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.