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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Confessions of a Southern Gardener

I enjoyed writing this essay for the inaugural edition of Charleston Edible Magazine. A few months ago, probably around the winter solstice, I curled up on the couch with my 2017 Burpee Seed catalog, over-wintering like the shriveled stalks of last year’s garden outside my window. I anticipated the extra tock of the clock each day that will eventually lead me to long, leisurely, southern summer evenings. I was anxious to wipe the slate clean and start anew—my yard a fresh palette.
I decided to do a little “sow-searching” before committing garden genocide again this year. I’ve concluded I need to “know thyself.” It has been much too easy to forgive myself for the time and money wasted by not keeping up my garden.
Rather than dumping a bunch of seeds into poorly worked ground on the first warm Carolina day in spring and hoping for the best, why not read the directions and work the soil on a cold, cloudy January day? I did just that; I scattered the seeds and pressed them gently into the earth. Imagine my surprise when I saw a bumper crop of fledgling wildflowers bursting forth on a cold February morning. Yes, the nascent beginnings of another season.
But—memories of gardens bygone haunt me. My past gardening blunders consist of, but are not limited to the following: breaking the ground and my back on the first warm spring day, haphazardly preparing the soil for beautiful high-end plants, watering sporadically at best and then acting surprised when the squelching hot Carolina sun cooks them to a crisp, planting shade plants in full sun and full-sun plants in the shade—just because that’s where I wanted them. I would then avert my eyes for the rest of the summer from that plot until late fall when I couldn’t stand to look at the stick plants anymore. When my puny gladiola did a down dog pose because I planted them too shallow, I spewed expletives as if it were their fault. Finally, I donated the upside down clay pots, green with mold, to the creatures that inhabit them. However, all was not lost. My hubby has a green thumb and, although devoid of flowers, the raised beds he began last year were a cornucopia of organic veggies and I canned a whole lot of squash. I managed to salvage the season semi-successfully by starting a productive herb nook. Rosemary, fennel, holy basil, grapefruit basil, lavender, stevia, tarragon and sage. I dried the herbs by hanging them upside down in a cool dry nook inside and then filled jars with wonderful fresh herbs that lasted all winter. I also made a nice shaker jar of Herbs de Provence, awesome on salads and pasta.

Today, the sun is beaming and the ground is warm and if all goes according to Pinterest (my Pinterest fails far outnumber the successes) and my journal notes, in a few months I will be walking down a cool, pebbled path with a basket of fresh-cut flowers holding an adorable pair of garden scissors, my hand sliding over the tops of rosemary bushes releasing their aroma. Both sides of my path will be filled with fragrant, colorful flowers. Heirloom roses will climb white trellises, all perfectly pruned and landscaped. Birds will pick the bugs off of plants. Bees and butterflies will compete for pollination. A statuary waterfall and bench will await me at the end of the trail and then I will see it, the ultimate prize: the highly coveted “Yard of the Month” sign!  
But the truth is, gardens don’t just happen. There is a time and season for everything—pruning, watering, planting, rooting, de-heading flowers, etc. The universal kick start began on March 20, the spring equinox. According to my little Farmer’s Almanac, life and movement in the natural cycle appear to pause or “stand still” for about five days during this transition. I decided to pause with it, reflect on my garden plans and their feasibility. I determined how much time and money I want to put into my little garden and expect the results to be as such. I will ride the current of spring’s surge of abundance but try to keep my goals realistic. I believe I would like this quote on a garden plaque for encouragement:  
“Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” —St. Francis of Assisi (Who can’t use a little sainthood in the garden?)
If all my aspirations fail, I will drown my sorrows on a shaded porch, in my rocker, with a glass of Chardonnay while admiring my hanging baskets and potted porch plants.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hank's Seafood — Charleston, SC

The cool evening air was heady with the wafting aroma of charred, broiled and baked everything from Charleston, SC’s mecca of culinary delights — an olfactory appetizer of sorts as my husband and  I hobbled the cobblestones on our way to Hank’s Seafood Restaurant.   
Balmy sea breezes whipped port side of 10 Hayne street as Hank’s Seafood Restaurant came into view. The faded brick facade of Hank’s is just timeless and tonight could have been any century Charleston. I could almost imagine fish hawkers shouting their catch at the City Market which is a hop skip and jump from Hank’s, making it a viable part of our evening if we choose to stroll after dinner. 

Fresh, plentiful bounty in close proximity, that’s really what Hank’s is all about. According to Hank’s Restaurants’ overseer and first Executive Chef Frank McMahon, “From day one at Hank's Seafood Restaurant, our goal has been to use the best possible local seafood, and there are no suppliers more local than Dan Long from Crosby's Seafood, Tommy Edwards from Shem Creek for seasonal local white shrimp, and more recently, Mark Marhefka for fish, as well as David Belanger for caper blades oysters and clams and Kimberly Carroll for crab.”

Frank’s quest for quality is mirrored today by Executive Chef, Tim Richardson. Hank's Seafood Restaurant has been voted “Best Seafood in Charleston” by Charleston City paper for 16 consecutive years, coinciding with Chef Tim Richardson’s tenure. 

I knew within minutes of entering Hank’s that this establishment was a well oiled machine. We were taken by the hostess to a perfectly set table in a comfortable surround booth and allowed to settle just long enough before a waiter took our drink order. The few minutes before they arrived, I took in my surroundings. The warehouse, though not nearly as old as it appears, was once a popular disco in the 70’s. Nothing vaguely reminiscent of that era remains. The disco balls have been replaced with masterfully designed décor by an award winning New York architectural firm along with designer Amelia Handegan. I felt as if I were simultaneously in antebellum Charleston, and oddly, in the galley of a fine old ship. Richly stained and polished wide pine plank floors met with the bones of the structure, huge mahogany frames. Light poured through hand blown leaded glass windows highlighting the beautiful bar.  

Executive Chef, Tim Richardson came out to greet us. I patted the chair and asked him to sit for a second, not something that seemed to come natural to him but he obliged. I asked Chef Richardson to tell me of a constant, something that he never tires of and that he believes to be the key component to their success, he told me without blinking. “The bounty of our fresh local seafood, for both questions. Everything else revolves around the services of our local vendors and the appreciation of our patron’s.” Chef Tim made a few suggestions which we agreed heartily to and he sprinted off to prepare while we sipped our cocktails. 
I tried the “New Old Fashioned” while my husband had “Hank’s Signature Oyster Shooter.” We love oysters, so keeping in the theme, tried several variations of them on Hank’s menu.

Our first was the ½ dozen oyster sampler, a beautifully presented collection of three distinctively different oysters on a bed of sea salt. Briny, less briny and mildly earthy, and finally a plump sweet. We loved them all. As French poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947) once wrote: "I love oysters. It's like kissing the sea on the lips." 
We followed the half shell’s with a dish of “Oyster’s Casino” in Garlic Butter, Smoked Bacon, Asiago Cheese and bread crumbs. 
Next and perhaps my favorite were the “Grilled Oysters” on the half shell with Red Wine Mignonette Gastrique, Crispy Andouille and Arugula. 
Last but not least, we enjoyed “Hank’s Fried Oysters” served with Green Tomato, Sweet Corn and Blue Cheese Vinaigrette with Pickled Okra
Our entrée, “Seared Scallops with Red Rice and Collards” was exceptional. The scallops were hands down the best I have ever eaten. 
All of our dishes were delivered perfectly by Hank’s efficient non-intrusive wait staff, they were amazing and were both there and not there in near perfection. 

In our enjoyment of the evening I had not even noticed that the restaurant had filled to capacity. The community table, the first of it’s kind in Charleston was now full and lively as well. Towers of seafood dishes sashayed before us, glasses clinked and the low lively rumble of conversation over good food capped the best evening. Well, that was until our lovely waitress suggested dessert. 
We finished our meal with a shared dessert of “Hank’s Creamy Peanut Butter Pie”, a delightfully rich end to our meal. Peanut Butter Cream Cheese Mousse, Chocolate Ganache, Graham Cracker Crust. I was so full that I had to leave a bit on the plate. My husband said I would miss that bite later, I have — every day since.  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

R & R at Mountain Springs Cabin's, Candler NC

I'm wrapped up in a warm blanket on a couch with a cutting board as a laptop, a #2 pencil and a scratch pad that I found in one of the cabin drawers. The glow from the fireplace and the gray daybreak are my only sources of light. A cup of green tea sits beside me on an antique trunk. I'm sprawled on a large sleeper sofa that barely has room for me because I am surrounded by the books, magazines and journals that I brought with me.
Snowy is sleeping on an oval braided rug on the hardwood floor. I can hear the cattle lowing in the valley by the stream, silhouetted by the dark foothills of Pisgah. Rain is pelting melodically on the tin roof over the porch of the cabin.
It's not the first time I've filled a floorboard up with books to read on a trip. But it is the first time everything has come together to complete this nirvana.
The smell of toast and Neece’s Country Sausage wafts from the kitchen threatening to wake up my gently snoring hubby. As the 3 Bear's would say "Everything is just right!"  
I am in love with Mountain Springs Cabin's in Candler, NC. The cabins are located about 15 minutes from downtown Asheville and minutes from Pisgah forest. The cabin we are in is called the "Cricket's Nest." And yes, it is as adorable as it sounds. One of the most private of the cabins offered, it sits on a 3/4 acre lot and is butted up to a stream with mountain views and pastures.
We were greeted by a chalkboard sign near the front door that read "Welcome Renae, Don and fur baby Snowy." Chilly and damp from unloading in the misty rain, I migrated right to the lamps and to the gas log fireplace. I did everything that the manager Kate told me at check in NOT to do in less than five minutes. I flipped switch’s and mashed all the buttons to no avail, the toasty fire eluded me. THEN, I read the instructions. I called the office and confessed my crimes to the Kate who gently scolded me and then sent help to light the pilot.
After the room got toasty I explored the cabin. I jumped on the bed, turned on lamps, opened drawers and started unpacking. The layout of the cabin, it's lighting, furnishing, all of it was very well thought out. Everywhere that I needed something to be, it was. If I took something off, there was a hook to hang it, if I went to put something down, there was a place for it. I deem this good cabin chi.
The living room wasn't spared of timeless antique furnishing and was perfectly cozy with minimal yet serviceable pieces. A bag of popcorn and the movie we ordered were sitting on the antique singer sewing machine TV table.
The kitchen has an old adorable enamel top table with two old cane bottom chairs. Every single utensil is provided and right where my hand would go if I were home to get one.
The bedroom was consumed by an awesome king bed. Quality bedding and lined curtains made for a perfect early morning sleep in. The headstand was full of books to select from and then much to Don's delight a closet opening revealed a small fan. He likes to have the whir of a fan to lull him off.  It was actually one of the best nights sleep I can remember away from home. The light from the gas logs glowed from the living room onto the bedroom walls, the room was just far away from the heat to keep the covers pulled up.
The bathroom, shut the front door!  A HUGE tiled and benched walk in shower. It was amazing! I have been in high end hotels that didn't have a shower this nice. The cabin was modern where it needed to be and rustic where I wanted it to be.
I eventually pulled myself from the couch, wrapped myself tightly and went exploring on the property with my camera. Snapping pics of an old barn, the yurts (so cool) , streams, cows and chickens on the adjoining property. The air smelled of spruce and hams, possibly smoking next door from plumes of smoke seen across the stream.
Mountain Spring property is laid out like a mini version of it's mountainous community. 50 acres of twisting and hilly paved drives lead to the cabins. The cabins, all with unique names blend beautifully with the flora of the land. The land and later cabin retreat have been passed down to the women in manager Kate King's family since before the Civil War. Kate sold the property in 2010 to RVC Outdoors, but stays on as general manager and  part of the awesome team that maintain this beautiful cabin retreat. I walked up to the lodge office and talked with her for a bit, I wished already that we had more time to spend together. I sense a kindred spirit in Kate.
The next day we drove into downtown Asheville and checked out some shops and realized quickly that we just wanted to be back in the cabin. We bought some groceries on the way in and cooked up some crab cakes with a salad for dinner.
As we packed up the next morning and pulled out I told the Cricket’s Nest goodbye and that I hoped to be back soon — I was. Like one hour later. We got down the road, stopped and ate breakfast and I realized while we were eating that I left the Neece’s liver pudding and sausage in the frig. “We’ve got to go back”  I told Don. I was scared that the cleaning team would throw it out when they discovered it, so I called Kate.
“Kate, I left my food in the refrigerator, I will be back in about 45 minutes.” I told her.
“No need Renae, we will throw it out.” she replied.
“No! We want it.” I told her.
When we got back to the office to get a key fob. Kate asked if we really came back for liver pudding. I told her that we indeed had. “We can’t find Neece’s anywhere near Charleston.”
 She said that she had never tried it and asked what it was like. I told her to think Redneck Pate’. She laughed and we left Mountain Springs once again.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Barefooting with The Barefoot Movement and Finnegan Bell

Bare footing during Christmas Week?  Well yes, with The Barefoot Movement and Finnegan Bell.
We actually could be bare footing in the low country this week, but thankfully the weather outside was seasonally delightful! We donned mittens, scarves and boots and cozied up close in the pews of a stoically quiet historic church for an awesome Christmas show! What? You missed it? Don't worry this line up will be back by popular demand soon, I am sure.
STAC House and Awendaw Green's presentation of Christmas with the Barefoot Movement & Finnegan Bell at the St.Thomas & St.Denis church off of Cainhoy road was mesmerizing, once again. How could it not be?  A leaf strewn and root traversed church site off the beaten path with history dating three centuries, musicians young and younger oozing with talent, food, wine and spirit's of Christmas past.
I've been to several of the STAC House events and have never been disappointed, but — my hubby sure was!  He came down with a terrible cold or bug the day of the show. I tagged along on a surprise date night with my friend and her gracious hubby! I believe he knew immediately he had lost the "date" aspect of the night to the chattering friends the minute that we both climbed into the front seats of the vehicle together to come to the event.
When we pulled off of the dark two lane road onto the pine strewn property I could see the busy elves of Eddie White and his Awendaw Green crew bustling around with Pastor Hamilton Smith of STAC (St.Thomas Anglican Church) performing their last minute preparations. One by one, more vehicles found the narrow drive and gathered together before the show. The crowd  mingled, ate grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken bog, sipped wine and warmed themselves near the outdoor heaters until Hamilton Smith rang the cowbell to signal us into the candlelit and strobed sanctuary.
The show started with Finnegan Bell, Charleston's very own. I loved their selections, a particular favorite is Carolina Line, but they had a few interesting compilations, which had us all grinning. One in particular played by Shane Williams and sung my Warren Bazemore was called Mathew's Begats by Andrew Peterson from his Behold The Lamb Of God album. Yes, you guessed it, a full 2 minute chronological lineage to Christ. Their melodic voices and instruments primed the crowd for The Barefoot Movement who wowed us with their "just try to be still in your seat" foot stomping, roof rising, bluegrass version of Christmas favorites.
I  watched the reflections in the candle lit church panes and imagined those who sat here over the centuries. At the stroke of a clock sometime later tonight the huge red doors will lock and silence will fall over the quiet church of non-parishioners once again, but — tonight, it is filled with light and love and joy and laughter.
Thanks Finnegan Bell, The Barefoot Movement, Eddie White of Awendaw Green, Hamilton Smith, pastor of St. Thomas Anglican Church and all of the wonderful elves that put up the lights,  heat stands, sound systems and food and beverage tents. I am grateful for their creative enthusiasm. East Cooper is very fortunate to have this awesome venue, church outreach and musical trifecta in their community. This nostalgic encore event was magical and I am already looking forward to the next one.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Bug's Life — And Death

Who’d of thunk it? A 50 year old memory sparked by an upside down bug on the concrete. I had passed this large bug for two days straight, morning and evening on the way to my car. I thought it was dead and  dismissed it without emotion as a “circle of life” episode. I fully expected it to be carried away by a larger carnivorous species but on the third morning, it was still there. I realized it was upside down, I personally didn’t think that was a good way to go so I stooped and flipped it over. It’s antenna’s started moving first and then it’s trembly little legs wobbled. I sat in the car and watched as he slowly regained his faculties and grinning,  pulled out of my yard.

That silly little bug made my morning, that is so crazy! Then as I was driving on down the road, it came back, just as real as it had been 50 years earlier. I recalled a memory crypt neatly filed under the heading teacher and bug.
When I was in second grade, I had a teacher named Miss Joy. And, what a joy she was, both to me and my classmates. I remember lot’s of smiles and fun projects; role playing our way through the Dick and Jane book series, counting with found objects, egg shell art (you can’t do this today, because of the threat of salmonella.) Everything was an adventure in her class.

When she announced the Christmas classroom door decorating contest, we were so excited. Our work was praised as we painted and glittered our individual contributions for the entry. Our art went to the door just as it was on our table, a  mish mash of of creativity. Miss Joy’s addition was a garish silver tinsel border. We were proud, but then we started looking around at the other door’s down the hall. I remember thinking that ours was definitely NOT going to win. There were some beautiful foil wrapped, bowed and blitzed doors down that hall that looked more like Macy’s window creations rather than those of the classmates.

On the day of the judging we were instructed over the intercom to close our classroom door and stay inside until summoned. Hall judges caroused the corridors, we were quiet as mice. Miss Joy, stood at the door with her ear to it and grinned while holding up her shush finger. It seemed like age’s but finally the principal came over the intercom to announce that the 3 winner’s had been picked. He asked that the students come out to see if their door had a ribbon, congratulate the winners and then come quietly back to their classroom. We walked out to my foretold expectation of a prize-less door while shrieks of glee came from several of the gallery worthy classroom’s.  We congratulated and filed back into our class. I remember wondering about Miss Joy, why is she still smiling? And — she’s passing out bags of candy to each of us with a ribbon tied to the bag that says “Winner.”

We were too young to understand her logic even if she had tried to explain it, and she didn’t. But now I do understand her. We really were winners, and not in the sense that “Everyone’s a winner.” We did what was instructed. Our teacher supplied materials and we each individually created the door. And — we had fun!!  
Life moves forward and winter turned to spring. I don’t recall anything about Miss Joy until the last day I saw her. We started each school morning by lining up single file on the cool concrete wall until the teacher arrived to open the door at the ring of the bell. One morning as we walked into our classroom Miss Joy found a huge dead  palmetto bug on the floor. She was an expressive teacher and I remember that she was sad. She reached into her pocket book and brought out a box of matches. She dumped the matches out and scooped the dead bug up with a piece of paper, put it into the matchbox and closed it.
At the recess bell she asked us to stay with her for a moment as we exited the double doors into the playground. She reached into her pocket and brought out the matchbox. We followed her over to the edge of the playground near the fence. She knelt and dug a hole in the sandy dirt and placed the roach coffin into the dirt and covered it. Then we were excused to go play. I remember stares from other teachers as we left the fence.

The following morning as we filed up to our classroom door, another teacher opened the door for us and the next day, and the next. The class by now wants to know where Miss Joy is. The principal came in one morning and leaned back onto the desk and called us to attention. “I know that you are wondering where your teacher is. Miss Joy has become ill and won’t be returning.”

Days later one of the girls in the class told me at recess that her mama told her that Miss Joy was excused from her job because she had a mental breakdown. I didn’t have any idea what the word mental meant at this time, I did know breakdown could be anything from the furnace to the car. So, I was in limbo, with most of the rest of the class I am sure.

Later I learned what a mental breakdown was. But I have to say that IF, she was indeed “insane”, she was by far more sane than what I had encountered so far at that age in the “normal” world.

When I came home, sure enough the bug was gone. I don’t want to know if a raven swooped down for breakfast, an irony not impossible after it’s 3 day suffering while looking up at the world, but I am satisfied that he was upright and alive when I left him.

Now I was too young at the time to know if there were other signs that suggested true mental illness, but I do wonder if this dear teacher was classified as mental because she didn’t fit protocol.
Friedrich Nietzsche: And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Monday, October 17, 2016

150 Year Old Sioux Medicine Man's Headdress returns to it's rightful home

About 15 years ago I walked into an art gallery in the quaint town of Germanton, NC. As the heavy door closed behind me so did the bright October light outside. When my eyes adjusted to the soft light and beauty, I felt I’d slid down an exceptionally nice rabbit hole.
Bottles of wine laden with award winning medals beckoned me to their counter but it was only 10 o’clock so I sashayed through the aisles of local and world renowned art while listening to beautiful Celtic & Indian music.

David Simpson peeked out of the back with a Cheshire cat grin and welcomed me to his Wonderland. It was the first of many visits to Germanton Art Gallery. I would pop in periodically over the years to check out the latest art, buy a bottle of wine, or just talk. We have similar interest - his Lumbee Indian heritage, my Cherokee and — a mutual love of history.

David and Judy Simpson own Germanton Art Gallery, established in 1981. They are lovers and creators of art, gentle activists of the land who advocate preserving the earth’s resources and — they grow some mighty fine grapes.

We moved back to Charleston 6 years ago, but I still keep up with David via Facebook and visit when we are in the area. I love to share his jewel in the hills and took a friend with me on a return trip 2 years ago. David was piddling around and getting ready for an art show, possibly their annual Plein Air exhibit.

Per usual as we browsed David filled me in on the dispositions of various artists’.
While doing so his eyes lit up and he said, “You need to come look at this!” He led us to his frame shop in the back and stopped. “It’s a Lakota/Sioux medicine man’s war bonnet.” he told me pointing to a full Indian headdress cascading off of a frame. He smiled when he saw my mouth drop. I was totally awestruck. Buffalo skull cap, eagle feathers affixed to a French fur trader blanket, U.S. Calvary buttons sewn onto the blanket and tied to right horn, intricate bead work across the front band and lastly, Porcupine quills spaced between the two horns which means it was worn in battle.

“Where in the world did you get this?” I asked him.
“I frequently displayed paintings of my friend and painter Gordon Phillips. Gordon was a painter of all things American west and later in life - depictions of Civil War life. Gordon actually lived with the Sioux Indians on their reservation in South Dakota for a time, he painted tribal members and depictions of the Sioux lifestyle during that period. Because of  rising crime on the reservations elders were hiding and selling many artifacts to keep them out of the hands of thieves. This headdress was a trade during this time of his life with the Sioux. Gordon had quite a historical collection at his home. Gordon noticed how fond I was of the headdress when I was visiting him once and told me that if I sold a significant piece of his work that he would give it to me. I didn’t think anything more of it. Well, apparently a piece that I’d shown a friend sold a bit later.
Not too long after Gordon died, my shop door opened and his son walked in with a box. He placed the box on the counter and said “My dad said this is yours.”
It was this headdress. Judy and I kept it at the house for a while but discussed returning it to the Sioux nation. We have taken road trips every year and decided this year the headdress was going to return to it’s native home.
I contacted Aileen Maxwell at NAMU Smithsonian to help up research the headdress’s origin. They in turn passed the information on to Emil Her Many Horses who is the Senior curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

We can’t thank Emil enough for the research and helping us to find out where the headdress came from. Emil Her Many Horses called one day to tell me that they identified the headdress as belonging to the Sioux nation and then helped us arrange contact with the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School in  Pine Ridge South Dakota.

We enjoyed our annual road trip out west with the headdress in the vehicle. It felt so good to hand over this important piece of history to Mary Maxon. It will be restored at the Heritage Center and remain there for exhibit.”

David sent me an update to the story, the forensic analysis of the headdress! It is determined to be about 150 years old. Check out the link below.

David & Judy Simpson, thank you! I hope your story becomes part of it’s history. You’ve made the world a better place for me and I hope that the Heritage Center will consider the trail from NC back to South Dakota as part of it’s history.

As Hurricane Matthew whips up the coast tonight, I finished this essay. I tapped it out slowly throughout the day, savoring gratitude —both mine and possibly of spirits long since gone. It’s kind of staggering to think of the twists and turns in life forged years ahead that allowed me to be in the art gallery at this exact time to participate in this historical event.

I look forward to seeing David and visiting the gallery once again. I hope to take him a signed copy of Charleston’s own Josephine Humphrey’s, “Nowhere Else on Earth.” He will love this story and it’s reference and history to his own native Lumbee heritage.

Preservation of heritage isn’t separatism, it is survival —  unique to each culture.    .