Saturday, December 29, 2012

A gray day on the mountain

First day back from a western swing to visit with out son in Idaho showed a gray landscape, barely a speck of color, in a cold, iron landscape. Chopped ice, hauled firewood and dried gloves by the woodstove. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Flounder

If there's a time of year when traditions are more important than Yuletide, I can't think of it. So I always think of my colleagues in the editorial department of the Wilmington Star-News years ago when each year they re-published a lovely little piece on an old tidewater tradition at Christmas: The Christmas Flounder.

We -- well, Mary Schulken and I -- liked it so much at the Charlotte Observer that we published it several times -- until Ed Williams, the editorial page editor and normally a merry old gent, put his foot down and made us find something else to write about. My friend Lew Powell once suggested I write about some equally fascinating -- and improbable -- tradition as the Flounder.  I gave it a go, trying on the Christmas Badger, the Christmas Racoon, the Christmas Rabbit, but nothing worked.

So here it is.  Grab a glass of egg nog, get the saltshaker and take out one grain, and enjoy:

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the sound
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a flound(r).
– Anonymous
If there is an old-timer in your house today, he probably is not reminiscing about the grand old tradition of The Christmas Flounder. It is practically forgotten.
The Christmas Flounder is a Yuletide custom unknown outside Southeastern North Carolina, according to Paul Jennewein, the veteran newsman who is the world's only authority on the matter.

As is the case with many traditions, the origin of The Christmas Flounder is obscured in the mists of memory, but according to Mr. Jennewein it apparently began during the Great Depression, when people in this area were even poorer than usual.

Buying and stuffing a turkey for Christmas dinner was out of the question for many. Something else was needed, something that poor folks could procure in the days before food stamps. And so it came about that one Christmas Eve in the reign of Franklin the King of Four Terms, the merry glow of kerosene lanterns and - for those who could afford the Ray-O-Vacs - flashlights gleamed over the waters of the sound.

Westward wading, still proceeding, went wise men who knew that dull-witted fishes would be sleeping in the mud at that time of night. Suddenly the sharp splash of steely gigs shattered the starry stillness.

Next day, the unfortunate flounders, lovingly stuffed with native delicacies such as oysters, crabs, collards and grits, graced Christmas tables all over the area. Non-Baptists who knew a reliable bootlegger accompanied the humble dish with a jelly glass of high-octane cheer.

It was a tradition born of hardship, but it is unique and deserves to be remembered as part of the folklore of the Lower Cape Fear.

Merry Christmas!!

Read more here:

(Reprinted every Christmas Eve in an effort to keep this grand tradition alive.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Old ties and old yarns at Christmastime

     Each year their heads get grayer, their steps slower, some years their numbers smaller.  But still they come to the red brick house on a hill in northwest Greensboro to see old friends, old colleagues from long ago, to retell stories about the characters that once worked at the Greensboro Daily News and the afternoon Greensboro Record before it was folded into the morning paper. And they come to see the man who started the tradition that brings them back: Irwin Smallwood, perhaps the most decent man in American journalism for his time. And the annual host for, I don't know, maybe 40 or so editions of an annual ritual: Irwin's Christmas Party.

Now, you might think, so what?  What of the fact that an assortment of men and women who worked together long ago keep coming back once a year to raise a glass and have a few laughs and catch up on who's gone over to the other side? What's the big deal about that? Happens anywhere and everywhere somebody is willing to open his home to folks who once toiled in his workrooms, doesn't it?

Maybe so. Probably so. But this one is different.  And when it happens, as it did Friday night at Irwin's house, you appreciate the fact that you can still see folks you busted your brains out working with, trying to get a hot story in the paper on deadline so many years ago that it's easier to count them in decades.  If you never worked at a newspaper, none of this makes sense. But if you worked for a good one, with good people who put out an entirely new edition every single day of the year, year in and year out, you know the truth of it.

Some history:  By chance my mother, a teacher starving in South Carolina, came to Greensboro in the late 1920s to take a job in city schools. At a party she met my father -- accidentally sat on his fedora, or so the family story goes -- and they got such a laugh out of it they married, had a couple of kids.  Not long before the first of the kids were born, my mother was teaching English and journalism at Greensboro High School.  She taught a couple of boys who would become my mentors and friends and editors at the Daily News many years later: Moses Crutchfield and Irwin Smallwood.  Irwin likes to remind me he saw the twinkle in my Dad's eye long before I showed up at Wesley Long Hospital some years later.  I think she must have had Moses and Irwin in her classrooms about 1940 or so.

Many years later, when I was about to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill, I went to see Irwin about a job. He hired me as a copy editor on the night desk, but he was already planning for a new venture, the first of a series of regional editions the paper would put out in neighboring counties. I moved to the Alamance Bureau of the Daily News and with the guidance of the late Ben Taylor covered four or five stories a day before the Army caught up with me.  I spent three years doing Regular Army duty, staying in touch with the newspaper folks when I went on leave.  In 1972 the papers had an opening in the Washington Bureau. I filled it for a few years, then came back to Greensboro for a general assignment reporting slot before going to Raleigh to cover state government. I'd stay there the next three decades or so, working for the Daily News and for other publications.

Irwin taught me a lot about life, by his example and his counseling. He had been a first-rate golf writer and sportswriter who kept moving up at the newspaper and eventually became managing editor.  I don't know how you manage a bunch of unmanageable individuals, but I think his basic decency and his interest in good stories were what his reporters and editors most appreciated. He encouraged his reporters to get at the interesting stuff no one else had. "What kind of person is he?" Irwin once asked when I was about to do a profile of some windbag. "What does he do when nobody's looking?"  And once, regarding another politico we all had some doubts about, there was this question, asked with a smile on his face: "Does he push blind biddies in the creek, or what?"  

One time the CEO of a big North Carolina utility company asked to meet with us to explain a rate filing or something. The meeting wasn't a good one. At the outset the big shot told a racist joke, not an uncommon thing at the time, and nobody laughed. I could see Irwin stewing about it.  After the meeting, he was still steaming. I don't recall exactly the words he used, but it was something like, "If that ever happens again, we're walking out on the son of a gun."  He didn't say "gun," either.

Every year in December, usually two or three weeks before Christmas, Irwin and his wife Ailene -- who my mother had also taught in high school -- would open up their house for a party. It began about nightfall and ended only when the Greensboro Daily News was delivered sometime the next morning before dawn. It went on that long because, Irwin knew, it was the only way those last few souls running the night desk would have chance to get by for a drink or two, a plate of food and some holiday merriment.

In those days I was  a young man, and enjoyed seeing the old lions of the paper: Carl Jeffries, whose father as publisher of the Asheville Citizen had been instrumental in bringing the Blue Ridge Parkway through the NC mountains; Henry Coble, who read everything before it went into the pages of the Greensboro Daily News (and who briefly courted my aunt Pattie way back), Jon Yardley and Ed Yoder, before they went on to fame in Washington, and a host of characters the likes of which I will not see again. There was an ex-fighter who had fought under the name the Atomic Blond -- bald by the time I knew him. There was an engaging reporter who liked to call himself "Clark Dark."  There was Ed Gray, whose sister Francis Gray Patton had been a well-known short story writer and author of a popular 1954 novel, "Good Morning, Miss Dove."

Nat Walker was the best city editor I ever worked for. His wise advice to me was always to do the right thing, hold it to 20 inches and get it in before deadline.The other night he retold, as he often will, a story about the night that funeral homes across the state were calling in an unusually high number of obituaries -- more than double, maybe triple the normal 25 or so, and when Leon Bullock  brought over the third stack of fresh obits for Ed Gray to edit before sending on to the composing room, Ed had had enough. Leaping to his feet in frustration, he shouted something that sounded like, "Dad-blamit, these dad-blamed people ought to have taken better care of themselves!"   Except he didn't say 'dad-blamit' or 'dad-blamed."

Somebody probably retold a Moses Crutchfield story that went this way. One day during the lunch hour, a disheveled, bleary-eyed street person wandered into the newsroom. Irwin's secretary Betty Walker, whose job it was to intercept the confused and straighten them out, asked if she could help him.  Obviously disturbed, he said something like, "I have a message from God to talk to Jesus." And without batting an eye, Betty said, "Well, Jesus isn't in right now, but Moses is sitting right over there and will be happy to speak with you."

And there was a magnificent staff: Ned Cline, a nonpareil political reporter; Jerry Bledsoe, a fabulous storyteller, columnist and author of true-crime books; Stan Swofford, a bulldog investigative reporter who, if there were any justice in this world, would have won the Pulitzer Prize for his revelations about how the Wilmington 10 were railroaded; Sherry Johnson, a classmate and versatile reporter who went on to be sports editor of dailies in Wichita and Raleigh, Rosemary Rogers Yardley, a graceful writer whose opinions on world affairs broadened readers' understanding of a complicated world; Jim Jenkins, a talented feature writer in Greensboro who went on to become (and still is) the workhorse and backbone of the News & Observer's editorial pages for decades in Raleigh. I've left out a number of crackerjack newspapermen and newspaperwomen who could have worked anywhere in the country; a lot of them chose to stay in Greensboro. 

Those Christmas parties at the Smallwoods went on for many years until Irwin retired. At some point he revived them as a sort of reunion, and when possible out-of-towners would come back through town just to see the old crowd.  Irwin's wife Ailene died some years ago; so did Moses Crutchfield, and for a while Irwin and Fay Crutchfield kept company.   Last week, I saw Irwin's daughter and Moses' daughter at the gathering, and in their eyes and thoughts you could see Aileen and Moses and the kinds of people they were.

The parties don't go on until the Daily News is delivered any longer. For one thing, it's called the News-Record now, a shadow of its heyday self, when people across the state subscribed and no politician would miss an edition.  Stan Swofford doesn't sing the risque version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" anymore. None of us stays up late any longer, and the ranks of those who attend has thinned as the years have taken their natural toll.

But I take heart from the words of my longtime friend Mae Israel, who my mother had taught in her last year in the classroom about 1969, and who worked at the Daily News before going on to successful careers at the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post.  Just before the party broke up the other night, at least for us, she said something like, "You know, I haven't worked at any other place where something like this happens -- where people have such strong ties to each other that they keep coming back year after year.  It really was a remarkable place to work when we were there."

She is right.  I enjoyed just about every day at the newspapers and newsrooms and magazines where I worked for so many years. But I've yet to see another place like the newsroom atmosphere cultivated  by those who worked at the old Daily News in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  I didn't know how lucky I was then, but I know it now.  It was a gift.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cooked your holiday ham yet? No? Here's how!

Well, shoot, lookahere, it's barely two weeks before Christmas and I've been so busy trying to wind up work on a book that I plum forgot what ought to be a Christmastime tradition around these parts: A great recipe for the best ham you ever ate.

It's important, of course, this being the Southern Appalachians and all, and as Southerners we have a duty to eat good pork and support an industry that has given the free world Smithfield hams in Virginia and pit-cooked barbecue in North Carolina and even something they call BBQ in more Southern climes.   Plus, you're going to need some ham and some greens and some black-eyed peas on New Years Day, assuming you want to start 2013 off on a good foot.

My Dad considered himself one of the world's foremost experts in eating ham.  Not the raising of ham, or the curing or the cooking or anything else related to the fixing.  Nossir, he just liked to eat 'em.  The ones he especially liked he called "hammus alabammus" -- from the pet pig Salomey belonging to the Yokum family in Al Capp's sometimes hilarious comic strip, Li'l Abner.  Dad would rate how country a ham was by quarts.  "That was a three-quart ham we had tonight," he'd say, referring not to the volume of ham we'd just wolfed down, but on how many quarts of water he'd likely have to drink that evening to deal with the salt factor before he hit the rack.  The more quarts, the better he liked it, and don't mention any of this to his salt-obsessed doctor, who'd surely read him seven riot acts for consuming so much salt and revving up his heart rate to about the same pace as Ol' 97 when it came screaming down the line toward Danville.

But I digress. The thing about the ham we've learned to enjoy up here is not only how good it is, but how you can make a house party out of fixing it. Or not, as you see fit, but it's always good to have a little Irish whiskey around to sip on while dreaming of what that ham-in-the-works aroma really means.  It means you are about to do some fine eating.

This set of instructions first appeared online, I think, in a blog of The Charlotte Observer, but it has its roots in the Person County N.C. community of Roxboro.  My neighbor Barnie Day passed it on to me a few years back and has demonstrated several times in the past year that this thing works well every time. I can't improve on Barnie's writing or his cooking, so here it is, in his own words.  Enjoy:

This is the world’s best way to cook a country ham.  Guaranteed.  Period.  Scout’s honor.  Cross my heart and hope to die.  And it’s not original.  Of course, I stole it.  And, as luck would have it, it is also the easiest.  Often the case.  We overcomplicate a lot of things.  Cooking a ham is one of them.

Let’s start with the ham itself, and how it was cured. 

There are lots of run-of-the-mill brands, some of them old and famous but still run-of-the-mill, brands that owe their reputations more to glossy catalogues and clever and expensive marketing campaigns than they do to judge-by-eating juries. 

Many of these hams are cured “inside out,” needle-embalmed with nitrate injections.  They are not the best hams -- often more expensive -- but not the best.

Still, these hams eat okay -- unless you’ve eaten ham cured like your granddaddy cured it, ham cured the old way.

He cured his hams “outside in.”  He didn’t know about nitrate injections.  (And if he had, he wouldn’t have done it to his hams!)  He simply packed his fresh in plain salt for six to eight weeks, took them up, washed and dried them, maybe smoked them a little, maybe not, probably peppered them, hung them in cotton sacking in a cool place, out of reach of the dogs, and aged them for several months. 

A note here:  don’t be flummoxed by the term “sugar cured.”  Often salt is mixed with sugar, with pepper, with molasses, with honey -- all kinds of stuff -- and labeled some fancy “cure,” or another, but these things -- including smoke -- be it apple wood, hickory, whatever -- only flavor hams.  What cures, or preserves, a ham is the salt that it absorbs during the curing process. 

Buy whatever brand you want.  For my money, the best country ham in this part of the world, the one closest to what your granddaddy cured, is a Clifty Farm ham, processed for 60 years or so by the Murphey Family, in Paris, Tennessee.  They’re usually available, and reasonably priced, across Southside Virginia around Christmastime.  ($1.79 a pound at the Piggly Wiggly in Danville.)

[Also available, our scouts in the field have advised us, at Slaughter's in Floyd. And now, back to Barnie:)

Okay, now let’s cook that bad boy!

Unwrap the ham and wash it.  Yeah, they all have a little mold.  No big deal.  Really.  It would cause me some concern if it didn’t have mold on it.  Just palm it off with a little warm water.  Two minutes, tops. 

Put the ham in a pot that you have a top for.  I always have to cut the hock off so it will fit the pot I use.  They’ll cut the hock off for you at the grocery store.  If I have to tell you what that hock is good for, stop reading this and move on.  You got no business with a country ham.  Either that, or you’re a Yankee, and threw the ham out when you saw the mold.

Fill the pot with water until the ham is covered with 3-4 inches, put the top on, and bring it to a boil.

Now here is the trick to this:  As soon as it begins to boil, you take it off the stove.  That’s right.  Off the stove when it begins to boil.  Set it somewhere where it will be out of your way. 

Now we’re going to wrap that puppy up.  Pot and all.  You can use most anything -- towels, an old blanket, a quilt, a sleeping bag.  The patio lounge cushion works well.  That’s what I use.  The idea is to insulate the pot so that it holds the heat.

I put an inch or so of newspaper under the pot, the same amount on top, wrap the patio cushion around it, and tie the cushion in place with baling twine.  This doesn’t take five minutes.  Just make sure it’s insulated good.

When you get it wrapped, leave it alone.  Walk away from it.  Forget about it for 12 hours.  Just let it sit.

After 12 hours, remove the wrap, and take the ham out of the pot and put it on a baking pan.  Careful here—even after sitting 12 hours, the water will be too hot for you to put your hands in.

Trim the skin off, score a diamond pattern on the thin layer of encasing fat, rub into it a cup of white sugar, put the ham -- uncovered -- in the oven and bake it for 2 hours at 275 degrees.  And that’s it.  You’re done.  Let it cool before slicing. 

Merry Christmas.  And best to you and yourn.

Barnie K. Day
Meadows of Dan, VA