Reading Together Blog
I just wanted to thank y’all for everything.
It was a good night.
Thank you for making it so, and for not only making it a great reading, but a visit to a place I will always appreciate.
What a delight to receive this nice note from Rick Bragg. Honestly, he’s the one to be thanked.
When does an audience of 700-some people seem intimate? When you have Rick Bragg at the podium.
His books read as if he’s telling you a story at the dinner table. It’s the same when you see him on stage or in person. Rick Bragg talks like he writes. He writes like he talks.
On April 14, he spent close to two hours reading from his memoirs, telling stories and answering questions for an audience that would have been happy to sit there for another two hours. They gave him a standing ovation.
As he walked to the book-signing table, Rick said this was the part he liked best — meeting people and autographing their books. There was a long line of enthusiastic people, and Rick said he was energized. He sat down and commenced to visiting with his fans, looking each one in the eye, putting exactly the right name in each book, thanking them for coming.
We left full and satisfied, yet still wanting more.
Rick, you are always welcome in Kalamazoo. Come back and see us.
Rick Bragg in Kalamazoo
In All Over but the Shoutin’, there is a colorful and appetizing passage about a church’s “dinner on the grounds,” a meal served outdoors, often near the graveyard. There are scores of food references throughout that book. The second time I read Shoutin’ I wrote down every dish or ingredient on a separate sheet of paper. Purple hull peas, cornbread, barbecue, Grapicola, biscuits. It makes me hungry just to read that list.
We concluded this season of Reading Together with a community potluck on April 16. There in the dining room at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, we feasted on such tasty offerings as bean soup, lentil salad, black bean salad, cheesy potatoes, tater tot casserole, cornbread, whole wheat rolls, pineapple pie, cookies, fruit, chocolate cake.
It was a feast of home-cooked dishes and good conversation. We talked about Rick Bragg’s books, and how much we enjoyed his presentation on April 14. We talked about the food itself, sharing recipes and techniques, confiding our kitchen weaknesses and disasters.
Bringing a dish to pass says, “I am offering who I am. This food represents me, but it also represents my family and my family’s family, our values, our traditions, where we are in life right now and where we’ve been.” And so a potluck becomes an exchange of food, history and thought — storytelling. The conversation of food and stories turns strangers into friends. It builds a community.
What a delightful evening we had with Rick Bragg at Kalamazoo Central Auditorium last night. It was great to see so many of you who were as enthused about his visit as we’ve been.
I’ll be posting more thoughts about his presentation later, and we’ll get photos added as soon as possible.
If you attended the event, let us know what you thought. Post a comment to the blog, or Contact Reading Together.
Rick Bragg says he “grew up at the knee of front-porch talkers, of peole who could tell a story and make you believe you had been there, right there, in the path of the bullet or the train, in the warm arms of a new mother, in the teeth of a mean dog. The men, sometimes dog drunk, sometimes flush with religion but always alight with the power of words, could make you feel the breath of the arching blade as it hisssssed past their face on the beer joint floor, could make you taste the blood in your mouth from the fist that had smashed into their own, could make you hear the loose change in the deputy’s pocket as he ran, reaching for them, just steps behind.”
“The women in my world, aunts and cousins and grandmas and a girlfriend or two, could telegraph straight to your brain the beauty of babies you never touched, songs you never heard, loves you never felt. They could make you cry about a funeral you never saw, make you mourn for a man you had never even met. ... They had a gift, one the rest of us who aspire to be storytellers can only borrow. ”
Rick Bragg has the gift for telling stories. His trilogy of memoirs has enabled readers to walk the blacktops of rural Alabama and get to know him and his people. Now we have the fine pleasure of hearing stories in the writer’s own voice. Please join us on April 14 and welcome Rick Bragg to Kalamazoo.
Mark Sahlgren treated us to a wonderful concert on March 11, including a display of his collection of vintage Gibson guitars. Mark was joined by two beautiful singers: his Grassroots co-host Lorrain Caron, and his daughter Darcy Willis, of Cornfed Girls.
When we were planning Reading Together activities, we wanted to be sure that there was a concert of music with a Southern accent. One cannot form a complete picture of Rick Bragg’s rural South without a soundtrack. After all, there is a reason they call it country music.
The South’s relative isolation allowed cultural traditions of its settlers to remain alive. What did immigrants bring with them? Maybe a fiddle or guitar — or maybe only words and melodies remembered and rehearsed and handed down. That’s a challenge in any case, but for instrumental music, even more so. How did the fiddler avoid mixing up one waltz with another? The guitar accompanist likely learned chord changes without ever knowing what guitar tablature looked like. (There was little formal training except perhaps at the hand of the Baptist preacher’s wife who also taught piano lessons and made sure every girl learned how accompany hymns.)
And that guitar might have been a cheaply made instrument bought from a Sears Roebuck catalog, or Montgomery Ward. On such instruments, the strings were so far from the fretboard that the new musician had to endure a painful ordeal until thick callouses were developed on the fingertips. Most people hadn’t played finely made expensive instruments and thus no one knew it could be better. Life was hard. Why wouldn’t there be a trial to achieve moments of pleasure?
Many of the songs from the South are about hardship. You can’t think about hardships without also thinking about faith and religion. In Chapter 9 of All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg recalls the influence of religion and retells some of his churchgoing experiences. He titles that chapter On the Wings of a Great Speckled Bird. That line is from what may be one of the greatest songs of country music, “The Great Speckled Bird.”
What a beautiful thought I am thinking,
Concerning a great speckled bird.
Remember her name is recorded,
On the pages of God’s Holy Word.
The words of this gospel song are attributed to Rev Guy Smith. Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the song is about remaining righteous amidst the trials of life. The phrase “great speckled bird” comes from a Bible passage, Jer 12:8-9. (For more about the meaning of the song, here’s an interesting discussion.)
I know people have ridiculed country music because of its bounty of songs about hardship, particularly drinking and infidelity. I guess there’s a reason for the stereotypes. Likker, relationships and religion were not insignificant themes.
And that’s why “The Great Speckled Bird” is so emblematic of country music. The irony is that its melody is shared by a song from the 1920s, “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” The same melody was later used in the 1952 country hit “The Wild Side of Life,” sung by Hank Thompson (about a wife that strays) and the loud retort from Kitty Wells: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Mark Sahlgren's Gibson guitars
Just as there is no singular recipe for Southern fried chicken, there is no definitive way to make cornbread. The other night, I had the pleasure of talking about this beloved bread to a group of enthusiastic tasters here at the library. It was fun to comb through cookbooks and Internet postings to find recipes, and even more fun to bake and share the results.
Cornbread is truly an American dish because its source is a grain native to the Americas. Native Americans mixed cornmeal and water into little cakes that were baked in ashes.
Enter the Scots-Irish immigrants and other “backcountry borderland” people (read Albion’s Seed) who headed for the hills of Appalachia and the South more than any other area. They were accustomed to oats. Porridge, oatcakes, scones. Oats like the cooler weather across the pond. The New World’s native corn grew better and — as I would imagine — was a whole lot easier to harvest than oats. The settlers adapted and adopted. It’s easy to see how the Scotsman’s oatmeal porridge became the Southerner’s grits. And it’s not too farfetched to imagine oatcakes and scones becoming little cakes of cornbread.
While cornbread can be found on tables throughout the United States, it reigns supreme in the South. It probably got a good start and took hold because wheat flour was not as readily available until after 1860 (according to A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge).
While there’s no one perfect cornbread recipe, there is a regional difference. In the North, cornbread tends to be sweet and light — by light I mean it contains a high amount of flour. Northern cornbread calls for varying amounts of sugar. And here in the Midwest, honey is the expected partner to cornbread.
On the other hand, Southern bread is heavier and a bit more sturdy. Southern cornbread contains mostly cornmeal and it isn’t sweet. I say “tends” because you can find exceptions for every rule. Southerners do like their sugar. Southern cornbread will have a crispier crust, owing to the use of cast iron skillets, precious implements often passed from one generation to the next. The technique of heating a cast iron skillet until the batter sizzles helps the bread achieve that characteristic crispy-to-crunchy crust. More unique to the South is hot water bread — little cakes fried in hot oil. The batter is moistened with boiling water instead of milk.
In the South, cornbread hot and buttered is a necessary accompaniment to the main course. It’s used to soak up “pot likker” from a mess of greens or to shove the remaining purple hull peas onto one’s fork. Leftover cornbread gets dry and crumbly, so fresh bread is often made at each meal. Nothing’s wasted, though. Leftover bread is often crumbled into a tall glass to which buttermilk or plain milk is added. This makes a fine supper or snack.
What I make at home is most definitely Southern cornbread and I have two hand-me-down cast iron skillets and one cast iron griddle, all beautifully blackened from years of use. But like those settlers who had to adapt to their new home, I’ve learned to make do with Midwestern cornbread. If it’s offered to me, I will take a piece and say “thank you.” But I will pass on the honey.