Tag Archives: the South

Game Changer

red shoes

ruby slippers

What if you lost something.

Or it lost you. You knew it was lost when you left it, but you didn’t know the full measure of what the leaving meant.

Once you grasped the leaving and the loss, it was too late. There was no going back. You were certain you would never find it again and it would never find you.

Then one day, quite by surprise, there it was. You could see it in the distance. And all you could think was how to get to it.

Put on your red shoes and click your heels. It’s time to go home.

*  *  *

One Wednesday morning last October, I rounded the corner onto my street. Something was out of place. My husband’s truck was in the driveway.

A little background: my husband’s marketing prowess helped the company where he had worked in St. Louis to sell out of their product all three years he was there. That success in turn attracted a buyer to purchase the company. My husband was wooed to Wichita, family in tow, to lead marketing at the acquiring company. He was supposed to be at work, but he met me at the door.

tornado shelter sign

tornado shelter

“What’s wrong?” I said. “Are you sick?”

“No.”

“Did you get laid off?”

“Yes.”

We’d been nine months in Wichita. Enough time to uproot a family, plop them down on the flat prairie of Kansas, cycle them through homesickness, new schools, new churches, new grocery stores, positive performance reviews, and one nasty tornado. Nine months in Wichita and they cut him loose.

I bought my ruby slippers when he still had a job. Little did I know, they were ripe for this journey.

*  *  *

Within weeks, colleagues called upon my husband as a consultant. This comes as no surprise to me. He’s a creative, strategic thinker. A rainmaker. A walking encyclopedia of agriculture. A good man who’s really good at what he does. We thought consulting would be a temporary gig, but he enjoys the work and he’s doing well. Maybe he’ll just keep right on building his business.

Wichita is not our home. Without the job, there’s nothing to keep us here. But where to go? Home of course. And where is that?

sold sign

deja vu

Home for us is a toss-up between Missouri and North Carolina. We love them both. We didn’t expect to have to choose. Not now, anyway. The last seven months have been a roller coaster blur of weighing good options against each other and agonizing over what to do.

All that is about to end. 

We’re surrendering to our inner South. Moving back to sweet tea and barbecue. Home to where we met and married.

Friends and family wait with open arms and long drawls. Fireflies and tadpoles, tall pine trees and dolphins arching out of the Atlantic at dawn—I like to think they wait for us, too.

We’ve coaxed our son with tales of your finest, North Carolina. There’s no place like home.

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near Your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
they are ever praising You. Psalm 84:3-4 NIV

Carolina In My Mind by sweet baby James Taylor.

Plans for our move are about to take over my life.
Please bear with me. I’ll blog when I can!

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Book Review: ‘One Summer in Arkansas’ by Marcia Kemp Sterling

Marcia Kemp Sterling’s first novel One Summer in Arkansas draws readers into the “intoxicating warmth” of a southern summer, from Thomas Hinton’s soulful cover art to the final twist of resolution. 

one-summer-in-arkansas_cover 300 x 463The story spins around small-town golden boy Lee Addison. His smarts, hard work, and genes are about to pay off. At the behest of his mother, Lee returns to his hometown of Riverton in rural Arkansas to spend one last summer there between graduating from Stanford Law School and beginning his career. It’s the early 90s, and Lee is poised for success in the sleek, corporate law firms of San Francisco. But Lee’s last summer in Riverton resurrects a tangle of abandonment, addiction, murder, passion, and sullied histories that rise to burn with the summer temperatures.

Sterling tells the story from the points-of-view of Lee and other characters, mostly women. We meet Lee’s functional alcoholic mother Frances Dawkins Addison as she navigates the country club scene alone. We are privy to the heart of Riverton’s “prize,” teacher Annie Rayburn, the high school girlfriend Lee left behind for college. We follow Lee’s fragile, teenaged sister M.J. on a precarious downward spiral. We stop with Lee to visit Etta Jones, the curious, elderly African-American neighbor who still lives in the house where she was born.

Marcia Kemp Sterling

Marcia Kemp Sterling

A theme of running weaves through the book. All the young people run. Lee runs. Annie runs. Lee’s Stanford girlfriend Zoe runs. M.J. tries to keep up. Meanwhile, the older characters survive by standing still. Etta is a constant, sitting on her front porch as the story swirls. Frances is immovable, too, having never left Riverton. But where Etta is resilient and fixed, Frances is broken and stuck. An experienced attorney, Sterling touches on heavy subjects: racism, injustice, infidelity, addiction, ageism, classism, religion, the tension between rural and urban, and the inner workings of litigation.

My favorite moments in the book came with Sterling’s masterful descriptions of place—the humid, southern summer in a small town and the contrasting cool perfection of Silicon Valley. Although Sterling was raised in Arkansas and I grew up in North Carolina, there were times when I thought surely we hail from the same neighborhood. Take for example this excerpt where Lee puts together the scene of Dewaine Washington’s suspicious death at Riverton’s swimming hole:

Lee tried to imagine what it was like on the day the boy died. That early in May there would have been splashes of pink, fuchsia and white scattered throughout the hillside forest from small volunteer dogwoods and redbuds still in bloom. The sky would have been lit by a softer sun, exposing patches of color in the understory of tall deciduous trees not yet leafed out (p. 83).”

Passages like that take me home, and this book is full of them. It’s also full of surprises. Sterling deviates from the expected crime-solved-story-over ending. Her narrative is more complex. Like a southern summer, it pulses on and closes with tension still hanging in the air.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 NRSV (Chapter one of One Summer in Arkansas opens with these verses.)

To purchase One Summer in Arkansas, find discussion topics for your book club, and discover more about Marcia Kemp Sterling, please visit Marcia’s website www.MarciaKempSterling.com.

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book for review. Opinions are my own.

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Filed under writing & reading

Cracker Barrel Nation

rocking pair

Friend Ryan Goodman shared a colorful essay by FOX News & Commentary host Todd Starnes, and I have to say I agree. The New York Times misunderstands Southern cooking.

The Times showcased a new crop of Southern chefs and farmers in last month’s article “Southern Farmers Vanquish the Clichés” by Julia Moskin.

The story originally ran with the charming headline “Vanquishing the Colonel—Farmers work with chefs to restore Southern cuisine’s dignity.” Now tell us how you really feel, NYT.

Smart, talented, green, these rebel chefs and farmers are reviving the culinary practices and ingredients of the Old South. Restoring Southern cooking to its rightful place, so to speak.

It’s an interesting read. The deliciously described history and recipes combined with the Times’ exemplary writing tempt this GRITS (Girl Raised in the South) to scoot on over to Travelocity. Secure me an airplane ticket to Charleston or Birmingham. Quick and cheap, please.

Quick because I need that food NOW. Cheap because I will pay dearly for my dinner. According to Moskin’s story, these young chefs “are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients” just to stay in business.

No doubt gourmet Southern cuisine like hoppin’ John prepared with fancy red peas and heirloom rice is heavenly. But is it accessible to most folks? And is the food most Southerners cook and eat really undignified?

wanna play?

“Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel,” commiserates the Times.

Its worst elements? Them’s fightin’ words where I come from.

Emile DeFelice of Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., producer of rare breed “heirloom pastured pork,” says in the article:

“My mother didn’t cook like that, and my grandmother didn’t cook like that. And if you want to come down here and talk about shrimp and grits, well, we’re tired of that, too. Southern cooking is a lot more interesting than people think.”

Well, Emile, maybe your mom didn’t cook like that. But lots of Southern moms did and still do.

available

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to pass up the world-class cuisine of a chichi restaurant. Tra Vigne in Napa when Michael Chiarello was still the chef. The long time gone Spruce in Chicago when prodigy Keith Luce reigned supreme.

Jim Fiala’s vibrant anchor The Crossing in St. Louis. The low country soul of Georgia Brown’s in Washington, D.C.

Dennis Quaintance and Nancy King Quaintance’s memory makers Lucky 32 and Green Valley Grill in Greensboro. The cozy sophistication of The Best Cellar in Blowing Rock.

And then there’s Chapel Hill’s finest Crook’s Corner. Sad to admit I’ve never actually eaten there. Doesn’t matter. I know, as all good Tarheels do, Crook’s is famous for shrimp and grits. We don’t tire of it in North Carolina, Emile.

This food is special occasion fare. I don’t eat that way on a daily basis. It’s not affordable or practical. I love highfalutin dining, but I love Cracker Barrel, too.

front porch

Road trip across these great United States with the family in tow, then you tell me. What’s better than seeing the sign of the old man, the barrel and the chair?

With it comes the assurance of window shopping for toys, candy and sentimental knickknacks. Chicken, catfish and okra fried up right. Comfort food for many a weary traveler, a mere interstate exit away.

The rising stars of Southern cuisine deserve the spotlight. What they’re cooking and reviving is beautiful and exceptional.

But did the Times have to disparage the rest of the genre? Why imply down-home country cooking is undignified? Why insult Paula Deen in the first paragraph of the story?

Most Southern cooks I know cook with butter. And pork. And greens. Acquired from the grocery store. Or The Fresh Market. Or their own gardens.

checkers and a candy stick

True purists still own a FryDaddy and make the pilgrimage to Lexington for the Barbecue Festival every October.

And me, a GRITS living in the Midwest?

I followed an old Southern Living recipe to make hoppin’ John for New Year’s. With canned black-eyed peas (gasp!). Frozen collards (shame). Jasmine rice (what?). And Canadian bacon (traitor). Purchased at my local Midwestern grocery store.

In case you’re wondering, it was good. Just ask my husband.

That’s the point of Southern cooking and all good cooking. It’s accessible. Warm and welcoming. Hospitable and delicious. It makes artful use of what we have. There’s dignity in that and room for everyone at the table.

Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Romans 12:3 NLT

Now if you’re feeling down and out, come on, baby, Drive South.

Disclaimer: I happily endorse, without compensation of any kind, the fabulous restaurants, store, and barbecue festival mentioned in this post. Yum-O.

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Filed under America, food & farm