Canal Zone: Indianapolis

Indiana, the home of my graduate school days, beckoned me to a conference a couple of weeks ago.  While I spent most of my time there in the late 1970s and mid-80s in Bloomington, I did work, and live, in Indianapolis for the latter part of that time.

The city used to be a dead area after five p.m. in those days, when the office workers abandoned ship for their suburban areas mostly north of town.  You were hard pressed to find a happy hour spot in the immediate downtown.  All that has apparently changed, as have the shopping areas and – most impressive of all for walkers and water buffs – the canal.

I don’t even remember there being a canal when I worked downtown.  Yes, it was there (as it has been since the 1800s), but walking along it was not an option, so it was not on my radar screen.  My friend Peggy and I took a leisurely stroll along this sanitized waterway on a lovely May day.  We stopped into something called the Center for Inquiry and learned rather more than we really wanted to know about secular humanism.  We took selfies at the waterfall created from the lock at the end.  We sipped lemonade at a canalside cafe.

It was hard to imagine this urban oasis as the gritty transportation hub it once was, smelling of mule and sweat and coal.   I am not sure it reaches its goal of creating “an opportunity to engage people of all ages and enabl[ing] them to learn more about Indiana’s past, present and future.”  I don’t have a creative answer for how it might have been differently interpreted or put to use, any more than its sister reinterpreted waterways, from the Baltimore Inner Harbor to Cardiff Bay in Cardiff, Wales.

We can only imagine, through photos, illustrations, artifacts and words, the former conditions of these now pleasant strolls.  So there you have it.

Brunswick Stew Three Ways

Brunswick stew is an amalgamation of vegetables, meat, and other stuff.  And it shall eventually be the subject of this post.

This past weekend, as part of our 27th anniversary celebration, my husband and I ventured westward out toward the Blue Ridges.  On Saturday we visited Staunton, Virginia (looks like “Stawn-ton” but pronounced “Stan-ton” by the natives), home of Mary Baldwin College, the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and library, and Blackfriar’s Shakespeare Theater.  We did not encounter Brunswick stew there.

The concoction was featured on Sunday, when we attended the 2017 Apprenticeship Showcase of the Virginia Folklife Program.  As per usual, one of the finalists of the annual Brunswick stew championship of Virginia, the Proclamation Stew Crew from, of course, Brunswick County, were there stirring their gigantic pot and offering generous helpings for $1.00 a bowl.  Who could resist?

This reminded me not only of the time the crew came to the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival to slave over their hot cauldron for hours, but also a recent and not nearly as satisfying encounter with a so-called Brunswick Stew at a barbecue concession in the Charlotte, NC airport.  It was pretty terrible, consisting I think of all leftover bits of barbecue meat and veg from the sides that did not sell the day before all mashed together.

Which brings me to the final version of “Brunswick Stew” that I once inadvertently concocted during my Camp Randolph cooking days (see earlier post, Lake Effects, Part Three).  The former cook of Camp Randolph apparently used to cook up a full turkey dinner every Sunday (in the middle of the summer!) for the residents.  I compromised at a roast of some sort every Sunday, with turkey being featured every other week.    Still, turkey leftovers were rampant and had to be addressed.

One Friday, I took bits of turkey and mixed them up with the leftover stuffing, some vegetables, and gravy and served it as a sort of, well, stew.  “Marvy Brunswick stew!” declared one of the residents, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

Till years later, when I discovered the authentic Virginia version.  Because, though Georgians also claim the stew was first created there, in my opinion the Virginia version reigns supreme.

 

A Queasy Glimpse Into Infinity

I’ve been suffering from seasonal allergies, something that has never plagued me before.  Yes, this is a thing that can happen, called “late onset allergies.”  Coughing, sneezing, feeling general horrible and tired.  But one must soldier on, especially this time of year when work on our annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is heating up along with the weather.  After a long day of meetings and emails at work, I go home, try to get enthusiastic about dinner although my taste buds are also off, and crash into bed to watch some Netflix.   Only to face another restless night of intermittent coughing fits.

This week after an all-day meeting outside the office let up early, instead of just high-tailing home to succumb to my sad state earlier than usual (or, heaven forbid, go back to the office for a couple of hours), I ducked into the Hirshhorn Museum to see the latest Smithsonian museum blockbuster “instagram” show, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.  The majority of spring breakers had been there the week before, so it was relatively quiet.

If you have not heard of this show, it includes a series of small rooms that only two or at the most three people can view at once.  These rooms are full of mirrors and either art work or tiny lanterns and lights, and the effect is supposed to induce seeing yourself reflected into infinity.  I was prepared to be thrilled.  But mostly I was just dizzy, and glad instead of disappointed when my 30 seconds was over. I braved three rooms before giving up.

Perhaps I am not ready for infinity, especially in my current state of allergy-induced lethargy.  The only photo I took was the one above, of one of Kusama’s soft sculpture art installations.  It reflected what my brain has felt like all week, kind of squiggly and squishy and a sickly color of yellow.

Not much of an exhibition review, I know, and I would not discourage anyone from experiencing infinity at this show, which only runs till mid-May and is on the whole very cool.  Just don’t do it if you feel like this sculpture.

Musing on the Museum of Appalachia

A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal.  Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days.  This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.

The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing.  It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads.  Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk.  Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view.  But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.

I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out.  Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.

One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s  The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.

The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.

This item was not labeled and I still haven’t figured out what it might be. Any ideas??

The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential.  Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear.  So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact.  Be prepared to be amazed.

Spring Hopes Eternal: Visiting L.A. Landmarks While Winter Returns to D.C.

 

March is a quixotic month, offering a false sense of spring only to take it back and slap you with winter again.  It gets even more confusing if you decide to take a trip to Southern California in the middle.  When we left, all systems were go for a plus or minus March 15 peak of the famous Washington, DC Cherry Blossoms, but alas they were nipped, literally, in the bud.  We returned to snow, ice, and biting winds, huddling and shivering at the pick-up lane of Dulles airport and, once finally transported to our parked car, forced to chip ice off the windshield without an ice scraper.

Oh, cruel March.  So, transporting one’s self back to sunny 80s SoCal, if only in one’s mind, is perhaps the way to go.  One highlight of the trip was the splendid Getty Villa.  Thank goodness for eccentric ultra-rich people like J. Paul Getty who get crazy notions like reconstructing an ancient Pompeii estate in which to display his (dubiously attained?) ancient art collection.  On top of a Malibu hillside no less.

Equally philanthropic,  Griffith J. Griffiths (does it get more Welsh than that?) bequeathed L.A. and the world a temple of another sort across town.  Griffith Observatory is a temple to science, more particularly to astronomy.  With a theater named after Leonard Nimoy.  The observatory has lately been featured in the film La La Land, where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance suspended in gravity and reality in the planetarium dome.  Personally, we had fun playing with the Periodic Chart exhibit, and the night sky view is stunning.

Emma and Ryan also visited the Watts Towers, and so did we on this trip.  Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant builder of this folk art installation made of salvaged materials, was not rich and famous like Getty and Griffiths.  His legacy doesn’t sprawl for acres or add to scientific and artistic discovery.  But, it is nonetheless impressive, and an important part of the L.A. story.

It’s thawing now in D.C., and the cherry blossoms might not be a total loss.  We’ll have to get out and visit sites in our own city.  Meanwhile, the L.A. memories will keep us warm.

 

Sound Memories I: Pop-Pop’s Song

Every now and then, I a little ditty pops into my head.  It is one of the few sound memories I have of my grandfather, Albert James Belanus, Sr., who died when I was about seven years old.  I remember him as a tall, slim Dutchman from Northern New Jersey with a shock of white hair and bushy black eyebrows.  He sometimes ate cold rice with milk and sugar.  He loved Christmas and he and my grandmother spoiled us rotten buying toys with their Christmas Club money.

Anyhow,  he used to sing a little song that I only figured out was a naughty song years and years later, after he was long buried.  I realized then why he got a twinkle in his eye when he sang it. I don’t think my sister remembers it, or maybe this was something between Pop-Pop and me.   It went something like this, in my memory:

A-sol, a-sol, a-soldier boy was he (repeat)

He had two pis- two pistols on his knee (repeat)

There might have been more, but that is all I recall, except for a sort of chorus that sounded to me like “And step, comarade, and step comarade, and step tra-la-la-la.”  Which led me to believe that maybe it was a marching song for actual soldiers, though my grandfather was never a soldier.

It never occurred to me to search for other versions on the internet.  (And I call myself a folklorist?)  But, here it is, and here, along with discussions about its origins and alternative versions.  (I can see now why my grandfather might have edited out some of the additional verses for my little ears.)  Seems as if it might have started as a soldier’s song and then made it’s way to the playground.  Where my grandfather learned it, we will never know.  But, it is so ingrained in my memory that I recall it more than 50 years later.

The power of music, the power of memory, the power of love.

Senses and Memories Part Two: As the Stomach Turns

Earlier this week, I ate a weird combination of foods and ended up with an upset stomach. The next day, I turned to my go-to comfort food to calm it down:  noodles with butter and a generous sprinkling of salt, which to me is the definition of the term “totally bland but utterly delicious.”  

I also craved a Coke, and not just for the bubbles.  When we were kids, my mom used to give us “Coke syrup” when we had an upset stomach.  Yes, this was a thing back in the day, and you can still get it at sales outlets that market nostalgia like the Vermont Country Store.

  No scientific proof, apparently, confirms Coke, flat or bubbly, in syrup form or straight from the can or bottle, as an actual cure for an upset stomach.  But, as this web site points out, it may make you FEEL BETTER none the less, if, for instance, your mom used to give it to you as a kid for this purpose.  One trusts one’s mom to know what she’s doing when you are young, right?  When she said, “This will make you feel better,” in a soothing voice, you were bound to at least attempt to feel better.

What foods and/or drinks from your childhood ease a crummy tummy?

 

Smells Like Memories, or, The Nose Knows

Some smells bring you to a different time and place.  Some smells can even change your life course.  Breathe deep and read on.

I was fighting a cold recently and tried some Vicks Vapor Rub to clear out my sinuses.  (I’ve had the same little jar of Vicks for at least twenty years, it doesn’t take much to do its job.)  The smell of eucalyptus and whatever else they put in there (menthol? I can’t read the ingredients any more on my jar) immediately brought back the memory of my mom slathering the same gooey pungent muck on my chest, and placing a very warm washcloth on top, when I was a kid.  Comforting, if a little uncomfortable, but a smell that brought the warm feeling of caring and love along with it.

The evergreen, resiny smell of a Christmas tree brings back memories of cheerful holiday times, and up to a week ago there were still cut trees littering the streets waiting for recycling pick-up.  I sometimes break off a branch of one on my way to the Metro in the morning, and just indulge in some post-holiday nostalgia sniffing.  I even stripped a branch a couple of times and put the needles in an open jar for a sort of homemade aroma therapy.  (I am thinking twice about this practice, though, after my husband pointed out that a dog had just peed on our own curbed tree last week before it was picked up.)

The smell of lilacs always reminds me of the big bush behind my beloved early childhood home.  In the same spirit as trying to preserve the Christmas tree smell, I used to pick the flowers and put them in a jar with water to make my own lilac water, dabbing it on as perfume.  Trying to capture spring in a bottle and keep it close to me.

I was doing some research on the National Heritage Fellows, in preparation for writing some features for our July/August guest edited issue of FACES magazine for kids 9 – 14.  (Shameless plug, sorry.)  I read the story of one of my favorite Fellows, Mike Vlohovich, an amazing boat restoration expert and man of the sea, who won the award in 2016.   He tells the story of studying to be a priest when he was younger, having received a calling.  He was walking in the garden of the seminary, and smelled the morning coffee.  The smell brought him back to his days on fishing boats, of the coffee brewing to wake up the early morning crew and keep them sharp for the difficult job in often dangerous waters.  He realized that he had another calling, back to the sea and ships.  (His version of the story is much better than mine, but you get the idea.)

Next time you smell a smell that brings you back into another time and place, go with it.  Linger over your memory.  It might change your life, or it might just bring you to a different, and hopefully better, place for a few moments.

Seasonal Confusion Disorder

The holidays are officially over, so life should be getting back to “normal.”  But, what is normal?  (Has there ever been a normal? Or, do things just seem less normal right now?)  We finally used up the last of the fresh garden tomatoes, which we picked as late as November and wrapped in newspapers to ripen.  This is not normal, but it is pretty impressive.

The earlier portion of this week, it was frigid, in the low double digits with wind chill even lower.  Then, it zoomed to almost 70 degrees for a couple of days and we all peeled off our winter coats and frolicked.


There’s no snow, but I did find some snowdrops blooming in the Haupt garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.  These little beauties must be as confused as we are.

Perhaps confusion is the new normal.

Tea for a New World

Tea is too often taken for granted.  Unless you are a tea aficionado, you don’t think twice about a simple cup of Lipton or Tetley, you just dunk a tea bag in the cup of hot water and have at it.   Where does tea come from, and how is it processed?  What’s the difference between black, green and white tea?  Is herbal tea really “tea”?

Most tea we drink here in America comes from afar – China, India, Indonesia.  But, there is one (and only one) tea plantation in the U.S.  A visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation will “steep” you in the history of tea and how it is brought from leaf to table.  I pun…but our own visit there was really very enlightening.

A stroll through the factory tour revealed that black, green and even white tea leaves all come from the same type of plants.  It’s all in the processing, a complicated combination of withering, oxidizing, and other stuff I can’t remember now but I recommend reading about it if you are really interested.

Boarding a trolley with a knowledgable guide/driver, you are shuttled through the plantation to see acres and acres of tea plants and learn even more.  At the greenhouse, you get up close to the propagation process, and learn things like the tea plant’s relation to the camellia, how an adapted farm machine cuts only the most tender offshoots, and how a tea tree can grow for hundreds of years if well-tended.

This visit, coupled with the book I am reading about a Japanese family entrusted with the art of the tea ceremony in mid-late 1800s Japan, and one of the winners of the Global Folklorist Challenge focusing on a tea master in Taiwan (see the entry “From Green Leaves to Green Tea”) has caused me to see tea in whole new ways.  And, no, herbal “tea” is not really tea at all in case you wonder.

Happy tea drinking in 2017!