Thinking About Chickens

For some reason I was just thinking about chickens. Chickens are not usually at the top of my list of concerns but the fact that I recently thought about them says something about my confused life here lately. But even in less weird times, I think chickens are interesting.

The chicken has historically caused humans to consider the basic philosophy of life. A frequently asked question by those who seek to find the real meaning of life is, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” This has become such a trite question that we sometimes don’t take all the implications of the inquiry seriously.

Once we approach the question, some considerations come to mind. Does fried chicken taste the same to everybody? How would we ever make that determination? Given the difference in every element of our human makeup, we have to assume that our taste buds have their own personality. But since the taste of chicken seems to be universal ( and attributed to any otherwise un-identifiable taste), we have to assume that there is some similarity in the way our taste buds communicate to our brain the actual, real, essential, and elemental taste of fried chicken. To tell you the truth, I don’t really think about it that much when I’m eating fried chicken.

I have always had occasion to note the newsworthiness of chickens. Many years ago I read about some chicken growers—in Georgia, I believe—who had been disgruntled at the low price they were getting for their chickens. As protest, they planned to parachute a large number of live chickens onto the headquarters of the company that was proposing such low prices: a symbolic “flooding of the market” by air. The article noted that, fortunately, the plan was abandoned as being inhumane.

I was reading an account of the development and continuing importance of community journalism in this country. An illustration of the type of articles that were featured in local papers in the early part of the twentieth century included an article and photograph of a woman displaying an egg and a sweet potato—both the egg and the potato extremely elongated. The caption read, “Last week Mrs. —– visited the newspaper office with an extra large hen egg, which later proved to have a double yolk and an unusually long sweet potato”. Not only was the newspaper dutifully covering local phenomena but the sentence structure added to the uniqueness of the egg.

As much as I like chickens and admire their individuality, I would find it hard to get personally attached to a chicken. I would particularly find it hard to give a chicken a name. However, a long-time friend of mine (I didn’t say an “old friend” for fear of chastisement.), Suzi Wallace Fire in Denton, NC, does occasionally name a chicken so that they (the chicken) will respond when called. I understand that someone else in the area named their rooster “Festus” because one leg was stiff. The rooster’s leg, that is. “Here, chick-chick,” is about as good as I can do.

As I write all this about chickens, I am reminded of a statement my son made several years ago about some of my newspaper columns: “Dad, you got way too much time on your hands”.

Singing ‘Bout Home

I previously said that there were two “most” memorable moments in my professional career.  Both that I recalled had to do with music, however; as Claudia noted, getting my first check for something I wrote was a big deal, too.

Unfortunately, the passage of time has dimmed the details of my second pinnacle performance having to do with music.  The event itself still rings, however.  Again, it was in the late 1970s when I attended a conference of the Institute of Outdoor Drama in Canyon, Texas.  The meeting itself may have been in Amarillo but the part of the meeting I remember most took place in Palo Duro Canyon on the evening before the meeting ended.

We went to the site of the outdoor musical drama, Texas, which was performed on a stage constructed on the floor of the magnificent canyon. The play’s season was over for that year but the Texas Symphony Orchestra was to perform at the theater for the conference that night.

Paul Green, the noted North Carolinian who had written The Lost Colony among other works, wrote the original Texas play.   So at some point during the conference there was talk of the connection of Paul Green and so many other outdoor dramas around the country.  It was suggested that maybe we (the attendees) should do something to demonstrate that connection that night at the orchestra performance.  After some informal discussion it was determined that “Carolina in the Morning” would be an appropriate song to sing to demonstrate the connection and the North Carolina delegation would perform it… sans rehearsal with the orchestra.

On the bus ride out to the canyon site some members, professionals to the core, felt uncomfortable singing without any rehearsal.  The result of all that reluctance was that I was appointed to “lead” the group in the singing.  What actually happened was that normally outgoing, extroverted actors and actresses, stopped singing after the first few bars of “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning….”and I finished the song by myself.  Just me and the Texas Symphony Orchestra.

It was almost dusk and the setting sun had created a beautiful light around the rim of the canyon.  A clear blue sky covered it. A crisp breeze gave a slight chill to the air.  And in the midst of that setting, so many miles from Hallsboro, North Carolina, I sang of home with the beautiful accompaniment of a great orchestra.

Miss Annie Elkins, my high school chorus teacher, would have been proud.

First of Two Memorable Events

In the course of writing a review of my new novel, Celia Whitfield’s Boy, Ben Steelman of the Wilmington Star News mentioned that I have “worn many hats in a long and varied career.”  I was sitting at lunch with a friend of mine who was reading that article and she asked me “What was the most memorable event in your long and varied career?”

I told her I’d have get back to her on that because there have been so many memorable events in my life that I would really have to think hard to come up with one “ most memorable”   I assumed the question had to do with my professional career rather than personal.  Certainly, the birth of my children and sharing in their lives would have to rank right at the top of everything.

But if I shift down to my professional life, picking the most memorable event is really tough.   There are so many small events that led to much bigger ones that it’s hard to attach the proper level of impact. I have been fortunate to have been a part of so many celebrations and festivals, met and interviewed all kinds of people (famous, infamous, and practically unknown).   I have sung for all kinds of audiences: large, small, and “imaginary”.  ( The imaginary audience is  a story for another day.)

So after much consideration I concluded that there were two equally memorable occasions.  Both had to do with singing before a large audience of people from around the world.

I don’t remember the exact date but it was sometime in the late 1970s, I believe, when I was asked to sing for the Ladies Luncheon for the Optimist International Convention Center in Charlotte.  I don’t remember how many ladies were there but the hall was full so there were over a thousand.  Susan Griffin, (now Susan Griffin Fisher), a former Miss North Carolina and a friend of mine was also singing for the occasion.

I believe I sang a couple of songs then Susan sang some before we closed the show with a duet performance of “The American Trilogy”.  For those of you who may not be familiar with that song, it’s a medley of “Dixie”,  “Hush, Little Baby”, “and the Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  I started with “I wish I was in the land of cotton”… and I saw a few ladies rise from their chairs and stand at attention.  Then Susan began singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” and the rest of the audience began to stand and as we sang the reprise together the audience sang with us.  That whole convention center was filled with “His truth is marching on, His truth is marching on!”  A thousand women’s voices and one very fortunate man proclaiming unity and patriotism in downtown Charlotte.

Yes, that was one of the most memorable events in my life.

Fried Chicken (and other stuff) Is Bad For You

I just read a newspaper article that reported on a survey that concluded that eating traditional Southern food was bad for your health.  Specifically, it said it leads to a higher risk of stroke.  This was all part of a large-scale effort to look at stroke and a diet of fried chicken, fish, ham, bacon and sweet tea.

I’m probably gonna have a stroke.

I don’t really doubt the accuracy of the survey. Through the years my doctors have been telling me the same thing and I give them a lot more credibility than the conductor of this survey.  First of all, it was done in California, the geographical origin of every weird diet ever conceived.  Secondly, my doctors eat the same thing I do, more or less.  The key word there is less.  Eating too much of anything is bad for you.

The study was done by a nutritional epidemiologist.  I’ll save you the trouble of looking that up like I did.  A nutritional epidemiologist is someone who specializes in the study of nutrition in particular populations— such as Southerners.  I have to assume this study involved more than just Southerners who live in California else it would be a skewed study to start with.  A Southerner who moves to California on his own accord probably has other problems as well.

The survey concluded that, “People who ate Southern food six times a week had a 41% higher risk of stroke, compared with people who ate such food once a month.”  We are supposed to eat 21 meals a week or about 81 meals a month.  What Southerner eats one piece of fried chicken, one piece of fish, one piece of ham, one slice of bacon and one glass of iced tea only one time in 81 meals?  Nobody.

I think I’ll take my chances.

A General Store for Almost Everything

For those who don’t know, Pierce and Company is a store in my home town of Hallsboro, North Carolina.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 19th century and still has a wide variety of items for sale, from hardware to toys to screws to garden tools to lumber to groceries— and the best custom meat market to be found anywhere.

If I could see through the woods, the store would be in sight of my house.  Since it is so convenient, I often go there to get just one item at a time.  So yesterday I went there to get some hamburger meat.  I drove around to the back of the store to park next to a warehouse.  There is a front door to the store but it is usually locked and the main entrance is a solid metal door on the side.

As I got out of my car I noticed two boys sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck parked near the warehouse.  One appeared to be about fifteen years old and the other was younger.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if one of them had not been blowing on a harmonica.  I say blowing rather than “playing” because the sound coming from the musical instrument was not close to music.

I like all kinds of music and I was glad to see that this young man was apparently trying to learn to make music with the harmonica.  So I walked over to them and asked, “Y’all from around here?”

“Yep,” was the reply from the older one, the one not blowing on the harmonica.

“Just learning to play the harmonica?” I asked the instrumentalist.

“I cain’t really play it,” he said.  “It’s my brother’s,” he indicated with a nod toward his older sibling.

“Can you play it?” I asked the other boy.

“Nope.  Cain’t neither one of us play it.  We seen this man playin’ it on Hee Haw back before Christmas and told Daddy we wanted one so he got it for Christmas.” (Hee Haw is an old television show now in reruns on RFD-TV.)

“You think you might want to play the harmonica on television?” I continued.

“Naw,” answered the older boy. “Hee Haw ain’t on no more.”

“You just like the music, huh?” I asked.

As the younger boy answered, he handed the harmonica to this brother, “Not really.  Jeremy (the older brother) said if we got to where we could play it good, girls’d get up around us like they did that fella on Hee Haw.”

“You think that’ll work?” I asked the older brother.

“Oh, yeah.  But we gonna have to go somewhere ‘sides Pierce and Company.”

You can get a lot of things at Pierce and Company but girls are not on the list.

Same Old Same Old

I just found an old column that I wrote back in 1980 for The News Reporter in Whiteville.  As I read it (actually re-read it since I had read it originally when I wrote it) I realized that things had not changed a lot for me or our life in general since I wrote the piece.  President Reagan had just been elected President of the United States and I was looking to the future.  Here’s what I said in 1980 and some new comments.

I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, but since last year was such a mess (See the similarity.) I feel the necessity of make every effort to see that the same things don’t happen again.  So, keeping in mind I only make promises with loopholes, here are my promises for 1980.

  1. I will do whatever is legally necessary to make a lot of money. (A failed resolution then and ever since.)
  2. I will not be a chauvinist in the presence of a lady.
  3. I promise to accept all the promises made by the timeshare sales people but never by one. (Some how that worked out to be true.)
  4. I will speak kindly of Senator Helms if he will speak kindly of me. (Neither ever occurred.)
  5. Did I say I would do whatever was necessary to make money?
  6. I will not “do lunch” with any media people who are not on expense account. (I was working in television at the time.)
  7. I will not fly on jet planes built before 1960 (update that to 2000)…flown by pilots over twenty-six years old but not older than fifty…planes must be constructed to specifications by MIT graduates with IQs in excess of 150… and I will only fly between cities that can be reached in two days by camel ride.
  8. I will not accept any collect obscene phone calls… on Tuesdays.
  9. I will cut down on my intake of junk food… except Twinkies and Moon Pies. (The Twinkies situation has pretty much been taken care of.)
  10. I will make a lot of money. (A redundant failure.)
  11. I will start going to aerobic exercise classes. (Not realistic then or now.)
  12. I will go into a business partnership with a conglomerate of wealthy businessmen of proven ability and integrity whose faith in my talents will cause them to award me an ample monetary compensation for my contribution to the ultimate success of our venture. (Didn’t even come close.)
  13. Failing that, I will try to make a little money.

Some things just never change.

Reflecting Culinary Heritage

I have mentioned many times my wife’s culinary expertise but I have never commented on my own ability to come up with anything fit to eat.  I am not a cook.  I can, if all other resources cease to exist, fix eggs in various ordinary ways: scrabbled, fried, or boiled (no omelets or anything fancy like that).  I can cook most things that can be cooked in a frying pan: bacon, bologna, sausage…humm… come to think of it, that’s about it.

Sandwiches are really a great testing ground for food research on my part.  I have found that almost any food placed between two slices of bread constitutes a sandwich.  I have probably pushed the limits of that assumption from time to time not so much from the ingredients themselves but the combinations of ingredients.   Some other folks share my fondness for peanut butter with just about anything:  jelly, of course, then with bananas, or mayonnaise and raisins. Not all together, just individually with peanut butter.

I like raw bologna  sandwiches (maybe with cheese),  all kinds of meats like chicken, steak, roast beef, barbecue, sliced roast pork, fried pork chops, any kind of fish (without the bones)

Probably one of my favorite sandwiches is cold turkey.  Usually after a holiday meal at our house there is an ample supply of left-over turkey to satisfy my love of that particular sandwich.  However, this past Christmas we suffered a lack of left-over turkey. As our family has grown it has become more and more common for us to eat at somebody else’s house for holiday meals.  Such was the case this year with the result that the week after Christmas we discovered there was no left-over turkey.

Some times you just do what you have to do.  So with no left-over turkey at our house we went to the store and bought one, brought it home and baked it, put it in the refrigerator and had cold turkey sandwiches for about two weeks.  You might say it took us a long time to go cold turkey.

Fortunately, I am the “Mikey” at any dinner table.  I like all kinds of food. I also have had the opportunity to eat not only excellent home-cooked food but over the years I have eaten at many, many dinner meeting (sometimes erroneously listed as “banquets”) that featured a wide variety of foods.  Most have been excellent.  Some not so excellent.  Many have included barbeque in some form.  This includes pig-pickin’s, eastern, Lexington, and western style servings in places as diverse as country club dining rooms and old tobacco barn sheds. I have eaten enough cold ham and potato salad to have saved Napoleon’s army on their retreat from Russia.  And it was all good and I appreciate the opportunity to share those meals with so many great people.

Now I have finally come up with an original edible, uniquely my own, suited to not only my palate but my heritage and my lifestyle.

A friend of mine who has a local winery that produces North Carolina wine, specifically, muscadine, gave me a jar of muscadine pepper jelly the other day.  I figured it would be good on a cracker with my afternoon beverage.  I began my search for the proper cracker in the kitchen cabinet and wound up with a saltine cracker (a favorite from my youth).  Then I went to Pierce and Company and bought a pound of liver pudding and a slice of hoop cheese.

I then put a very thin slice of the cheese on the saltine cracker, spread a small amount of liver pudding (called “Carolina pate’ if you take it out of the casing) then a small dollop of the muscadine pepper jelly on top of it all.  It was absolutely delicious. I ate each one of my creations as soon as I made them because I couldn’t wait to accumulate them on a plate.  I made a meal out of it.

I called it a “Country Canapé'”, my contribution to the culinary arts.  Not only did it taste good but it reflected my country upbringing and it used products produced right here in North Carolina. We might serve it at the next garden party or family reunion. Or I might send some to Paula Dean.

Southern Snow Meteorology

Announcement of the approach of the recent snow storm brought about the usual Southern response:  rush to the grocery store and buy all the bread and milk you can haul away.  This is the course of action regardless of the severity of the storm.

Relatively speaking, our storms are usually mild compared to those north of us.  This winter has been a particularly active period which has included blizzards that have stopped activity in even those areas accustomed to a lot of snow.

Meteorologists measure the severity of the snow by the number of inches that accumulated or the damage caused.   However, grocery stores measure by the loaves of bread and gallons of milk sold.

Except this year at one store.

As the predictions for snow accumulations of more than normal filled the airwaves and community grapevine, I went in to get a few items for my wife to do some baking.  She cooks regardless of the weather.  A friend approached me as I was checking out and asked the usual question, “Are you ready for the snow?”

To which I replied, “As ready as I’m gonna be”.

My friend said, “I understand we might get more than originally thought?”

As which point the young lady cashier said, “Oh, Lord, I hope not. We’ll have people fighting over the Beanie Weenies.”

    Only in my Beloved South do we measure storm severity by the sale of Beanie Weenies.

Is Anybody Listening?

Sometimes I wonder if anybody is really paying attention.  We automatically ask questions sometimes without really thinking about what we are saying.  For instance: A man was attempting to board the “down” escalator at a local department store when his foot slipped and he tumbled down the steps all the way to the bottom.  Blood flowed from his forehead and his face was contorted in pain.  I lady rushed up and asked if he was hurt.

I had been sitting alone in the restaurant for about twenty minutes looking at the menu.  No waiter or waitress approached.  Finally, a nice little girl with pad and pencil innocently asked, “Would you like to order?”
A standard greeting for which I have no logical reply is “How’s it going?”  How is what going?  I’m sure the greeter does not want a philosophical report on the state of my life at this point.  And I don’t even know what “it” is that’s going!

I was recently waiting in the emergency room of a local hospital when a man rushed in and said, “Is there a doctor here?”  The harried nurse answered, “Probably”.

At a civic club ladies’ night, a small gift was wrapped and placed on the table before each lady’s chair and the name of the lady was beautifully written on a tag attached to the package.  Invariably, several ladies would ask, “Is this for me?”

Every time I am forced to venture north of the Mason-Dixon line or take Horace Greeley’s advice and go west, someone will listen to me speak in an accent steeped in the orations of Sam Irvin and Ernest Hollins and ask, “Are you from the South?”

The classic question and answer developed at Myrtle Beach last summer when a friend of mine in his late seventies had exceeded his own limits by trying to swim extra laps around the hotel pool.  As my friend lay exhausted by the pool slowly recovering his breath, a tanned, bikini-clad life guard bent over his prostrate form and asked, “Are you all right?”  My friend replied, “As long as you stand like that, I’m never going to get any better.”

Older Than She Looked

Several years ago I was asked to be the emcee for a beauty pageant held in Charlotte.  I can’t remember the name of the pageant but I know it was held in the old Ovens Auditorium and the headquarters were at the Ramada Inn just down the street on Independence Boulevard.

I was supposed to be at the auditorium on Friday night for rehearsal then meet the contestants, judges and some of the local sponsors for a luncheon at the hotel at noon on Saturday.

The contestants were to have the interview portion of the competition at the Ramada prior to the luncheon.  When I arrived I went into a large room where I found several of the contestants seated primly waiting to go into another room where the judges were holding the interviews.

After speaking to the young ladies I noticed a little girl seated alone on the other side of the room. She was dressed as if she, too, were a contestant.  She wore a frilly pink dress with white patent leather shoes and a white leotard.  Her blond hair was held back from her face by a pink ribbon with a bow at the top.  She had crossed her legs at the ankles and clasped her hands in her lap.  She looked like a small version of the girls on the other side of the room (except for the white leotards).

She looked lonesome so I decided I would talk to her while the contestants were waiting to be interviewed.

I offered her a handshake and said, “Hi, my name is Bill.  What’s yours?”   She looked straight ahead and didn’t say a word.

“I’m here for the luncheon.  Are you in the pageant?”  Still no response.

Sensing that she didn’t really want any company, I took a seat about three chairs down on the row she was seated on to wait for the conclusion of the interview session.  In a few seconds she said, “My mother told me not to talk to strangers.”

I said, “That’s a very good policy and you should always do what your mother says”.

Then she went on as if I was no longer a stranger.  “My name is Olivia. I’m only seven years old which means I’m not old enough to be in the pageant.  You must not be a judge or you’d know that.   My mother and father are judges for this pageant so I couldn’t be in it anyway.”

“Have you been in a pageant where you were old enough”?

“Oh, yes.  I’ve been in several pageants. I sing and dance.  My mother says I’m another Shirley Temple, whoever that is.  I really think I’m a lot like Marie Osmond though.” (That tells you how long ago this all happened.)  Would you like to hear me sing ‘Paper Roses’?”

Without further encouragement she sang “Paper Roses” in a beautiful, little girl voice.

When she finished I applauded and told her she did very well and she thanked me.  I asked, “Do you like pageants?”

“Yes”, she replied.  “But it’s only make believe.  I just pretend I’m a princess or a movie star, just get dressed up and play like I’m one. It’s fun but it’s not real life, you know. Today I’m a princess.”

I gazed at that little girl in amazement.  She was more mature than a lot of adults.  I wondered how she got so smart in such a short length of time.

I looked over to the other side of the room and saw that there was only one girl left to go in for the interview session.  Since I figured we were now friends I jokingly said to Olivia, “When that last girl gets through with her interview why don’t you and I go in and be interviewed.”

To which she replied, “No, I don’t think so.  You’re a big boy.  You can go in by yourself.”

So I did and left Princess Olivia sitting serenely on her throne.