BS Reading Project: The Cooking Gene

One of my cousins was married on a plantation in Louisiana.  I was in college at the time, and I always loved weddings because it was one of the few times I got to see most of my mom’s family together all at once. Still, it felt weird that it was happening at a plantation. My cousin worked there as a chef, so there was a logical connection to the place. But…it was a plantation.

One of the things I found fascinating about Michael Twitty in his book The Cooking Gene is that he regularly goes to places like the plantation where my cousin was married as a culinary historian and historical interpreter. He creates meals using techniques and technologies of the past. I didn’t really know that demonstrations like that were a thing, and knowing that they are–in fact–a thing and that Twitty, a black man, was conducting these demonstrations made me feel the same uneasiness I felt at that wedding years ago. I felt a strong liberal guilt about why this history is being recreated and for whose enjoyment. It made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if these kinds of demonstrations were maybe A Problem. Maybe this shouldn’t be a thing.

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But that is the wrong impulse. Because it overlooks the fact that Twitty has agency and has chosen to do this work. It also fails to understand why this work is valuable to him. Twitty’s interest in researching the history of these foods is about him seeking things he feels are important and that he wants to see preserved. That is an idea that would never have occurred to me because of my particular perspective on the South, slavery, and the Civil War. That is why reading is so cool because it helps me discover ideas that I would never have come to on my own. I learn answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask.

This book can be really academic, and for a minute upon reading the first few pages I put the book down and thought, “Am I smart enough to read this?”  Not because I am dumb but because I have been reading a lot of lighter fare, and my brain quickly realized this book would take more focus from me. Twitty is very good at explaining the cultural significance of Southern food and its African influences, but it is a book I had to stop regularly to process.

Some parts of his research appealed to me because it taught me things about Southern food that I never knew even though those foods are connected to vivid memories of my own childhood.  As a kid on my grandmother’s farm, I picked and shelled wash tubs full of black eyed peas, and unlike shucking corn, I found shelling peas really satisfying. I also adore a good batch of black eyed peas, but I didn’t know how or why they had come to be part of the Southern diet.

Weirdly, I also got very excited whenever there was mention of eating squirrel.  Some of the men in my family hunt squirrel, and I have at times played that fact really close to the vest because I have gotten some stunned reactions when I mention it.  Once, during dinner, my grandfather got up and walked to the sliding glass door to pick up a BB gun and shoot at a squirrel getting after his tomatoes. At the time I had a huge crush on a boy who was a vegetarian, and I briefly imagined how he would react to that scene.

But squirrel, like deer and fish (and opossum, which Twitty discusses but which my family does not eat) is a source of protein that can be had quite cheaply if you have a little real estate on which to hunt it yourself.

The culture and social justice issues around food also connected with my own upbringing. My parents have almost always had a garden to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and other staples.  Twitty’s book has a section on both the historical and modern day significance of farms and growing your own food as a source of healthy eating and empowerment.  He also articulates things about Farmer’s Markets that I have felt but never been able to explain.

I connected less with Twitty’s interest in genealogy and tracing his family history because I have never really understood why people find that subject interesting.  But Twitty points out that few people whose ancestors were slaves can trace their family tree back beyond a few generations. Genealogy for Twitty involved DNA tests like 23 and me, painstaking study of poorly kept records, and a great deal of uncertainty. The amount of work he does is astonishing to me since I have a book of family history that a relative compiled and gave me and a few other family members as gifts. I never read it. Is my disinterest in genealogy a function of the ease with which I can access it whenever I want?  I had never considered that before, but it feels very true.

This book took time.  I had to renew my library copy twice before I finished it.  But it made me think about foods that are familiar to me and my concept of “Southern” food quite differently.

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BS Reading Project: The Comfort Food Diaries

I started my BS Reading Project with Emily Nunn’s The Comfort Food Diaries because comfort is something that I have been actively seeking for a while.  On its face, The Comfort Food Diaries is maybe not what I should have reached for to start this reading journey.  The book starts with Nunn dealing with her brother’s suicide and soon after, her relationship with a man known only as “The Engineer” ends.  He asked her to move out, so she was also without a real home. I feel better already.

All of this information is dispensed very quickly, which seems like it should make for a really heavy first chapter, but it doesn’t.  Not really. It is sad, but by the time she is writing about these things, she seems to have found a way to process and talk about them.  By page 20, she had drunkenly posted about predicament on Facebook and received messages of kindness, love, and support. Friends offered to cook for her.  Others offered a place to stay. A few graciously and affectionately offered to let her cook for them. And at this point, I thought I knew what this book would be: a road trip to visit friends and eat their versions of comfort food.

In some ways, I was wrong on both counts, and I think the book is better for it.  First, Nunn unpacks the incredibly personal nature of comfort food. Letting people cook her what they consider comfort food could be educational in an academic sense, but it might not nourish her soul in the way that comfort food can sometimes do.  When you are craving soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, but are presented with BBQ brisket or cake, the contrast between your idea of comfort and someone else’s has the potential to make you feel worse and Nunn wisely realized this before she began.  So, the recipes (and, obviously, are there recipes) and meals presented in the book unfold in a more organic way as she meets up with people from her past who are happy to reconnect with her.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting was that her journey was more a spiral than a line.  At one of her early stops, she beautifully sums up conversations in the South:

This is the way southerners are.  No one simply tells you something directly and then leaves it at that.  Each conversation is loaded down with other conversations and extraneous information and inconsequential observations and non sequiturs…It is not entirely meaningless; it’s circular, a secret code you either learn to decipher or just not worry about too much.

I love this because I have had thousands of conversations with strangers who disclosed way too much by way of telling you the thing you asked about.  Or sometimes just as a way to say “hello.” I do it too. Sometimes I am aware of it and sometimes not. But circular is a good way of describing the way that Nunn keeps coming back at times to particular people and places that seem to truly offer comfort.  And more than comfort, they offer unconditional love and friendship.

It becomes clear over the course of the book that some of her key relationships offered highly conditional love.  Sometimes she knows why she had displeased the other person, and sometimes she only knows they are displeased but not the cause or the remedy for it.  There are plenty of memoirs where people write of nightmare childhoods. Before this book, I read Tara Westover’s Educated, but I could easily list many more. It is more unusual to me to read about a family where things are not violent, but still difficult in this quieter, oddly strained way.

The thing I related to in Nunn’s journey to get back to her old self and to figure out how she has found herself repeating the same unsatisfying relationship patterns is how people who care about you will be more gracious than you expect and are willing to give more than you ever would feel comfortable asking for.  Friends and family are so gracious, and she never seems to stop being overwhelmed by the things that they offer without the slightest thought or hesitation.

It is a good reminder because, like Nunn, I am sometimes afraid at times that I am asking for too much or simply just being “too much” for people, but my friends are generous and open hearted, and every time I am reminded of this, it is overwhelming and restorative. In talking about this book on the podcast Literary Atlanta, Kyle Tibbs Jones summed the author’s journey up perfectly saying, “Some friends are not the friends you thought they were, and some complete strangers become the best of friends.”

This memoir turned out to be a great place to start.  It is full of smooth, beautiful prose and a whole lotta butter, both of which can be very comforting.

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Introducing The BS Reading Project

I read 63 books last year, which was probably too many. My goal last year, and for several years has been to create stuff, but instead I have primarily consumed. Consuming things is much easier than producing them, and my media diet included some really respectable and thoughtful books and a lot of stuff that was not so much those things. I decided to create a challenge for myself to both slow down my consumption and give myself a built in framework for creating things.

Since I recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, I wanted to focus on a project that would help me reflect on my new city as well as a lifetime of living in the South. To date, I have lived in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and now Georgia. There is a local online magazine with a title and mission statement that I really like: The Bitter Southerner. The title alone told me the publication was for me–a lifelong Southerner, who considers it home and also never quite feels like I belong there. As it happens, the Bitter Southerner is based out of Atlanta–my new hometown–and they are also avid readers. They published The Bitter Southerner’s Summer Reading Roundup, and that is the framework for what I am calling the BS Reading Project.

My goal is to post weekly about the books on the list as I read through them. I may also wander slightly off the list as there are some books on their list of books from the previous year as well as ones that were listed as “coming soon” at the time the list was published that were already on my reading list, so they have been added to the metaphorical pile. Depending on how the projects go, I may also branch out to include some things that aren’t on the list, but that might help me learn about Atlanta or Georgia. After a lifetime of moving every few years, I somehow spent eight years in Austin, Texas, so I am having to re-learn how to be in a new place.

That is the project. So check back to see how the Project is progressing and feel free to recommend books. I am always looking for the next great read.

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State vs. National

Eric had heard really good things about the Big Bend State Park (as opposed to the National Park that people mean when they refer to Big Bend.)  So, we took a day to visit it.  We stopped at a ranger station as we did every time we saw one.  Eric really likes talking to park rangers, and I really like to eavesdrop as he does it because it’s pretty endearing.  I was teasing him about it a little in the car–about how that would be a great gig for him when he is an old man–and he quickly dropped some information that made me understand that he had done some research into the profession in his younger days.

The ranger pointed at a few places on the map and told us it would take about two hours to get to the first hike.

And that’s when I realized I didn’t know much about the state park.  I immediately started asking where the nearest gas station was because I wasn’t prepared for a four hour, round trip journey.

I also hadn’t counted on there being no paved roads in the state park.  The national park had smooth roads, and Eric and I joked that even when they posted signs saying “rough road” the terrain was smoother than a lot of roads in Austin.  Here, after a beautiful, scenic drive (most of the drives in both parks could be considered scenic because they were pretty drives that you had time to appreciate as you could never drive more than 45 MPH).  After turning off a lovely, but winding drive, we hit rough, sandy roads where no signs apologized that the trip might be “rough.” But it was.

The state park is a very specific thing, and if you are interested in remote camping or mountain biking, it has a lot to offer.  However, I kept referring to it as “primitive,” which I think is a fair description, especially compared to the other park a few miles away.

The state part was also the place where we had our closest brush with danger.  We were setting off on a trail that was only marked with little rock piles to indicate you were still going the right way.  They weren’t always close together, and somehow we lost the trail.  But because the land was flat and barren, everything looked like a potential trail, and it became tricky to figure out where we went wrong and get back on track.

The sun beat down on us the entire time.  We once found the tiniest sliver of shade provided that we pressed up against a large rock situation.  I have a greater appreciation for people who have managed to create a life in some pretty forbidding terrain.  In the heat, I stumbled, reactivating an old ankle injury, and we pushed on because the original trail had been a loop, so maybe we would eventually circle back around to the car.

At one point, Eric left to go scout the area since we had a choice to either climb a hill or keep going around.  He left me and scrambled up.  Left alone for a while, I started exploring the surrounding area and realized there were signs that animals had been there.  Specifically, there was poop, and by the size of the poop, I guessed it was left by something fairly sizable.

I didn’t want to be on my own any more, and I started calling up to Eric.  I had to yell for a while before he appeared at the top of the hill he scampered up.  When he finally did appear, he said, “Stay there! I’m coming down!”

I did not like the sound of that, and I liked the next thing he said even less.  “We should go back the way we came.”

The way we came?  All the way back there?  It felt impossible and exhausting, and I did not want to do it.

He explained that we were lost enough that retracing our steps was the best way to make it back to the car, and I really wanted to be back at the car.  He did not, however, explain that while he’d been scouting, he, too, had seen some animal scat.  And also? Bleached, sun dried bones.

While heading back had seemed like a bad idea, I felt a lot better when we found our familiar sliver of shade and sat down to eat some oranges.  Eric told me what he’d seen at the top of the hill, but instead of being scared, I was relieved that he felt like we were far enough away from the poop and the bones to tell me about them.  He wouldn’t have done that unless he felt we were comparatively safer.

Slowly, things started to look familiar again, and finally we started seeing little rock piles that once again meant we were heading the right way.  I realized I was beginning to feel less freaked out about the possibility of dying in the desert when I started making terrible jokes.  “What if those rock piles aren’t trail markers?” I asked.  “What if that’s a trick that bears have learned to lure hikers to their lair?”

Eric laughed, but he maintained with the confidence of an Eagle Scout that they were legit trail markers.

“I’m just saying the next time we come to a ranger station, ask them about the rock piles.  Be vague, like, just mention that we notice them, and see if they take credit or if they say they are made by tricky bears!”

Eric laughed, and I felt sure we wouldn’t be eaten by wildlife.  Not today.

We did go to a ranger station, but Eric didn’t ask about rock stacking bears.  Instead we downed sodas and Snickers bars, and then we explored a little store that had books.  We checked both a pamphlet of animal tracks and scat as well as a children’s book for sale called Who Pooped in the Woods? but nothing matched what we had seen.  We will never know who or what pooped in the woods.

 

 

 

We had a good day in the park and there were some cool hikes, though we did also have a close encounter with a large number of bees.  I think we would both go back, but we agreed that we should have done a little more research on the park before we went.

 

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West Texas is Crazy Beautiful

Look, I wish there was a more clever or unique way to say it, but basically West Texas…holy shit.

Eric finished a massive job that he’d been working on, and in education, Spring Break is a good time to get out of town because very little will happen that week.  So, Eric and I planned a vacation.  I am not a planner by nature, and Eric is a skeptic, so he never believed we would actually take a trip together.  Perhaps just to spite him, I made it happen.

Spring Break, it turns out, is a terrible time to head to West Texas since everyone who isn’t coming to Austin seems to be heading out to Big Bend National Park.  By sheer dumb luck (and a healthy amount of procrastination), I waited so long to book our trip, that we actually arrived in West Texas in the middle of Spring Break and made it to Big Bend as most people were leaving meaning that we avoided the crowds for the most part.  Dragging my feet really worked out for me in this instance.

I am going to write several posts about our trip, but it seems fair to start with the sheer, amazing, rugged beauty of west Texas.  On the drive from Alpine to Terlingua, where we stayed during our time in Big Bend, we pulled over several times to get out of the car, take pictures, and just gape at the big Texas sky.  Every single place we stood, it felt like we were staring at a postcard.  Turn slightly to the right or left, and we were nudging each other to look at some other incredible vista.

In fact, Eric walked several feet from the highway to pee, and he returned only to tell me I had to come see something.

“Oh, I thought you were peeing,” I laughed.

“I did, but the view over here is incredible.”

I thought this was a weird trick to just make me look at a puddle of piss, but I followed and I had to agree that, indeed, the scenery was incredible.  There was a steep bank and standing on the edge of it, the land dropped away, opened up, and kept going for miles.

During the four days we spent in the desert, we just kept taking photos of everything around us, and there were dozens of times when I decided to just put my phone down and take it all in because photos can convey the beauty to some extent, but they can’t capture the vastness of it.

West Texas…holy shit.

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Tattoos on the Heart: The Belief in Slow Work

As soon as I finished reading the physical copy of Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, I got an audio copy from my local library.  When I got close to being finished with the audio version, I bought a paperback copy.  There is so much big, chewy stuff in here, and I wanted to keep unpacking the stories as well as committing them to memory.

The book is about the work that Father Greg (or “G” as most people call him) has done working in a poor, urban parish in Los Angeles.  This book is not only about his experiences as a priest, but also his work with Homeboy Industries where gang members are given jobs and work experience in order to find an alternative to gang life.  There are so many things about these stories that surprises me.  The amount of pride and grace that these men and boys feel over having a job or being treated “like I’m somebody,” contradicts the notion that people are poor because they don’t want to work.  There is so much pride in having a job that one young man tells G he has a job as the rat at a Chuck E. Cheese.  He admits that the job sucks, but he is proud that when his son is born he will know his father is a “workin’ man.”

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So many of these stories–stories where you manage to say the right thing, stories where you said the absolutely wrong thing, stories where a person doing the right thing can bring positive change to their life, and stories where even though someone did the right thing, and it all ended up going to shit anyway.

At times, this book reminded me of what I love about the work that I’ve done with teenagers, and at other times, I am blown away by the work that Father Greg does because I could never do the kind of work he does let alone with such compassion, grace, and faith.  It is perhaps not surprising that a book about 20 years of working with gang members would involve quite a few funerals, but every one that is covered in the book feels crushing because G talks of all of the homies with the dignity and respect and affection that we should all be so lucky to experience.

All of the chapters are well structured collections of stories exploring a theme, and all of them are lovely sermons.  The one that has stuck with me weeks after I finished the book for a second time is the notion of Slow Work.  Slow work is the notion that big, hard life changing work doesn’t happen in an instant.  It takes time, and it can seem painfully, frustratingly slow, but in order to work you have to keep showing up with the right attitude and an open heart and you keep trying and maybe it will work and maybe it never will, but you have to keep showing up because if you quit, then things don’t get better.  That doesn’t make you a sucker, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people accountable, but you do it because you do not believe that a person who has made bad choices should be dismissed as a bad person.

The next few years are going to require a lot of people being willing to engage in slow work.  There are a lot of protests and demonstrations, and God knows that I can’t leave a message on my senator’s voice mails because they are full (and no one seems to be interested in clearing them out so that more people can leave messages and be heard).  And not all of the resistance and protests will prevail, and that could very well lead to tragic stories of people whose government has turned its back on them.  I’m not happy or indifferent to that fact, but that is the challenge of doing slow work.  You keep showing up and you keep working because that is the only way things get better.

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Nasty Women for the Win

One of the arguments that I regularly have is about Jane Eyre.  I hate that novel, and I talk about my hatred for that book more than a little bit.  Almost always there is a woman standing nearby who is shocked at that revelation, and I get up on my soap box.  The other thing about hating Jane Eyre, is that as an English major I have read the book at least 3 times cover to cover.  Each time, I got a little more annoyed that Jane is kind of a boring character.  That Rochester is a complete asshole who is rude to Jane, then admits that he loves her, then tries to marry her even though he’s already married to a crazy lady who is living in his attic that he was hoping to never have to mention.  I’m not rooting for that couple, and then when they finally get together at the end, Rochester is badly injured and by marrying him Jane becomes not only wife but also nursemaid to a complete jerk.  Nothing about that makes me happy.

What does make me happy is the update to Jane Eyre called Jane Steele.

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The book does not try to hide that it is drawing from the source material, and references to that dreaded Victorian inspiration appear throughout the book.  My favorite two are one where Jane Steele mentions that Jane Eyre was kind of a lousy detective, and the other is that very early on in the modern update, the line “Reader, I married him” is updated to “Reader, I murdered him.”

She is not referring to her love interest but rather of an abusive cousin–something the two Janes have in common–which is revealed within the first few pages of the book, so it is less a spoiler than it is a reason to consider reading this book.

The author, Lyndsay Faye, seems to have more general affection for Jane Eyre than I ever did, but she has made modern updates that change Jane from a silently suffering victim of abuse, to a novel about a strong heroine who fights back.  Often fatally.

While those changes feel very satisfying at a time where women are fighting and celebrating their reputations as “nasty women” who insist on persisting, which are definitely my kind of women.  So, not only does a heroine willing to get blood on her hands pretty satisfying, but Jane Steele features a love story that I can get behind.

Her love interest, Mr. Thornfield, is  a modern day Rochester complete with some mysterious secrets and an ability to look sexy while brooding.  The difference is that he is also funny.  He speaks to his young ward in a mock-grumbling way that is mixed with a large dose of affection and teasing.  Instead of being an actual glowering jerk who is clearly only cruel because he is also damaged (aka the type I was most likely to love in college), he is actually good natured and caring.  What’s more, Jane doesn’t have to be nearly murdered in her bed for him to start kind of being nice to her.

This reimagining or update or whatever the proper literary term for it actually is has not made me love Jane Eyre any more than I ever did, but it has made me glad that it existed in order to bring me to Jane Steele.

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