GARLAND OF WORDS
From my garden near Long Island Sound, I pick words grown from Southern varieties to weave into stories for today.
There was a time I sought to become a poet, believing verse was in my soul, wanting out.
But to be a bard I had to intuit, poetry is my soul, winging about.
He was born Jerry Leon Richards, on January XX, 19XX. He came up out of Lyles, a hardscrabble hamlet in Hickman County, Tennessee. But forget all that. He chose to forget it, or at least to put it behind him, and so I do too, out of respect for his conviction of who he really was. Sui generis. One of a kind. Self-made. Ora birthed the child who would become the man. She delivered the baby, and then, in the fall of 1971, she delivered-up her boy to the campus of Martin College in Pulaski, Tennessee. From 1971 to 1973, her son remade himself within the cocoon of that campus. The old passed away so that he could be born anew as Peter Richards—and I watched as Pete emerged. We were classmates and more for those two years, and yes, it was that long and that hard of a birth. The second time around, Pete had to deliver himself into his own version of manhood.
How much more than classmates were we? I’m still trying to figure that out. We were both gay, but didn’t know it or couldn’t admit it, even to ourselves. We lived in the same dormitory, worked together in the college library as part of the Work-Study Program, and held long, private talks in the dorm late at night. But we never slept together. Never kissed. Never touched intimately. Except for the meeting of like minds.
I heard him clearly the minute he arrived on campus at the start of our freshman year. His voice was high. Soft. Nuanced. Smart. It was all there in his intonation. Pete didn’t see me. He was busy resisting his mother’s direction—rebelling. But doing so in that exasperated tone we save for those we love. Rebelling, as all youth must, against those closest to us, so that we can become who we are meant to be.
I sneaked a peek out my dorm window from behind the curtain. They stood at the rear of the car, trunk up, two mouths open, two sets of arms flailing. A few items already decorated the pavement of the parking lot. He was holding a box with clothes laid out across the top, but I could see him as clearly as I heard him. Not too tall. Very slender. Smooth, creamy skin. Flowing like liquid in his movements. A dark lock of hair half concealed one eye. I was intrigued from the start.
We didn’t meet until weeks later, when our work schedules brought us together in the library. Over the course of that first year—on shared shifts during slow periods at the library, or in his dorm room or mine—we often talked about the challenges of the day. We also shared our dreams of what we wanted from life. Of what we hoped was to come. Of who we were and who we wanted to be.
Even with our early acquaintance in the dorm and our joint work at the library, we migrated into different clicks. The drama club called to Pete. I avoided participation there, beyond that of an audience member, fearing association with that group. Shamefully, I was afraid of being linked by my other friends with such a seemingly gay troop of people. Yet, I inexplicably chose to be friends with Pete anyway. He had no fear of being who he was becoming. He was good in his acting roles, too. Very talented, and I told him so. I expected he’d pursue it as a career, but he didn’t. I think he finally decided he’d had enough drama in his life.
Back in that dorm, he was bullied when bullying wasn’t a popular thing for society to rail against. I guess those straight boys sensed his vulnerability. I was better at hiding my true self, and worse off for it. During that time, he endured verbal abuse. Threats of physical attack. Buckets of water thrown under the door to his room—a flood made so much worse by the giggles of drunken boys just having a little fun. The school eventually agreed to move him to another wing and floor where the testosterone flowed as less of a flood. Things slowly got better for Pete.
Decades later, after we’d reconnected, I asked him about those times. He didn’t remember the details the way I did. The human mind likes to forget the bad and remember the good in life, and that’s a wonderful thing. He’d forgotten how he used to set his clock so it would awaken him late, late in the night. He’d get his shower at a time that would leave him less likely to face a sneering band of boy-man-apes ready to mark the hall and the communal shower as their exclusive territory.
During the summer between his first and second year, Pete discovered the wonders of connecting with someone like-minded in spirit—and in body. It was there on campus during the summer that he unlocked the mystery of his love. He told me about it as soon I returned to school in the fall. I was inquisitive, asking many probing particulars. Inquiring with way too many questions for such a delicate subject. Too many except for someone really, really interested in the details. He answered frankly, responding without grilling me on why I wanted to know. We were friends and we’d always been able to talk honestly about our feelings. He knew how seriously I took my Baptist upbringing. Maybe he was relieved that I wasn’t passing judgment.
Pete and I maintained our friendship during that second year. I credit him with opening the window on my own sexuality, even though he was unaware of it. It would be decades before I reconciled myself to reality and found the courage to open the door to greater integrity, so as to pass through it myself. But the start of it was our friendship and the peek he gave me of the bigger world beyond Martin College and Tennessee. His honesty with himself and with me would stick in my mind and prod my conscience for years to come.
And then came our graduation. Junior college was over. We were moving on. I headed south and Pete went north for further education. We lost touch. Later, after we’d reconnected, I learned that he’d legally changed his name. He’d converted to the Jewish faith from his family’s Pentecostal Christian tradition. He’d gone on to Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, to become a Registered Nurse. He’d found his partner in life, as I had mine. They’d lived in Illinois and Iowa and Palm Springs. He never went back to Tennessee, other than for the rare visit with family. Eventually, he became a university professor in the medical field. Throughout, he nurtured to the sick and those in need.
He seemed to have been given little in money, or cultural geography, or even sexual orientation that would jump-start a life of success. He and I had all that in common. But he made something of himself. And then he gave back to society with a level of compassion not shown to him by many early in his life. The best I have to give back are these memories of him. And to him, I give my admiration, my praise, and my love.
“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation,” according to Tennessee Williams. But the playwright also said, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” It was Pete who had the courage to contact me across that distance a few years ago, after finding me on Facebook. “In hopes,” he told me, of “accomplishin’ an endur(h)ing re-acquaintance.” He hadn’t retained that Southern accent; it was a joke at my expense, for I have stubbornly hung on to my twang. I must admit, I liked the gentle cajoling.
We had been out of touch for four decades. Those missing middle years matter little, as far as friendship goes—just as Tennessee Williams said. We’ve treasured the time we had together, starting with those formative, precious college days—the sunny salad days of our lives—and concluding with the diminishing days that are presently upon those of my generation—what I like to call the apple-pickin’ season. This is the season we make time to remember and be grateful for the twists and turns our lives have taken. We stand in the lengthening shadows, with ripened apple in hand. We feel the smooth texture and smell the shining skin, recalling the essence of the blossom it was just last spring. Then we take a bite and taste the sweetness that’s present within, finding again that joy we felt—way back when.
I’m sitting in my home office gazing out the window onto a small backyard made lush by raised flower and vegetable beds. Down South, we’d call this converted porch lacking heat and air conditioning a Florida room. Florida rooms aren’t ideal for the winters we get here in New Rochelle, New York, but they are great for displaying the fall harvest still on the vine. I arrived at this window on Eden last December by way of a decade-long stint in Brooklyn. Preceding my big-city experience, I had made a much longer stay among a few of Alabama’s hamlets and small cities, where I accumulated fond memories around college life and raising a child. Before Alabama, there was a rural landscape outside Nashville, Tennessee, where I was the child being raised.
My early life was mid-century, like the furniture. It was a simple life filled with the hard work of being a farmer’s son. We had a hundred-acre farmstead, but I was no Christopher Robin. Yes, there were opportunities to explore the wonders of the woods, but it was mostly a time of hard work. Of fighting for survival. That makes it more wonderful in memory, not less.
Our garden on that farm was huge. It had to be to sustain us. First, it would have to provide ample fresh food throughout the growing season. Then, paired with the miracle of canning, its bounty would need to get us through each barren Tennessee winter. The gated, woven wire fence on the perimeter kept back the competition—wild deer with a taste for tender shoots of all kinds. Those deer were relegated to munch on the more beautiful but less satisfying morning glories, all dripping with daybreak dew and sun dappled in their purples and blues and pinks and whites. Over the course of a summer, they’d weave their way up the wire mesh to stand atop the wooden posts and reach even higher for the sun. Looking back on it now, I see how that animated garden was much like a colorful scene from the Land of Oz.
However, the language we used that dealt with the garden was built on practicality. We didn’t just plant beans. Coming in many varieties, beans were a major staple, substituting for meat, except on Sundays. We first categorized them by characteristics based on their requirements and our needs. We planted stick beans that required tall poles to climb, and also colored half-runners that would sprawl only a limited distance on the ground, and thus not interfere with their neighboring plants’ needs for light and moisture. We sowed long rows of snap beans, string beans, purple-hulled butterbeans, and Crowder peas. We planted Rattlesnake beans, so called because of their curving purple streak in the hull. That’s the only encounter we ever hoped for with that word.
Then we added Russet potatoes and white sweet potatoes, yellow onions and white onions and scallions and radishes. We sowed all sorts of tomato seeds and cucumber seeds, bought in early spring from bulk storage at the Farmer’s Co-op. Seeds that were purchased only after being carefully apportioned by small scoop onto a flat sheet of paper for ritual inspection. After an approving nod of my father’s head, I’d watch as the salesman curled that paper into a funnel for depositing the approved seeds into small, brown packets.
We made room in our garden for straight and crooked yellow squash and flat white squash. We placed seeds in the moist soil at just the right depth and time to grow okra and lettuce and beets and turnips. We favored Hickory Cane sweet corn for the garden, which we purchased anew every year by seed kernel. Field corn, being less important as to quality, was saved on the cob from one year to the next by storing it in the barn’s corncrib. It was not as sweet or tender as the garden variety but it was cheaper and satisfactory for taking to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal for our bread. And, on the years when the crops were bad—from draught-induced or flooded out low yields, or blight or insect damage—it was still good enough to serve as feed for the cows. Always, the stripped cobs would go to the hogs. Nothing was wasted.
Is it any wonder that with so much work to be done in preparing the ground, planting, hoeing, weeding, picking, processing for canning, storing seeds over winter that I grew tired of the garden? I went off to college and suburbia, never looking back.
Never until now—this fall, in the fall of my life.
Leaving Brooklyn and the co-op lifestyle behind to rediscover the joys of a house in suburbia has meant also rediscovering the luxury of having a backyard. Sitting and enjoying the good weather with friends, sunning and napping on the deck, grilling outdoors, and simply admiring the ever changing view that flower and vegetable gardens provide—all this harkens back to my Tennessee childhood.
It’s a well-established literary concept that, in our youth, we often become restless and leave home in search of … something. Ourselves, maybe. What we learn on our personal odyssey, after many years filled with adventure and danger and boredom, is that we had all we needed back in our youth. Ask Dorothy. Oz was a nice place to visit, but there’s no place like home. I’ve tried it all, from rural to suburban to big city. And what feels like home? Home is where the garden is.
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the battle that led to Lincoln’s now-revered Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on November 19, 1863. It wasn’t well received. Here is a sample of the news of the day:
- The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances … of the President.
–The Chicago Times
- We pass over the silly remarks of the President.
–Patriot and Union (Harrisburg, PA)
- The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln … anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.
–The Times (London)
The main speaker was Edward Everett, a onetime president of Harvard and former governor of Massachusetts. He spoke for almost two-and-one-half hours. The New York Times devoted eight columns to Everett’s expansive remarks and only two inches of one column to Lincoln’s introspective utterances. Abraham Lincoln delivered his 272 words in four minutes.
What can we learn from this highlight of history and its continuing echoes? Time distills meaning, so we can recognize and appreciate that it’s often difficult to see the significance of—and be on the right side of—history as it’s made. My beloved Southland was on the wrong side of history in fighting for slavery during the Civil War. Now, that lesson could well be applied to the present battle over gay civil rights. Unfortunately, the South still seems not to have learned the lesson: Since we are made in God’s image, the Spirit of love, creativity and diversity is within the human spirit–and Spirit shall prevail.
Then, to focus on writing, I tell myself this: Let my appreciation for brevity grow: In good writing, less can be more. Elegance is a dance between brevity and clarity.
Carl Roosevelt Garland was born June 24, 1926, in Lawrence County, Tennessee, and died February 24, 2013, six weeks after a debilitating stroke. His official education was limited to eight years of schooling. A few years later, in July of 1950, he decided he needed to go where the jobs were, Detroit, finding work with the Hudson Motor Car Company at $1.53 per hour. Within months of moving, however, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. After receiving his basic training at Camp Polk, Louisiana, he was assigned to the Army’s Heavy Tank Division, with training at Fort Hood, Texas. The truce in the Korean Conflict came just weeks before his scheduled departure to the battlefront. The corporal was soon released from service and returned home to Tennessee, in 1952, to elope with his love interest, Ruby Lurline Self, a girl he’d known since childhood and with whom he had been corresponding since his move to the Motor City.
Carl Roosevelt Garland @ 1952
Exactly nine months after marrying, he and his new wife welcomed to the world their first son, Larry Ray Garland. Initially renting shelter in whatever structures became available in the community, the family moved among several dwellings across the north end of the county, sometimes sharing quarters and costs with one of his many siblings and their families. In 1956 he signed with a local bank to purchase a small farm—“107 acres, more or less,” as the deed read, contracting to make five annual installments of $500.00 each. Had any of those years included serious sickness, a flood, drought, blight, locust infestation, or other natural disaster, he would have lost his cash crop of cotton, and the farm would have been lost as well.
Soon after paying off the farm, he saw an opportunity. The Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company—a bicycle and pedal toys production business—relocated to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, the county seat, and he went to work there on the assembly line. It was during this period that he and his wife lost their only daughter, when the expectant mother slipped and fell on a wet “steppin’ stone”—a rock used at that time at the front door of simple country homes as a doorstep. Within a year thereafter, they celebrated the arrival of their second son, Allen Lee Garland.
One evening, near the end of a cold winter, while sitting around the wood stove for warmth in the dwelling to which they had moved without the luxury of plumbing or electricity, he took out a pad and pencil and drew up a basic house plan. That spring, he began digging the trenches and laying the cinder blocks for the foundation.
Work on the new house started and stopped throughout that year. This was necessary because he had to log trees from the woods of his farm and get them hauled to the sawmill for processing into lumber for the house. That was paid for “on the halves,” with the sawmill keeping half of the lumber as payment and the other half coming back to be used in the construction. Other delays came from waiting for money to be earned at the factory to purchase nails and other necessary building supplies.
Each morning, he’d arise before daylight, build a fire if needed, and head “to town” to work in the factory. That evening, he’d return to the farm and resume his construction project, hammering and sawing as long as the light held out. Once darkness fell, he’d climb atop his Farmall tractor and plow long rows of cotton stalks until almost midnight, arising the next day to do it all over again.
He stayed on that farm and within the house and home he’d built until well past his retirement from the factory job. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, by his older son who works for a global financial firm in New York while residing with his partner in New Rochelle, and by his younger son who is married and still lives in Lawrence County, Tennessee.
Carl Garland was interred at Macedonia Cemetery in Lawrence County, Tennessee, on February 27, 2013, following a Veteran’s sendoff with 15 shots fired into a cold sky on a wet and windy day. The empty shells and folded American flag were presented to his widow at graveside.
One of the great things about Chefs to Dine For dinners is that each event is so different. I’ve attended a number of these feasts and all have been relaxed evenings—until this one. The September 2012 occasion was an action-packed, delicious feast for the eyes and ears as well the nose and palate, but the clock was a dictator in this story. With much to take in, our dinner at Redeye Grill had to start early—and still it recessed quickly to accommodate a Broadway show about the life of Charlie Chaplin, aptly titled “Chaplin.” Thereafter it reconvened, with dinner guests rubbing elbows with members of the cast and Mindy Rich, the play’s producer from Rich Entertainment Group, over fine desserts and mixed drinks prepared by renowned mixologist Brian Van Flandern. Brian is author of the book “Vintage Cocktails,” and he created a drink just for this occasion: the “Going to the Chaplin” cocktail. From dinner, to show, to after-party, the evening advanced like a tightly choreographed production—a three-act play:
Redeye Grill, Manhattan Theatre District
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
(Redeye Grill, Midtown Manhattan in the Theatre District)
Guests gather, old friends reunite and new acquaintances are struck up over glasses of wine instantly offered and quickly accepted.
Dinner is served from a menu composed by Chef Brando de Oliveira—heirloom chicory and endive salad with goat cheese, choice of prime fillet mignon or butter-braised monkfish osso bucco, Jewish mashed potatoes and steamed spinach.
[Aside] The filet mignon wins Best in Class and the potatoes are To Die For.
Sliders, one of many appetizers
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Hostess Lynne Ryan reminds her guests that time and the rising curtain wait for no one. This compels diners to abbreviate the savoring of fine food and great conversation, and it obliges professional photographer Rodney Bedsole to curtail his photo-taking of guests wanting to preserve the memories.
(Transition from Redeye Grill to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in the heart of Broadway, where theatergoers are gathering to see the life story of comedian and cinema legend Charlie Chaplin)
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The air has a hint of early fall to it, making for an enjoyable walk (for the daring) between the Redeye Grill on Seventh Avenue at 56th Street and the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street. Finding their reserved orchestra seats, guests reassemble, exchange quick hellos, and settle in with only minutes to spare before the lights dim. Guests are wondering where their judgments will land, given the critics’ mixed reviews:
• Variety: “The most treacherous part of producing a biomusical about an iconic performer is finding an actor who can convincingly handle the role. The producers of “Chaplin” – this fall’s first Broadway offering – have passed that difficult test, with relative newcomer Rob McClure proving a small wonder as the Little Tramp.”
• The Chicago Tribune: “Despite an enigmatic, career-making performance from Rob McClure in the title role, an earnest turn from Wayne Alan Wilcox as his tag-along brother Sydney, and an engaging performance from Erin Mackey as Chaplin’s late-in-life love Oona, ‘Chaplin’ is a musical where the material is just not up to the complexity of its enigmatic subject.”
The musical reaches its single intermission without imparting that feeling of “will this never end?” Indeed, many are surprised: “So soon?” That’s always a good sign.
The show concludes to a standing ovation. Chefs to Dine For guests scurry out and turn back toward uptown and the waiting restaurant. Some are hungry again—and thirsty.
(Back at Redeye Grill, within its glass-enclosed mezzanine retreat)
Brian Van Flandern, mixologist
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Guests return to find a regiment of restaurant servers plying a wide array of hors d’oeuvre, a table displaying a mountain of tempting desserts, and a cash bar staffed, stocked, and ready for preparation of mixed drinks for the parched.
The “Going to the Chaplin” cocktail
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
In couples and in bunches, actors and cast members begin to appear. Hostess Lynne Ryan and producer Mindy Rich are standing at the bar, near the entrance at the top of the stairs. They are welcoming guests back and greeting cast members as they arrive. Guests are soon posing questions about acting or regarding the play itself. Special guest Bill McCuddy, an entertainment reporter who is a former host of TV’s Fox & Friends and a past writer for Saturday Night Live, seems to be a favorite that guests want to be photographed with—along with the cast of Chaplin, of course. Playbills are being autographed and this writer is not ashamed to be groveling for the signature of Wayne Alan Wilcox, who played the role of Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney. Unfortunately, the amazing Rob McClure—Mr. Chaplin himself (well, the Charlie Chaplin of this play)—was unable to attend.
[Aside] Mr. Wilcox and I both hail from the state of Tennessee, and I managed to extract the promise that he’d take my calls and grant an interview once he’s a world-famous actor. His credits include performances in The Normal Heart, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Suddenly Last Summer, The Light in the Piazza, and The Full Monty. His TV/Film appearances include Gilmore Girls and Law and Order.
Cast & Crew from Chaplin, pictured with Hostess Lynne Ryan (center right, black dress), Producer Mindy Rich (center right, white jacket & scarf), and Entertainment Reporter Bill McCuddy (back row, dark jacket & blue shirt)
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The hour is late and guests begin to depart, but they leave behind their reviews of the play. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive: “High energy,” “moving performance” and “well-structured with great flashbacks” are some of the phrases hanging in the air. “Of course,” someone says, “as happens in real life, that youth [Zachary Unger playing the role of Chaplin as a young child] stole many of the scenes.” It was Unger’s Broadway debut, but he has Off Broadway and film experience, as well as TV appearances that include Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street. Alas, this after-party was being held much too late for young master Zachary Unger’s attendance. Still, guests left the restaurant feeling delightfully entertained and well fed—thanks to Redeye Grill’s Chef Brando de Oliveira, to the attending cast and crew of Chaplin, and to the extraordinary talents of the event’s organizer—Lynne Ryan of Chefs to Dine For.
The dessert table
(Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
Here is my review of the Broadway production of “Chaplin”:
• Of the real-life Charlie Chaplin, with his flexing cane and distinctive gait, it could be said that he lived a brave and creative interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous words on diplomacy: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Starting with nothing, Chaplin applied his negotiating skills to the world, first for survival and then for mounting success—and the whole world still lauds his achievement.
Likewise, this production should be applauded for taking on the monumental task of portraying the life of the giant “Little Tramp” in such a fearless fashion. The play opens with Rob McClure—Chaplin—walking a tightrope high above the stage. He doesn’t fall down on the stage and he doesn’t fall down in his performance. The supporting actors are there for him and we, as an audience, are there for the whole cast. Long live the memories of, and praises for, Chaplin—the man and the show.
I give up. Give in. Surrender. Capitulate. Take your pick and whatever synonym you choose will be okay by me—as long as it truly is a synonym. To my woe, there is a certain pairing that people think are synonyms, yet they are not. As an English major and an editor for a global financial firm (the views expressed herein are my own), I have fought the good fight. Yet, at some point, a rational person may find it necessary to weigh the odds and, when appropriate, gracefully concede. This is my concession speech.
Language can change like shifting sands. (Photo by Larry Garland)
Most of us try to mind our “Ps” and “Qs,” and we have pet peeves about those who don’t. The peeve that I own and love to pet is a hairy little beauty: correct usage of “affected” versus “impacted.” My dictionary informs me that the thing most likely to be “impacted” is a bad tooth. Consequently, every time I hear someone say, “It impacted me horribly,” my teeth hurt. Impacted has a meaning that is practically literal: “packed or wedged in” says my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So where did this idea come from—the notion that “impacted” substitutes for “affected?”
I suspect people think impacted expresses a stronger sentiment. It doesn’t. If you told me a hurricane impacted someone’s life, I’d be apt to ask what item the wind slammed into the flesh of that unfortunate person. Granted, that’s a stronger image than affected, but that doesn’t mean it works as a substitute. Affected is a perfectly useful, clear and appropriate word. If you desire for it to be better outfitted, then feel free to dress it up: make it “very affected” or “highly affected” or even “sadly affected” if the shoe fits, but “impacted?” Really? That’s like putting an Easter bonnet on a kitten and perambulating it all around town. It’s cute when a child does it, but let’s be adults here.
Still, it’s maddening as to the sheer number of–supposedly well educated people who are suddenly feeling impacted by all sorts of things. Poor fellows, I hope they survive the surgery to remove the foreign objects. Even the elite are now falling prey. Today, I heard a former Secretary of State abuse that poor little word—I witnessed it happen right there on national television! Even some authors have skidded down that slippery slope. All this makes me wonder what a person who strives to write well—such as yours truly, though, admittedly, sometimes failing—is supposed to do?
It’s in vogue these days to blame government for most of our woes. With that meme in mind, there is another possible explanation as to why so many in this country now abuse this simple and defenseless little utterance. A secondary, acceptable usage of impacted, again according to Merriam-Webster, is this: “of, relating to, or being an area (as a school district) providing tax-supported services to a population having a large proportion of federal employees and esp. those living or working on tax-exempt federal property.” That’s a mouthful, so an example is offered: “aid to education in impacted areas.” Aha. “Impacted” not “affected” areas. Darn those federals. There they go again trying to corrupt us. They took an innocent little word and confused it. That overstepping of established boundaries and relentless push for ever-more power makes me want to rebel, to show the feds just how I feel. Show them my independence by hanging on to “affected” as traditionally used, just as the Almighty intended.
Careful—a slippery slope could be lurking anywhere. (Photo by Larry Garland)
Besides, I can’t let my peeve die. I can’t put down a dear pet. My love for the breed—look at all that personality—is just too great. Maybe it would help if I give it a playmate. Isn’t it wrong—or at least sad—to have it live all alone? There’s this breed called “latest” that I’ve thought about bringing into the fold. Note that’s not the “very latest,” since there can be nothing later than the latest. “Very latest” developments, for example, are as rare as unicorns. News reporters claim to spot them all the time, yet we know they are only mythological creatures. Latest is latest; that’s what being a superlative means.
It feels good to know I’ll finally have a pair of pet peeves to keep each other company. Sorry, but I withdraw my concession.
Where's the Beef? (Photo by Larry Garland)
The New York Times, on Jan. 30, 2008, called “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks” “something of a Rosetta stone among fans of old New York and carnivorous foodies.” That classic piece is a 1939 New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell. It begins, “The New York State steak dinner, or “beefsteak,” is a form of gluttony as stylized and regional as the riverbank fish fry, the hot-rock clambake, or the Texas barbeque.”
But what is it, really, and why does New Jersey also claim title to it?
Beefsteaks began in New York in the late 1800s as boisterous, community-based mass feeding events. They held sway in New York for the better part of a century before their decline. They were often political in nature—think Tammany Hall—even though political speeches were verboten. They featured unlimited servings of steak, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped lamb kidneys, shrimp, crabmeat and beer. They were also conspicuous in what they didn’t feature: the niceties of silverware, napkins or women.
Repeal of this latter item, the absence of women, contributed to the demise of beefsteaks. Women’s suffrage teamed up with prohibition to deal a one-two punch. What fun is a public dinner without alcohol? Also, once women were invited, they began requesting such unmanly dishes as pastas and other foods not traditionally served. Remember, too, that the dinners were tools of the Tammany political machine, labor unions and fraternal organizations. As they declined, so did the beefsteaks. Still, the tradition has never entirely died out.
Chef Waldy Malouf has hosted an annual beefsteak dinner at his midtown restaurant, Beacon, for the past dozen years. He believes the truth behind the beefsteak falling out of favor in New York is even deeper, saying, “I think that’s because the beefsteak is a very community-based thing, and today’s New Yorkers don’t always have a very strong sense of community. And as Manhattan eventually got more sophisticated and less blue-collar, the beefsteak may have become frowned upon here.”
This thinking leads us back to New Jersey. As beefsteaks were waning in New York, there was a burgeoning interest in New Jersey. Their version of the beefsteak harkens back to 1938 when Garret Nightingale—a Clifton, New Jersey, butcher and grocer—started catering parties that followed a set formula: Take tenderloins, grill them over charcoal, and then dip slices of the meat in melted butter. Serve the slices over white sandwich bread and call them beefsteaks.
Perhaps we should say that the beefsteak was born in New York and reborn in New Jersey, where it has become a showcase of local produce. In New York, it was always thought of as primarily a social gathering. The long late Nightingale also thought he knew why there was a decline just after women got the vote. As quoted in The New York Times: “A man isn’t inclined to eat as much if his wife or girlfriend is watching. After their 15th or 18th slice, she kind of gives him the look and makes him stop.” Nightingale Catering has now been in the family for four or five generations—and they are still serving their New Jersey version of the beefsteak.
Which brings us back to the present. It’s time to stop with the history lesson and start with the steaks. Where’s my first one?
If your curiosity is piqued and you think you may be interested in attending a New York beefsteak, one complete with the old traditions, there is an upcoming March 4, 2012, beefsteak that should satiate your curiosity as well as your hunger. For more information or to make a reservation, click here or go to the following business website: chefstodinefor.com. To get a sense of what a Chefs to Dine For event is like, read “An Ocean of Fun at Oceana,” on Rodney Bedsole’s blog, shoot&eat.
RULES OF THE ROAD
No napkins. (That’s the purpose of aprons.)
No silverware. (Okay, you can fudge on this but we don’t recommend such unnecessary tools.)
No lack of a butcher’s hat. (Maybe it will be your first step toward donning a toque one day.)
No limits as to 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths … (In helpings, of course.)
No need to be courteous. (Grab for that last steak on the platter; it’s yours.)
No shyness allowed. (This is simply neither the place nor the time for it.)
No political speeches allowed. (However, sterling conversation is encouraged.)
No not allowing women. (Contorted language, yes, but see the article above.)
No reserved seating. (Original beefsteaks furnished old wooden crates, so you’ve got it good.)
No, bread isn’t just for eating. (It’s for soaking up grease, so feel free to stack it or eat it.)
I just spent an intensive weekend with the CIA. That’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency. So, to clarify further, I was in Hyde Park, NY, rather than Langley, VA, and I was happy to be present at the CIA where the food may be grilled but the “guests” are not. My partner, Rodney Bedsole, a food photographer and blogger, was invited to a culinary competition as a VIP, courtesy of KitchenAid, and I went along for the ride and, as a writer, to broaden my experiences. What a ride it turned out to be; the weekend was amazing. I make no claims to being a chef or even a decent cook, but I do appreciate good food and know the basics. Which is why a certain incident was all the more embarrassing—but more about that later.
Plated and ready for consumption (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The contest was the Bocuse d’Or USA 2012 competition, and it was as exciting and as much of a ruckus—complete with cowbells—as any sporting event I’ve ever attended. The tools of the trade included what seemed like tons of arcane kitchen paraphernalia and products, from All-Clad and KitchenAid equipment to Bragard chef coats and Bridor artesian breads. More than a dash of French peppered the air in the event hall, seasoning the spoken English. Added to that was a generous helping of food-related argot, presumably in English, that I’m still trying to decipher.
Never did I detect any sense of condescension or feel left out. And about that French—the event is named for Chef Paul Bocuse, who, along with GL events, “created the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in 1987 in order to broaden the public’s understanding of the extraordinary dedication, hard work, practice and precision required to execute the very finest cuisine.” Sixty national selections get chopped down to 24 countries that make the final cut. The United States 2012 preliminary event determined the U.S. winner for the upcoming 2013 world competition. It was hosted on the Hyde Park CIA campus on January 27 and 28. The apex event is held every two years in Lyon, France.
Three internationally renowned chefs preside over the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, the organization responsible for U.S. participation. Thomas Keller, Chef /Owner of New York’s Per Se and The French Laundry of Napa Valley fame, is president of the Foundation. Daniel Boulud, Chef/Owner of New York City’s Daniel, among other great restaurants, is chairman. The foundation’s mission statement says it aims “to build a sustainable community of young American chefs who are knowledgeable and confident in their career pursuits and will be life-long ambassadors of quality and excellence in the world of gastronomy.” The foundation backs up those words with educational scholarships and internships, as well as through access to their Culinary Council consisting of established professionals.
What is now the main campus of a worldwide enterprise—the CIA—has its roots in New Haven, CT, from where it moved in 1972 to accommodate a burgeoning enrollment. I found the Hyde Park campus to be lovely, even here in the depths of winter, hugging as it does a rolling, wooded bank of the Hudson River. Today’s expansive main campus is a 170-acre tract that incorporates the former Jesuit novitiate (seminary) St. Andrew-on-Hudson. And it looks the part of a distinguished, if smallish, university. The Hyde Park institution offers bachelors-level degrees on grounds with facilities comprising 41 kitchens and bakeshops, five public restaurants, lecture halls, demonstration theaters, computer labs and a grand culinary library. Most students—80%—live on campus. The alumni network is 43,000 strong. Dr. Tim Ryan, a 1977 graduate and president of the CIA, says, “Food is our passion and hospitality our way of life.” I experienced both—passion through the great food, and hospitality of the people during my visit. I have two examples to share.
The first example—and now we revisit that embarrassing incident that I referenced earlier—came from an encounter I had with Chef Thomas Keller. One of the many tables exhibiting exquisite foods prepared and served by students experienced a lull in attendance. I moved into line just as Chef Keller chose to do the same. Each of us tried to defer to the other, but he insisted that I go first.
Chef Thomas Keller (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
No, no. You first, Chef,” he said cheerfully.
I was awestruck and too tongue-tied to correct him. Besides, who corrects a world-renowned chef on anything? I grabbed a plate and proceeded to make a few selections from the meats, cheeses, dips, and breads. I topped off my masterpiece with two falafels shaped like large coins.
“What’s that?” he asked me good-naturedly, apparently not expecting to see falafels in that form.
Although I love the fare and I’d had falafels many times since moving to New York City, consider that a word like falafels doesn’t just roll off the tongue of a Southern boy. This turned out to be especially true as I stood there dumbfounded—and I’m afraid that on this occasion Chef Keller indeed must have found me dumb. I answered haltingly, mispronouncing the word by accenting the final syllable so as to say, “fa-fel-ELs.”
“Pardon?” he inquired, leaning closer to hear me over the chattering, the cheering, and the cowbelling of the current competitive heat. I tried again, “fa-fa-ELs.” Sadly, wrong again.
Falafels, the discs of my undoing (Photo by Larry Garland)
“Fa-LA-fels” inserted the server with a gentle smile and, thankfully, no hint of sarcasm.
I took my charcuterie and my goats’ cheese and my flatbread and my falafels and headed for a quiet corner to lick my wounds and my plate. My fiasco not withstanding, that man—that exquisite chef—has real presence. He cares and I felt it. He’s genuine.
Which leads me to my second example of true hospitality. I learned that Dr. Ryan’s wife, who is also a CIA alumnus, was at the event and that she is from Alabama, near Birmingham. My partner is from nearby Huntsville, AL, and I lived there for many years prior to moving to New York. We had to meet her. Walking to the area where we’d been told she was observing the contest, I scanned the crowd and spied someone I thought looked the part—a lovely, golden-haired lady standing by and chatting confidently among a group of people. After confirming with a server that I’d selected the right person, I politely made introductions.
“Hi. I’m Larry. This is Georgia and Rodney. Georgia is not from Georgia, but Rodney’s from Alabama, and I’m from Tennessee. We hear you are from Alabama, as well, so we had to meet you.”
I found Lynne Ryan to be open and as charming as any Southern lady could hope to be. We had a great conversation around food, food blogging, and her business enterprise, Chefs to Dine For.
Now, the envelope please.
Judging (Photo by Rodney Bedsole)
The four contestants and their commis (assistant) who competed for the honor of representing the United States at the Bocuse d’Or Lyons 2013 competition were (in order of final standings):
- FIRST PLACE – GOLD
Richard Rosendale, one proud chef (Photo by Rodney Bedsloe)
Richard Rosendale, The Greenbrier, Executive Chef, White Sulphur Springs, WV
Commis: Corey Siegel, The Greenbrier, Jr. Apprentice
Jeffrey Lizotte, ON20, Chef de Cuisine, Hartford, CT
Commis: Kevin Curley, Cornell Hotel School, Student
William Bradley, Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Instructor, Southboro, MA
Commis: James Haibach, Le Cordon Bleu, Graduate
Danny Cerqueda, Carolina Country Club, Executive Sous Chef, Raleigh, NC
Commis: Marianne Elyse Warrick, Johnson & Wales, Student
“Write what you know” has been the mantra of good writing almost forever. But does it stand up to scrutiny? It does not, argues Bret Anthony Johnston within the pages of the current issue of Atlantic Magazine—the Fiction Issue. Writing what you know, he says, is “writing to explain, not to discover,” and it negates the “opportunity for wonder.”
From whence comes a good idea? How can I cause it to blossom once it springs forth? (Photo by Larry Garland}
To wonder can mean to question, think or speculate. But it also means to marvel at, to be awestruck by or to be amazed with something newly learned. The probing wonder, the kind that prods the mind and causes it to explore the unknown, leads to the exhilarating wonder, which manifests as the joy of discovery. When the energy that a writer puts into a journey triggers adrenaline that then moves like magic into the joy of discovery, how could that joy not be transferred to the reader? The characters may be real or fictional. Their lives could be lived well or recklessly. Either way, we are pulled in. They get to us with their inspiring example or by their bad-boy antics. It is like some disease we can’t—then don’t want—to resist. Our blood boils with fever at their machinations, and we thirst for what’s still to come.
This is why no one wants a good story to end. We want to dwell in the story, to be part of the progression as it unfolds from a myriad of possibilities—for from possibilities we mine the wonder. A good writer will not attempt to corral the story, for she knows its wild spirit cannot survive if confined by the borders of her experience. It has its own life to live, and so, a good writer lets it go. This frees writers from worry that their life experiences might be less interesting than those of others. We are drawn to the mystery of what we don’t know. As readers, we are likely to have little interest in hearing the writer tell what he knows about his life—and a great deal of curiosity about the unknowns the writer explores as we go along for the ride. The human condition is a callout to curiosity, and intersecting somewhere down that curving path runs the road to great writing.
Good writers don’t recite lessons they’ve learned. They hunt for answers. They chase their illusive unknowns, and the appeal is in the thrill of the chase. Make the reader a member of the hunting party. The sweat of active participation—how that rivulet feels running down your back, the musty smell of the horse’s hair matted underneath you, the foam from your steed’s mouth flying in the wind—all these details come from the writer’s experience and make the story real through their affect on your characters. Knowledge is the backdrop, the foundation, the supporting structure, and even the sensibility for what comes next. It is the probing-stick that we use to explore the unknown. But too often it also becomes the crutch we depend on. We think the details are the story, so we stop there, and that kills the story. Details are not the story.
Good fiction writing is not storytelling in the sense of detailing what happened, no matter how beautifully we describe a scene. Good writing gives us a peek into what could happen. Experience is not the critical ingredient—wonder is. Good writers learn to let go, for the author does not tell the story so much as the protagonist lives it. As Johnston says in his superb essay, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things. Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.” Read Johnston’s excellent take on all this here: http://bit.ly/oe6XLx.
Famed writer Grace Paley wrote a wonderful short story called “Mother.” And I do mean short—420 words. Words made exquisite by their eloquence. The thing about eloquence is that it’s so elegant. And elegance means distilled into perfect beauty.
The story starts out this way:
“One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: ‘Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway.’ By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway.”
Grace Paley was born in the Bronx to Ukrainian emigrant parents. I’m a Southern-born writer living in Brooklyn. We have nothing in common. And everything. I understand her emotional reaction to that song. The song of life and death. A dirge lamenting the passing of time and people.
My mother, circa 1952
Her mother was already gone; mine is going. Slowly walking away from me, arm in arm with Alzheimer’s. We now live a thousand miles apart—her life is in Tennessee and mine is in the great City. More than miles, though, we are years apart from the time she stood young and vibrant in doorways as she watched over me. These things we remember of those we love: A stance, a look, a melodious phrase reserved just for us. “My Sonny Boy,” is what Momma calls me still. But for how much longer?
Stand in a doorway. That’s the prime advice for surviving an earthquake if you are caught indoors when the swaying begins. Do mothers instinctively stand in doorways because they feel their world crumbling and sense the danger?
Grace Paley heard a song on the radio and immediately identified with the artist’s theme. So do I. Her sense of longing for a mother now gone and the writer’s ensuing strength of emotion—“By God!”—I get it. I make the same connection. I feel it. We all must live it.
This is the joy of the human condition: We each inhabit our own island; but when an item that is human-made washes up on our shore, we are pulled to it. We are destined to pick it up. We trace its shape with our fingers. Feeling its smoothness. Marveling at its rounded curves and abrupt edges. Focusing on its rougher spots. Reveling at its creative design. Wondering if we could do better. Thinking. Learning. Growing.
This is what a human is: We think, learn, grow; therefore, we are. Change, evermore. It is the necessary human component. Necessary, but, oh! How it hurts.