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.