. But in Splendor in the Grass, she gave a heartbreaking performance as a young woman in small town America during the 1920s driven nearly over the edge. She was caught in a conflict between her Victorian mother, who insisted she be a "good girl," and the young man she loved and married, who, like most young men, had needs. I think we can all appreciate her character's agony, given the fact that the young Warren Beatty (in his first movie) played the boyfriend. Let me tell you, if this story were set today, Mama would get a fat piece of duct tape placed over her mouth before Natalie sashayed out the door and jumped into Beatty's awaiting convertible. This would be followed by the squealing of tires after Natalie whispered into Warren's ear, "Step on it!"

Natalie Wood
Of course, Natalie's other big acting moment came in West Side Story, in 1961. Never mind that Wood couldn't sing, or that she wasn't Latina. She won the role of Maria in the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. She was pretty good in it, too, especially in the climactic moment when she says "Now I have hate!" Despite my long-time Natalie mania, I refrained from watching West Side Story on TV. I waited until the mid 1980s, when the Fox Theater in Atlanta showed it on their huge screen. The wait was well worth it. I was electrified throughout the film, beginning with those first helicopter shots over Manhattan until the closing credits.

How sad I felt 30 years ago, upon hearing the news of Natalie Wood's death. Not long before, she had spent some time in the Raleigh area of North Carolina, filming what became her last movie, Brainstorm. At the time, I was a reporter in Roanoke Rapids, about a 90-minute drive from Raleigh. I'd conspired how I was going to get onto the movie set and meet her, but I never got around to it. Then, suddenly, she was gone.

Marion Cotillard
Regardless of whatever information emerges during this new investigation, I hope the publicity will cause the curious to rent a few of Natalie's films, especially Splendor in the Grass. And who knows? Maybe someone will make a film about her. If they do, I have someone in mind: the gorgeous actress Marion Cotillard. Not only does she look a lot like Natalie, she's got the acting chops to do her justice.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The House of My Dreams -- and Nightmares

Last night, I dreamed I'd moved back into the house where I grew up. It's a dream I've had before, but this time it so unsettled me, I couldn't get back to sleep.

It's not that my memories of the house are unpleasant. My childhood home is a lovely two-story red brick house, built in the late 1930s. It sits at the crest of a gentle hill on East Avondale Drive, a pleasant leafy street in Greensboro, N.C., a pleasant leafy city.

In some ways, this house was all about me, or at least, that's how I saw it as a boy. My family moved there because of me. I was the fifth child born, the only son, and the house my family lived in at the time was too small to accommodate another member. So the Martins moved into the four-bedroom home in the Starmount Forest neighborhood. And because I had four older sisters, I was the only family member with a room to myself.

Over time, and especially once all us kids had moved out, my mother's collecting took over the house like a slow-growing vine. While most husbands would probably have objected, my father seemed to enjoy her obsessions. She filled every room (except the basement) with whatever she was collecting at the time, then never got rid of anything.

As I recall, her serious collecting began when she won $1,000 in the mid 60s at the Colonial Grocery Store in Friendly Shopping Center. When she came home and told my father, he was so excited he threw the money into the air in celebration. Needless to say, that $1,000 didn't last long, as my mother bought an antique Seth Thomas grandfather clock with most of it.

My childhood home, painted by my mother (Ruth Martin)
My mother started collecting dolls of all shapes and sizes. I once counted 111 Raggedy Ann dolls in the house; 111 was, coincidentally, the address of our house. One day, she brought home a store mannequin. My father looked up from his newspaper, saw the mannequin, rolled his eyes, and said, "Just don't expect me to put her through college, too."

The house remained in my family for nearly 50 years. In late 2006, we had to move my mother into a retirement home because of her advancing dementia. A year later, we sold the house to a 'flipper,' who has in turn sold it to a family.

So why was the dream of moving back to my childhood home so unsettling? Anxiety is the source of the dream, I believe. Like many people today, worries about making enough money to keep a roof over my head sometimes come out to play when I'm asleep. Moving back into my childhood home is not actually comforting in my dreams; it means I've failed to be self-sufficient.

There's something else going on in this dream, too.

Last weekend, an auctioneer held the first of what will probably be three auctions to sell many of the items my mother collected through the years. My sisters and I have kept this huge amount of stuff in storage for several years now, and we finally decided it was time to let them go, stop the storage facility checks, and try to get some money for our mother's ongoing care in an Alzheimer's facility.

In an e-mail, my sister Nancy reported on the success of the first auction. The grandfather clock, the item that started my mother on her path as a collector, sold for $1,500. Her clown shoes and clown suit sold for $300 (I told you she had obsessions). A telephone table with a fold-up seat went for $270.

And so, bit by bit over the years, my family is having to let go. Of the physical objects that delighted and defined our mother, of the home we spent many happy years in, of the father who provided and protected. In my dream, I long to do what I know is impossible when I awake--to reclaim what is forever lost.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Will Someone Please Remake "Breakfast at Tiffany's"?

Don't misunderstand. I like the 1961 film version of Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's. Audrey Hepburn made it memorable, with able assistance from Givenchy and Henry Mancini.

But the film, now 50 years old, is a slick, sanitized, and rather soulless version of Capote's bittersweet original. It turns Capote's delicate chamber music piece into an overblown orchestral performance. Holly Golightly is basically a hooker, a fact the film all but ignores. Her neighbor in the novella is a closeted gay man (and a thinly veiled version of Capote). In the movie, the character morphs into a strapping, handsome, hetero George Peppard, in order to give Audrey Hepburn a plausible love interest and to have a kissing-in-the-rain-with-a-cat scene at the end. The Patricia Neal character doesn't exist in the book at all (thankfully). And don't even get me started on the film's ridiculously racist depiction of a Japanese photographer (Mickey Rooney). I doubt Rooney's performance was funny 50 years ago, much less today.

Emma Stone
Years ago, Capote was quoted as saying he wished someone would do a remake with Jodie Foster as Holly Golightly. If you read the book, you can see the wisdom of Capote's choice. Foster would have been a terrific Golightly, capturing the character's backwater-Southern origins as well as her adopted big-city sophistication.

Unfortunately, Foster is a bit too old to play Golightly today. If someone were to remake Breakfast at Tiffany's now, I could see Emma Stone in the role. She's got that rough-and-tumble, edgy quality. And her work in this summer's The Help shows she can do Southern.

Who would you cast as Holly Golightly in a remake? And do you think the book deserves an updated film version?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Welcome to Y'all, a Restaurant That Doesn't Exist

This past Saturday afternoon, Nick and I went with some friends to a broadcast of The Kitchen. It's a superb play staged by the National Theatre in London and beamed by satellite to movie houses around the world.

The play, set in a frenetic restaurant kitchen, got me thinking about the restaurant I would create, should I temporarily lose whatever shreds of sanity I still possess and go into that business. In other words, it ain't gonna happen. But it exists in my mind, and this is what it looks like.

My restaurant is called Y'all. It's in San Francisco's Castro because I love the neighborhood and it could use more good places to eat. When you call the restaurant, a pleasant voice answers with an authentic drawl, "Hey, welcome to Y'all, how can I help you?"

Y'all is neither upscale nor downscale but somewhere in between. The exterior has a front porch with white-painted rocking chairs and a screen door, with at least one dead bug on it. You hear the sound of crickets chirping from the porch. 

The restaurant's neon sign looks like it came from the 1950s and features a couple of chicken drumsticks dancing. There is a a tin roof, rusted.

Just for Fun: A No-Pest Strip on the Ceiling Fan

After venturing past the screen door (which will creak when opened and bang behind you), your eye will be drawn to the gently circling ceiling fans. Way in the back, if you look closely, you will spot a Shell No Pest Strip twirling around because it's hanging from one of the ceiling fan blades. Just for the fun of it, really.

The hostess will be extremely friendly but a bit sassy as well. She wears just a teensy bit too much makeup, and when you enter, she'll unsuccessfully attempt to hide her gum. She'll seat you in a cozy booth, with overhead lighting that flatters the over 40 set. 

Around you, the walls are decorated with vintage posters and photographs from Southern restaurants past and present: Mary Mac's Tea Room and the Colonnade in Atlanta; The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans; Charlotte's Penguin Drive-In; 82 Queen in Charleston, S.C.; and so on. There will be no flat-screen televisions anywhere in sight. Not even a tiny tube TV in the kitchen, for the Coke-guzzling cooks to watch. 

Buttermilk Biscuits, Without Having to Ask

For appetizers, you can munch on fried green heirloom tomatoes and sip she crab soup with a healthy dose of sherry, which will taste nearly (but not quite) as good as it does in Charleston. Entrees? Fried chicken cooked Mrs. Johnson style; lamb shank; fried flounder and catfish; country-style steak (cooked for hours); barbecue sandwiches (North Carolina style, naturally); and for a touch of the exotic, spaghetti (which my Virginia-born, meat-and-potatoes father used to call "foreigner food"). You'd have your choice of two sides, which would include tater tot casserole, hush puppies, crinkle-cut french fries, green pole beans, fried okra, and a mixed green salad with pecan bits. You receive buttermilk biscuits and soft butter without having to ask.

Now it's time for dessert. Do I really need to tell you there will be banana pudding? Key lime pie? Pecan pie? I didn't think so.

The Blanche DuBois Cocktail

Oh, I almost forgot: beverages. Along with the required sweetened ice tea, you can order Cheerwine, Nehi Grape and Orange, Coke, and Mountain Dew, all in ice-cold bottles. 

The cocktails will be creative and delicious (and served in big glasses): a passion fruit and mango vodka punch, a mint limeade martini, or a pomegranate-limoncello cosmopolitan, for starters. Every week, Y'all offers a specialty cocktail honoring famous Southern writers and their literary characters. The Blanche DuBois, for instance, is a lemon coke with chipped ice and lots and lots of bourbon, prepared by a put-upon woman named Stell-aaahhhh! Come to think of it, this being San Francisco, Stella will be a man in drag. 

When the bill is presented, you'll be astonished at how affordable it all is. And as you leave, the sassy hostess will smile sweetly, quietly pop her chewing gum, and say, "Y'all come back now, ya hear?"

And there you have it: my vision of a Southern restaurant outside the South. What would you want to see on the menu, or inside the restaurant?  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Siri Supposedly Lives in Apple's North Carolina Data Center. But How Southern is She?

Does Siri know what Southerners mean when they say "bless her heart"? Can she tell you the alcohol content of Cheerwine, or where Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show is buried?

These are all essential pieces of information to the Southerner--or to this one, at least. Given that Siri's voice processing power is reportedly being handled at least in part by Apple's data center in Maiden, N.C., I decided to test Siri again to see how she'd answer these and other Southern-fried questions. In the video below, you'll see how Siri responds. (In an earlier post, I cross-examined Siri with some other Southern questions.)

Spoiler alert: Siri doesn't have a clue where Aunt Bee is. A quick Google search on my computer found the answer: Oakwood Cemetery, Siler City, N.C. Bless her heart.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Piggly Wiggly piggy bank, a pie bird, and other Southern essentials

In her day, my mother was a passionate collector. Clocks. Pie birds. Potato mashers. Tractor seats. Raggedy Ann dolls. Mrs. Butterworth bottles.

I once ventured into a vast junk shop in Reidsville, N.C., with her. It was the size of a Wal-Mart, stacked to the ceiling with clutter (or, to my mother, treasures). Almost instantly, my mother spotted a Mrs. Butterworth bottle in a remote corner on a high shelf that she simply couldn't live without.

Perhaps this gives you some idea of the enormous task my sisters and I have faced, contending with our mother's collections. (My mother is very much alive, but lives in a memory-care facility now.) Recently, my sisters and I endeavored to sort through her stuff, so that we could give it to an auctioneer.

This post is about a few of the things I discovered and brought back with me, including something my father had set aside for me decades ago, to my surprise. This time around, I decided to show instead of tell. I hope you enjoy my first "Southerner in San Francisco" video.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great Charleston/San Francisco Smackdown -- which city will be left standing?

In foodie terms, you could say that she crab soup has bested sourdough bread. Or put another way, horse-drawn carriage rides just gave cable cars a kick in their spare parts.

In breaking tourism news, Charleston, South Carolina, has unseated San Francisco as the favorite U.S. destination of Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers. This is big news, because San Fran won Conde Nast Traveler's annual reader survey for the past 18 years--until now.

It was a close call. Charleston received 84.7 points, compared to San Francisco's 83.7 points.

I love both cities immensely. I lived in Charleston in the mid 80s and return as often as possible, though San Francisco has been my chosen home since 1987. If it's a beautiful peninsular city with a rich history you crave, you won't go wrong with either one.

Not that anyone asked, but here's how I would rate Charleston and San Francisco in a smackdown.

The Piggly Wiggly cooler bag I bought at Folly Beach
Piggly Wigglys. Sad to say, there are no Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in San Francisco, though Charleston and the surrounding areas are crawling with them. Our grocery stores aren't terribly exciting. We have Safeway (yawn), Whole Foods ($$), and Trader Joe's (love them but they aren't very convenient to my home). Winner: Charleston.

Earthquakes. San Francisco is synonymous with shakers, though Charleston is no stranger to them, either. In 1886, a quake estimated between 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter scale ripped through Charleston. It's considered one of the U.S.'s most powerful, damaging temblors. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake puts it to shame, however, at about a 7.9 Richter scale reading. Winner: San Francisco.

Swimming in the ocean. Have you ever ventured into the Pacific Ocean around San Francisco? And if you have, were your feet still attached to your legs when you emerged? Let me put it this way: the Pacific Ocean around SF is dramatic and gorgeous. But the temperature rarely rises above 60 degrees. Charleston, by comparison, has lovely beaches (the far western end of Folly Beach is my favorite) where the water rises into the 80s during summer. Winner: Charleston.

Quirky transportation. Charleston has its horse-drawn tourist carriages, city buses equipped with iPads, cars, and not too much else. San Francisco has two subway systems, cable cars, vintage trolley cars from around the world, Zip cars, and GPS-guided 'dune' buggies for tourists. Winner: San Francisco. 

Food and drink. Charleston has the aforementioned she crab soup (which is at its best at 82 Queen restaurant), along with lots of other Lowcountry delicacies served in its many fine restaurants. San Francisco, jam-packed with amazing restaurants, is no slouch in this category, either. I'd venture to say SF has a broader diversity of cuisine, however. Winner: San Francisco, by a nose (or a mouth).

Difference and tolerance. San Francisco and the South are both famous for their larger-than-life characters, politely known as eccentrics. I certainly met some delightfully kooky people during my Charleston years, including my landlady (more on her later). And in recent years, Charleston--once a very insular society--has come a long way toward acceptance of gays, outsiders, or anyone else who is 'different.' But San Francisco, it's not. Here, I can't go to my neighborhood cafe without running into the cross-dressing homeless guy who wears chunky necklaces and big floppy hats. When I go to the Castro, I sometimes see the locally famous naked guys, walking around casually, as if they're heading to Walgreen's to pick up a prescription. If I'm in Dolores Park, I'm likely to be offered pot brownies from one vendor and THC-free cookies from another. Though I don't know any of these people personally, they're among the reasons why I love San Francisco, unquestionably one of the most tolerant cities on the planet. Winner: San Francisco.

Weather. I complain frequently about San Francisco's foggy climate. Here, it's like early March nearly all year long. To live in San Francisco is to live without summer, and summer is my favorite season. But you also get to skip brutally cold winters. And, oh child, you want to feel oppressive humidity? Head down to Charleston anytime after about May 20th, all the way through late September. They get a little too much summer for my taste. Winner: San Francisco. 

Cost of living. Both cities are expensive, but San Francisco is crazy expensive, New York City expensive. Winner: Charleston.

But enough about me. I want to hear from you. Have you been to both San Francisco and Charleston? And if so, which one do you prefer and why?

Friday, October 21, 2011

There's no limeade at 35,000 feet

As I type these words, I'm on a Delta flight somewhere over the middle of the country, returning to San Francisco from eight days in the South. Through the window, I see brown mountains, white clouds, and absolutely zero limeades.

I'm in withdrawal.

Limeades are at the top of the list of drinks I crave whenever I'm down South. Richmond, Virginia, where Nick and I spent the past four days, is particularly known for its limeades. In fact, forget about Richmond being the Capital of the Confederacy; it's the Capital of the Limeade. We had a delicious limeade at Kuba Kuba in the Fan and another one at Bill's Barbecue. (Limeade and barbecue is a heady combination; I would say it's like pairing red wine with filet mignon but I'm afraid you'd lose all hope for me.) I'd have had the vodka limeade at Phil's Continental Lounge, if only Phil's had been open. (It's in the process of relocating.) The limeade at Dunn's Drive In is also popular, though I'd never heard of it until I did a Google search just now for limeades in Richmond.

I'm not exclusive in my love of limeades, by the way. In Greensboro, where I'm from and where we also just spent a few days, the lunch counter at Brown Gardiner drug store offers a fabulous orangeade. I didn't get the chance to have one this time, so it's high on my to-do list for my next trip.

Alas, there's no limeade to be had on this Delta flight. I suppose it would be too much to ask the flight attendants to cut and squeeze limes and whip up a batch of simple syrup. But as part of breast cancer awareness month, the airline is serving a pink lemonade martini. It's not a limeade or, even better, a mojito, but it's for a good cause and...sorry, I've got to run; the drink cart is here.

Great advice about fried chicken from a reader

The funny, kind, thoughtful comments this blog has received so far have been a delightful surprise. The other blogs I write generate mostly spam, alas.

I wanted to share the following advice from Cali, who read the post with Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe and had some excellent advice to share:

"As a former chef, fried chicken is easy, but GOOD fried chicken isn't so easy. A big part of what makes this (recipe from Mrs. Johnson) so good is that she used shortening to fry the chicken, not vegetable oil. And now that most shortenings are trans-fat-free, it's not even going to hurt your arteries, much. The small pieces make a difference, too. You can cook them at a higher temperature which allows them to brown quickly, seal in the juices and get them out quickly so they stay juicy. One thing, if you season the chicken and then dredge it in flour, your chicken will be tastier as your seasoning will stay on the chicken and not be thrown away in the excess flour.

If you want to really go over the top and you have a place where you can buy freshly rendered lard, try it with lard. That makes for some really tasty fried chicken. Just avoid that stuff in the little box or plastic tub at the grocery store. It's hydrogenated and really not good for you.

Of course, you could render your own lard if you are feeling really ambitious, but it's pretty involved. However, you do get some lovely cracklin's as a bonus! (Lard also makes awesome pie crust and biscuits! Banana cream pie instead of pudding, anyone?)" 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Southern questions for the iPhone 4S Siri -- does she know the proper way to say pecan?

As promised (or threatened) in my previous post, I've had some time to ask Siri, the artificial intelligence in the new iPhone 4S, some questions about things near and dear to the Southern heart. She came back with a few worthy replies, but mostly, I began to wonder if she should be renamed 'Sorry.'

Here are a few of the questions I asked. Thanks to readers who sent in suggestions. Please keep them coming, as I plan to cross-examine Siri again soon. (Come to think of it, perhaps I should ask her, "Where were you on the night of January 16th?")

Q: How do you pronounce 'pecan'? (Shout out to reader AKA Jane Random)

A: Siri said she was checking her sources, then came back with a Wolfram Alpha search result which said 'pecan' was properly pronounced ‘p’eek,on.’ Score one for Siri. 

Q: How far north can you grow okra? (Mike Ratcliffe)

A: "I'm checking your current location." At the time, I was driving from North Carolina to Virginia, so Siri came back with a listing for a business called Kids on the Grow in Hillsborough, N.C. Um, not too helpful, Siri. 

Q: Where are the best places to shag? (Mike Ratcliffe)

A: "I've found a number of places…23 of them are close to you…I've sorted them by rating." Given the universal meaning of the word 'shag,' which is familiar to Austin Powers fans, and 'shag' as in beach music, I expected either seedy hotels, Myrtle Beach nightclubs, or both. Instead, Siri coughed up a golf range and a place that sold chairs. Say what?

Q: How do you make a Mint Julep? (Claudia)

A: "Checking my sources," Siri replied. After scratching her virtual head for a moment, she delivered a page of Google search results, the first of which was a recipe for mint juleps from the site Let's raise a frosted silver cup to Siri!

Q: Is Texas considered part of the South? (This was one of my dumb questions)

A: "It is hot in Austin, Texas," Siri replied, and then gave me the Texas city's weather report. Yes, the South is hot, Siri. Oh dear Lord, you should spend an August in Atlanta. But just because Texas is hot, you shouldn't assume that Texas is part of the South. (I'm still debating that one myself.)

Q: What would you do with a cat on a hot tin roof? (Me again)

A: Siri gave me a list of nearby roofing contractors. Perhaps the local fire department might have been more appropriate. Or even better, Siri, next time brush up on your Tennessee Williams and say "Jump off, Maggie! Jump off!" And if you mentioned 'no-neck monsters,' I might die of joy right there on the spot.

Tune in next time when I ask Siri more Southern questions, like "Would you like some more sweet tea?," and "What do Southerners really mean when they say 'bless her heart'"?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Can the iPhone 4S's Siri tell me where Aunt Bee is buried?

Nick and I went to the Apple store today and bought an iPhone 4S. The Siri voice-recognition feature is of particular interest. We're going to test Siri's ability to answer questions about Southern culture and history.

Siri already answered our first question correctly: "How many presidents were born in Virginia?" The answer: eight. She had to look it up on the Internet, but then again, so would I.

Over the next few days, these are the Southern-themed questions we plan to ask Siri:

* Where is the closest Piggly Wiggly?

* Is Texas considered part of the South or not?

* What do you do with a cat on a hot tin roof?

* Who played the Tarleton twins in the movie Gone With the Wind?

* What is the difference between country-style steak and chicken-fried steak?

* Where is Aunt Bee buried?

* Would you like some more sweet tea?

* Is the hot light on at Krispy Kreme?

If you have any Southern culture/history questions for Siri, let me know and I'll tell you what she says.

Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe, and a slightly ribald tale about the Marines

Three posts ago, I ended my apology to a community theater actress with the promise of Mrs. Johnson’s fried chicken recipe. I won’t go into why the young thespian deserves a mea culpa from me; you can read the post if you’re interested. But I'll briefly offer some Mrs. Johnson anecdotes as an appetizer before sharing her smack-your-lips-double-time fried chicken formula.

In 1981, I rented a spare bedroom in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., from Mrs. H.C. Johnson. After accepting a job as a reporter at the local newspaper, I needed a place in town to stay for a month or two. Mrs. Johnson, to whom I’d been connected by her daughter, had never rented her spare bedroom before, which became obvious quickly.

During our first meeting, I asked her how much rent she wanted. She thought for a moment and hesitantly suggested $25.00. “A week?” I asked.

“Gracious no,” she replied. “A month.”

Astonished, I explained that $25 a month was way too low. This was perhaps the only time in my life when I attempted to negotiate to pay more money for something. Mrs. Johnson declined my offer and said $25 a month would suit her just fine.

Mrs. Johnson in the kitchen (1981)
I soon realized it wasn’t money Mrs. Johnson wanted; it was companionship. When I ventured into her pink-tile bathroom, looking for a place to store my toiletries, I discovered her late husband’s shaving cream and razor still in the medicine cabinet. I never touched them during my stay; neither did she.

I had a few reservations about living in Mrs. Johnson’s home, to be honest. The first was that she wouldn’t allow me to keep alcohol in the house. The second was that her home lacked central air conditioning, there was no window unit in my room, and it was nearly June.

In a rare wise move, I decided to ignore my reservations and move in. It was an investment that continues to pay dividends.

And Banana Pudding, to Boot

Almost right away, Mrs. Johnson cooked dinners for me, without my asking. Our first meal together was fried chicken, the best I’d ever had then and still among the best—moist, flavorful, not greasy, nice crunchy skin. She served it with homemade mashed potatoes, buttermilk biscuits from scratch, green beans, and—are you sitting down, fellow Southerners?—banana pudding. It was simple, delicious, Southern home cooking at its finest. Should I be condemned to the electric chair for crimes against nature, this would be the last meal I’d request. All I’d add would be a simple cocktail (a mojito with organic blueberries and an aged rum, perhaps) and, oh why not?, a mound of tater tots.

Over the course of the next two months, Mrs. Johnson and I enjoyed many meals together. She started each with a prayer. I can’t remember it in full, but it was always the same, and in it she asked the Lord to give us “grateful hearts for these and all thy blessings.” I was 23, and though the blessing was sincerely and humbly delivered, I didn’t fully appreciate it.

The Few, The Proud, The Murine

A quiet, reverent woman with a shy smile, Mrs. Johnson once told me an ever-so-slightly ribald tale. In her younger days, she worked as a clerk in a drug store, which if memory serves, her father owned. One day, a woman walked up to the counter where Mrs. Johnson was stationed with a co-worker. “May I help you?,” Mrs. Johnson inquired.

“Yep’m, I want me a Marine,” the customer replied.

Mrs. Johnson asked for clarification. “Yep’m, I want me a Marine,” came the unhelpful response.

At this point, Mrs. Johnson and her co-worker struggled to suppress their laughter. They ducked behind the counter, took deep breaths, and composed themselves.

Mrs. Johnson emerged and asked once more for further detail. The customer said it was a syringe she wanted. At last, Mrs. Johnson concluded that the woman wanted a bottle of Murine ear wax removal solution, which came with a syringe applicator.

When the customer departed, Mrs. Johnson turned to her colleague. “I knew the Marines were good,” she said, “but I didn’t know they were that good.”

After two months, I moved into a small apartment a few blocks away. I continued to have lunches and dinners with Mrs. Johnson, and I kept in touch with her until the end of her life. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but when she passed away in 1992, I went into a church, lit a candle, and gave thanks for our relationship. Mrs. Johnson had given me a grateful heart, after all.

Mrs. Johnson’s Fried Chicken Recipe

1. You need an electric skillet, preferably Teflon-coated. Mrs. Johnson swore by her electric skillet because the temperature is consistent throughout the pan and you can control it more easily.

2. You need a bunch of paper grocery bags, to put the chicken pieces on after removing them from the skillet. Thick paper bags are ideal because they absorb the grease well. 

3. Mrs. Johnson would soak a whole fryer chicken in salted water overnight in the refrigerator. Don’t go crazy with the salt; a few pinches should do it.

4. When it came time to cook, Mrs. Johnson would cut the chicken into small pieces and pat them dry. Smaller pieces tend to retain their moisture and don’t get as greasy as bigger pieces. If you’re just cooking breasts, cut the breasts into two or three small pieces. And if you want to be a tad health-conscious, remove the skin from the breasts and thighs. I promise, you won’t even miss it. 

5. Coat each piece of chicken in flour and seasoning. Mrs. Johnson didn’t use much beyond a little salt, pepper, and paprika. To paraphrase the late great Cajun chef Justin Wilson, I’ve gotten a little smart-alecky and substituted some seasonings. I prefer garlic salt, lemon pepper, and Greek Spices from Old Towne restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Child, trust me on this: Old Towne’s spice mixture is so good, you’ll want to sprinkle it on your toothbrush. In addition to chicken, it’s excellent on potatoes, steaks, veal, and lamb. You can call and order a bottle to be shipped to you; 843-723-8170.

6. Turn the electric skillet to 350 degrees. Add enough Crisco to the skillet so that there’s about an inch of melted shortening. A little is all you need. 

7. When the oil is hot but not smoking, start adding your pieces to the skillet. I’ve never really timed the frying, and I don’t believe Mrs. Johnson paid too much mind to the clock, either. But after, say, 10 minutes, pick up a piece with tongs (to avoid piercing it) and look at the side that’s been face down in the skillet. If the color is a rich golden brown, turn it over. Avoid turning the chicken more than once.

8. If you like seasoning, gently add a little more during the cooking process, once per side.

9. When both sides are golden brown, remove the piece and place it on a paper bag. Let it cool for a few minutes and move it to another dry spot on the bag.

10. Light the candles, pour the wine, pile up the plates with chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits, turn on Diana Krall or Pink Martini, and chow down. Don’t forget the banana pudding.

11. Should there be leftover chicken, don’t wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator. You’ll only make it greasy and cold. Just store the chicken on a plate overnight, in a cupboard (unless you have a bug problem.) This step has often raised eyebrows, but I’ve been doing this for years and never had a problem. Plus, you’d be surprised and delighted by how delicious a piece of room-temperature fried chicken is for breakfast. 


A reader of this blog, Cali, posted the following comment. I wanted to make sure everyone who reads the recipe sees it. It's great advice:

"As a former chef, fried chicken is easy, but GOOD fried chicken isn't so easy. A big part of what makes this one (or any fried chicken) so good is that she used shortening to fry the chicken, not vegetable oil. And now that most shortenings are trans-fat-free, it's not even going to hurt your arteries, much. The small pieces make a difference, too. You can cook them at a higher temperature which allows them to brown quickly, seal in the juices and get them out quickly so they stay juicy. One thing, if you season the chicken and then dredge it in flour, your chicken will be tastier as your seasoning will stay on the chicken and not be thrown away in the excess flour.

If you want to really go over the top and you have a place where you can buy freshly rendered lard, try it with lard. That makes for some really tasty fried chicken. Just avoid that stuff in the little box or plastic tub at the grocery store. It's hydrogenated and really not good for you.

Of course, you could render your own lard if you are feeling really ambitious, but it's pretty involved. However, you do get some lovely cracklin's as a bonus! (Lard also makes awesome pie crust and biscuits! Banana cream pie instead of pudding, anyone?)"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My mother, Steve Jobs, and the iPad -- part 2

My sister Mimi, who writes a fabulous blog called Messy Mimi, forwarded the picture at left. It's our Mother, marveling at an iPad last Christmas.

I'm sharing the photo because I've received so many kind comments over the past few days in response to my last post, Steve Jobs' impact on my 92-year-old mother. In the blog post, I shared the story of an afternoon I spent with my mother, who has Alzheimer's, in which I showed her video from her past on my iPad, all thanks (at least indirectly) to Steve Jobs.

My mother was thrilled at the video. And apparently the story touched a nerve with readers. Here are just a few of the comments I received:

"What a great story. Both my grandmothers learned to use computers on an iMac. That's a legacy in itself." -- Alison in CA

"That's really quite a story. My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's, so I know firsthand how magical that day must've seemed to both you and your mother." -- Claudia


OK, I've got no idea what that last one meant, but I thought I'd throw it in anyhow.

I forgot to mention that my mother, for several decades before her Alzheimer's set in, was a fabulous painter. Every year, she would mail out hundreds of Christmas cards. The card featured a painting she'd done since the previous Christmas. She loved to paint country scenes, primitive furniture and stuff she collected at the Super Flea in Greensboro, which included tractor seats, Mrs. Butterworth bottles, potato mashers, pie birds, and a chicken feeder she used as an umbrella stand. My favorite painting/Christmas card of hers was an outhouse--with a wreath on its door. It sums up her country girl charm and wit beautifully, not to mention her talent for painting.

I'll be visiting my mother soon, and my hope is to get her to draw something on my iPad's screen using the Brushes app. I've even bought a special iPad paintbrush. I'll let y'all know how it goes.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Steve Jobs' Impact on My 92-Year-Old Mother

I was going to post Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe today, as promised. But after Steve Jobs' passing this week, I have another story to tell.

Upon hearing the sad news, I started thinking about the impact Jobs and the Apple products he oversaw have had on my life. My mind immediately went to digital video.

Back in 1999, after Jobs' return to Apple, the company introduced the iMac DV. It was a graphite edition of the fruit-colored iMacs that was geared especially for creating and editing digital video (hence the DV in its name). I'd been thinking of trying my hand at digital video for some time, but I was always put off by how cumbersome the process seemed on Windows computers. When the iMac DV was announced, my hesitation was over. I bought one and my first-ever camcorder, a Sony digital video recorder, in early 2000.

A year later, I used the video camera to record my mother, Ruth, in her home, talking about her antiques and her crazy collections, which include tractor seats, potato mashers, pie birds, clocks, old potato chip cans, Mrs. Butterworth bottles, and over 100 Raggedy Ann dolls. Five years later, my mother was suffering from Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia (it's hard to be sure which). The video I shot is a record of Ruth before her dementia began, and of the house we grew up in, as it was when she lived there. (Later, my sisters and I had to move her into an Alzheimer's facility and sell her house.)

Along with shooting video, I also became proficient at editing video. My father, a photographer, had taken many home movies over the years, and I had a number of them digitized. From that footage, I created several 'greatest hits' video productions and gave copies to my family at Christmas.

During a recent visit with Ruth, she asked me many times to show her pictures of her husband, because she can't remember what he looked like. Having anticipated this, I had loaded one of my home movie productions on my iPad. I sat next to Ruth while she watched footage of the farm where she grew up, of her parents during the 1940s, of my father and her in the 1950s, of their 50th wedding anniversary celebration, of her kids during the 60s and beyond.

After the video was over, my mother turned to me, happier than I'd seen her in a long time. "Thank you so much for showing me those movies!," she said.

And thank you, Steve Jobs, for the technology that made it all possible.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Letter to an actress, with apologies and a promise of fried chicken

Dear Dawn,

I'm sure you've long forgotten me. But can you forgive me?

Thirty years ago (yes, 30!), I wrote an unflattering review in the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald of your performance as Lucy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown! Oh, let's be honest: I took a blowtorch to everyone in the cast. What can I say? I was right out of college and it was my first real job and, well, I was a teensy bit full of myself.

I'm way more humble now, and I'm going to make it up to you (and the world). I'll explain how in a moment. But first, please indulge me.

After months of looking for a newspaper reporting job in 1981, I finally landed a position at the Daily Herald. One of my first assignments was to review the local production of Charlie Brown! My editor was Mr. Kern; do you remember him, Dawn? He always smoked a pipe, had pictures of Gary Coleman (the kid from Diff'rent Strokes) on his desk, ran a doughnut shop called Kern's Korner, and would read his mail in the bathroom right after the final press run (though perhaps you weren't privy to this last bit of information). Mr. Kern insisted I review the dress rehearsal. I thought that was a tad unfair and said so, but he was my boss and he was adamant. So it's kind of Mr. Kern's fault, in a way.

A Moral Dilemma

I went to your show, Dawn. And as you well know, I was appalled. We won't dwell on this because I don't want to reopen a long-closed wound. However, the show was so bad, I faced the first moral dilemma of my young career: What was I going to say in my review? How could I be critical of a local theater production in the small city to which I had moved only a few days earlier?

Mrs. Johnson (Yes, we had color film back then;
 I was just being arty.)
The morning after the show, before I headed to work to write my review for that day's paper, I talked over my dilemma with Mrs. Johnson. Maybe you knew her? She was this impish, delightful, elderly widow, from whom I rented a guest bedroom at the time. Mrs. Johnson was and will always be one of the great loves of my life, if for no other reason than she taught me how to make her truly awesome fried chicken. (Do you like fried chicken, Dawn? If so, I'll make some and FedEx it to you.)

After listening to me explain my angst, Mrs. Johnson cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses. "Now Jim," she said with grandmotherly affection, "writing for a newspaper is a big responsibility. The readers depend on you to be honest and accurate, and that's not easy."

"You're right," I said, and off I went to the office, where I sat down and typed these words: “The most annoying characterization was undoubtedly that of Lucy, played by Dawn Collins. Lucy is famous for her character made of crabgrass, but Collins' shrieking portrayal is pure astro-turf. Her voice is as piercing as a chipped fingernail on a chalkboard.”

I Was the Talk of the Town

I cringe, Dawn, as I type these damaging sentences again. Cringe! And I don't think I need to remind you my review caused a big fuss. I was the talk of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, for at least a week. Many of your friends and defenders called Mr. Kern to complain about my review. The director of your theater company wrote a letter to the editor, which Mr. Kern published under the terse headline "Repugnant." In his letter, your director dismissed me as a "fledgling Dan Rather" (though, practically speaking, I don't think Dan Rather ever reviewed theatrical productions.)

The afternoon my review was published, I had to make my rounds. One of my stops was the local rescue squad, where I was to inspect their log of recent incidents, which I would report in the next day's paper. When I arrived at the rescue squad office, it was deserted except for a Bubba-type character, leaning back languidly in his chair.

"I'm from the Daily Herald," I said, as I had never met this person before, and stated my intentions to review the log.

He eyed me warily. "You the one wrote that review about Charlie Brown? In the Hurld?" he asked. (That's how the locals pronounced 'Herald,' Dawn, remember?)

"Yes," I said, uneasily.

"Seems to me you aren't lookin' to make friends 'round here," he replied.

Dawn, I must admit I was rather proud of my response. "I'm not here to make friends," I said. "I'm here to do a job."

He snorted. And then he put his feet up on his desk--right on top of the rescue squad logbook. I squared my shoulders. "Are you familiar with the Freedom of Information act?" I asked. "It's against the law to withhold public records from the media."

He breathed, looked me up and down with disgust. And then, one by one, he moved his feet ever so slowly off the logbook.

Mrs. Johnson Tells the Truth

As you can see, Dawn, I took a lot of heat for my review. And I deserved every bit of it. But I have to tell you one more thing.

That evening, when I returned to Mrs. Johnson's house, she greeted me with the day's newspaper in her hand. "Oh Jim," she said, trying to suppress a smile. "I encouraged you to tell the truth, but I had no idea you'd be that truthful."

"I went too far, didn't I?," I asked.

She thought for a moment. "My husband used to say he could read the Herald every night before bed and go to sleep with nothin' on his mind," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, your review...I never read anything so exciting in this newspaper before," Mrs. Johnson said. "It's about time someone told the truth about our little theater group. They won't never any good, anyhow." Mrs. Johnson put one hand over her mouth to hide her grin, then pointed her finger at me playfully. "And if you tell anyone I said that, I'll shoot you."

So that's my side of the story, Dawn. Again, my apologies. I truly hope you've gone on to fulfill whatever dreams you had 30 years ago (but you didn't really dream of becoming an actress, right?). And to make it up to you, in my next blog post, I'm going to publish Mrs. Johnson's fried chicken recipe. It will make your lips smack double-time. You've waited 30 years for this, Dawn; I hope you can wait just a little longer.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

At an Italian train station: four Southerners, one bee, and an unexpected sting

When they believe no one is watching, Southerners, like any other species, are apt to run away from home now and then. Case in point: On a recent trip to Italy, I met three other Southerners at a train station platform. The encounter began with a ham sandwich, an oddly shaped Coke can, and a determined bee and it ended with an unexpected sting.

But first, a little backstory.

On the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza
There's a lengthy hiking trail that connects all five Cinque Terre towns on Italy's Ligurian coast. It's an extremely challenging trek from the towns of Monterosso to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia; the rest is easier (or so I'm told). Between Monterosso and Corniglia, which is the part of the trail I hiked, you climb up and up and up along narrow, rocky, steep trails.

Along the way, you dodge the determined 'pole people'--the no-nonsense types who dash along the trail with their walking sticks as if fleeing a burning building. If you're walking on the outside of the trail and make a false move, one of two things is likely to happen: You tumble down many feet and break something or you are impaled on a cactus the size of a Cadillac.

The steps go up, up, up
Why would anyone hike this trail? The views (and the cardio workout). The scenery is in every sense of the word 'breathtaking,' because you're out of breath when you stop to look at the distant hillside villages, the beautiful and clear sea, the passing boats, the cloudless blue sky, the vineyards climbing up the hills, the churches, the charming old houses, and I could go on but you get the picture.

After over four hours of hiking the trail, I arrived in Corniglia, drenched in sweat on this hot late-summer day. The trail from Corniglia to the next Cinque Terre town was closed due to a landslide, making my ambition of hiking the entire trail impossible (thankfully). So I decided to catch a train from Corniglia back to Monterosso, where Nick (my spouse) and I were staying.

The next train didn't leave for nearly an hour. Insanely hungry, I grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich (even at a train station, the food in Italy is delicious) and a can of Coke. Unlike the Coke cans we get in the U.S., this one was long and slender; elegant, in fact. I found the platform from which my train would depart and situated myself in a shady spot on the platform. Immediately, a large bee appeared, swarming around my sandwich, my Coke, my entire body.

"Stand still, I'll get him!," said an African-American woman of about 70, who had been standing nearby with two companions, another African-American woman and a Caucasian lady (their race is relevant to the story, I promise). Before I had much chance to react, she swatted at the bee several times with a curled-up map, smacking me on the leg and rear in the process.

"Leave that poor man alone!" said one of her two traveling companions, who was probably in her 40s and was also an African-American woman. "You'd like to kill him tryin' to kill that bee!"

I borrowed the first woman's map and, with some effort, rid the world of this particular bee. (I know: Bad karma. But when you're starving and can't eat because of a bee, you do what's necessary.) When the commotion was over, I turned to the first woman, my fearless swatter. "Where are y'all from?," I asked, having noticed their Southern accents.

"Alabama," said the swatter, who identified herself as Margaret. All three of the women were from Alabama, in fact. Once I told them I'm originally from North Carolina, the conversation kicked into high gear. We chatted about this and that for the next 20 minutes or so.

Margaret was so enamored of my Coke can that, to thank her for defending me and my sandwich against the bee, I went back to the snack stand and bought her one. She was thrilled. "I'm keepin' this as a souvenir!" she said.

Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I was extremely pleased to see three people from the Deep South in their mid 40s and older of mixed races traveling abroad together. It felt like yet another encouraging sign that there has been true, lasting progress.

And then, at one point during the conversation, Margaret turned to me and asked, "Do you have a wife?"

Her friend, Sandy, immediately scolded her. "Don't be gettin' all up in this man's business!," she said.

Not wanting to tread into the choppy waters of same-sex marriage, I said simply, "I have a partner."

Margaret studied me closely for a few seconds. "Mmm hmm," she said, with an ever-so-slight but unmistakable tone of disapproval. "I know what that means."

At last the train arrived, and it was as crowded as any Manhattan subway car during rush hour. We squeezed onto the train together, but the conversation was mostly over. When the train arrived at their stop, I said goodbye and wished them a fantastic time in Italy.

"Same to you," the others said. It might have been the crush of people or the hot chaos of the Italian train, but I don't believe Margaret had anything more to say to me. They hastily departed, the train pulled away, and I went on to meet Nick, have a Campari and orange juice, and enjoy a delicious dunk in the clear, calm sea.

I'm grateful that as a culture, we've come so far in welcoming people different from ourselves into our lives. But no matter where you come from or where you travel, the journey isn't over.