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I Know What I Know

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January 2016

The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Virgil Caine

Last summer, when my baby daughter was only about a month old, I (breaking all the rules I had sworn by before she was born) used to watch TV while I was feeding her. To be fair, judgy moms, I had the sound off and the closed captioning on. One morning she was fussing, so I tried to soothe her by singing. Also, feel free to judge me on this one, but I get pretty tired of singing repetitive children’s songs, and there are only a few other songs I know the words to. These include “Girls’ School” by Rasputina, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by the Band. I went with “Dixie” that morning, and no sooner had I begun to sweetly croon it to my little one that the TV cut to footage of the Confederate flag being removed from the South Carolina State House. 

As it should be, of course — in the wake of the recent Charleston church shooting I had formed the opinion that the flag had no place on that building, and that no matter what folks say about heritage, you have to come to terms with the fact that a large number of people find the image intimidating and racist. The swastika didn’t start off as a Nazi symbol, but Hitler went and ruined it for everyone, so… yeah. The flag should come down. But what did it mean that I was singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to my daughter at the same time I was celebrating the lowering of the flag?

In short, is it racist to like that song? Should I not be singing it to my daughter?

You can look at the lyrics here, and read a wonderful pile of interpretations here. I’ve read most of the page and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I enjoy the song. I think that it doesn’t so much say that “the South will rise again” or glorify the Confederacy as much as it shows how the average person can be ground up in the slaughterhouse of other men’s wars. We seem to gather up our working class boys and send them off to fight battles dreamed up by Ivy leaguers. I don’t think the Caine family owned slaves. I think they were poor before the war started, and they were destitute when it was over. These were not the O’Haras, people. It makes you think about the toll shared by the whole family of those who engage in military conflict and gives a Yankee pause to understand that not all of the Rebs were %100 pure evil in any sense of the word. I like how the article compares the song to The Red Badge of Courage, and I could see how the Band would have found this narrative similar in a way to the war in Vietnam.

I think it’s interesting the song was covered by Joan Baez, known for her interpretations of others’ songs. As a civil rights activist, if the song was racist, would she sing it? Or in singing it, was she reclaiming it, challenging it, much like Tori Amos did when she made Strange Little Girls?

As for my daughter, well, I think I may stop singing it to her, because I’m not comfortable answering her questions about it. “Yes, honey, I’m singing about the sadness of the Caine family brought about by the Yankees, but they were actually the good guys, but there were economic factors that most people don’t consider when vilifying the South…” etc. etc.

I will continue to enjoy it in private, because I have a serious thing for sad, rustic-sounding songs. That’s the only way I can classify them; I’m not sure if they’re folk, country, bluegrass, or what, but I just adore sad rustic songs, and this one is the penultimate.

When Alyssa is old enough, I’ll explain it to her, I promise.

Soup Weather

When I was a kid, it seems like we ate a lot of soup.

I remember chili, white chili, split-pea soup, and beef and barley stew, specifically. I think my mom Jan served us soup because it was easy to make ahead, and when you’re a working mom it’s a hell of a great feeling to know that dinner’s already done and waiting for you at home (with a short jaunt in the microwave, of course). It’s also very cost effective, and can be a healthy choice for feeding your family. And I suppose it goes without saying that when it’s really, really cold out, there’s nothing like a good bowl of soup.

Beware, you CAN “over-soup” yourself — I’ve found this out the hard way. There were some nights coming home to family supper and finding it was “leftovers night” and all you had to choose from was soup was sometimes a downer. Also when working my way through sections of cookbooks or finding a cache of recipes to try I suddenly realize “holy crap, I’m serving my family and friends waaaaaay too much soup!” Don’t be that guy/gal.

(On the other hand, you can bond over soup with someone you love.)

Well, with this current arctic blast sawing at us I thought I’d share my thoughts on… yeah, soup. Wow, this is a blog post for the archives, isn’t it?

Tonight we’re having bean and ham soup. In an effort to cut down on kitchen waste (inspired in part by an episode of Home of the Brave where Scott Carrier recorded a cooking session with his son, who was very focused on not wasting anything and found a lot of inventive uses for kitchen scraps) I began making soups with bones and creating my own broth. My husband is a big meat eater, so we often have bird carcasses, turkey necks, and ham bones on hand that would otherwise be thrown away.

For tonight’s meal, I took a spiral ham bone out of the freezer (with leftover meat attached) and tossed it in a big pot with water about 2/3 of the way full. To this, I added 16 oz navy beans. This is the base for thousands of variations — you can switch up the type of beans and the veggies you add, but I’ll give you the basic recipe and let you go from there.

Boil the bone and the beans in the water for about two hours. Then add one cup chopped celery and about 4 chopped carrots. Add some salt and pepper and cook for another hour or so. Strip what meat you can from the bone, and toss the bone. Be careful to remove any bone shards or big bits of fat. And voila, you have ham and bean soup.

Adding potatoes about 20 minutes before taking the soup from the stove is also really good, but again you can do dozens of combinations. Tonight I’m making the basic recipe, but towards the end I’m adding some kale and sweet potatoes. (I tried to ribbonize my sweets with that veggie spaghetti maker they show on TV, but it’s pretty much a hunk of junk and a beast to clean, so I gave up and just chopped up the rest).

Every time you have a ham, SAVE THE BONE! Hell, if you aren’t going to use it, send it my way!

I make my own chicken and turkey broth from the carved carcass of the bird by putting it in a pot, filling the pot with water about 2/3 of the way up, and adding some of that “kitchen waste” that Scott’s son was so good at getting rid of. Carrot tops, onion peelings, sketchy garlic, and the leaves of celery stalks are great. Toss in a little salt, and some peppercorns. I also put in some onion powder and garlic powder. Simmer it a couple of hours, then toss the carcass in the garbage, and strain the broth into a bowl. Let it cool and you can freeze it for next time you need broth.

It’s much more flavorful than store-bought broth, and you made it out of garbage you were going to throw away anyway! You can control the salt content for health’s sake. I recently made some cornish game hen broth that was a great addition to other recipes. If it has bones, it can be made into broth!

Also, don’t throw away the turkey neck! There are a lot of great Southern recipes that you can use it for, as well as obviously using it to make broth.

Take a turkey neck, put a little oil at the bottom of a big pot, and brown it on both sides. Put about two inches of water over it, and add some creole spices. Cook the neck until it starts to fall apart and you have a thick, rich, spicy broth. Remove the neck and pull the bones out, and then return the meat to the broth if you wish (if it’s too much work, discard). Then, use the broth to cook your collard greens. You can serve this over rice or quinoa if you choose.

Well, it’s about time for me to go add in the vegetables. Happy souping!

 

 

 

Meeting Tim Johnston

I’ve always been really weird about meeting famous people. I think it all started when I was a kid — Beverly Cleary, one of my favorite authors, came to speak at Cornell College. My mom took me and a couple of my friends to see her. We were in elementary school; in my memory, I feel like it was a talk geared for adults. We sat in the balcony of a lecture hall and I think we were pretty noisy because, frankly, we were bored. After the talk was over we ran downstairs with our Ramona books to have her sign them. She dismissed us curtly and walked away.

Yeah, we were pretty annoying, I’m sure, but I think I was about seven years old and I didn’t understand that this talk wasn’t meant for kids. BC, that was uncool.

Ever since, I have been afraid of encountering anyone I idolize or is even vaguely famous.  I almost peed my pants when I saw Lyle Lovett on a plane. It took an extraordinary amount of courage for me to talk to Tom Harkin one time, and I only pretended to be disappointed when I couldn’t get Hilary’s attention to have her sign my copy of her book (this was at the last Harkin Steak Fry). I won’t even go talk to actors after local theater productions. Is it fear of rejection? Saying the wrong thing? I don’t know, but I’m way more content letting famous people live in my mind and never encountering them in the real world.

Imagine my surprise when my parents told me that a famous writer was coming to our Rose Bowl party this weekend! One of my dad’s friends is his brother. I had never heard of Tim Johnston, but a quick google search got me all clammy. This guy is a New York Times bestselling author. Legit. The real deal. He won the O. Henry Award, among others. He has the life that I’m working for. I fantasize every day about reading the words “New York Times bestselling author Amelia Kibbie.”

Tim has written three books, and his most recent, Descent, is the one everyone’s reading. The reviews make it sound awesome. I’ve ordered my copy but haven’t read it yet. I strongly urge you to buy a copy and read it yourself. One reviewer described it as Gillian Flynn meets John Irving. I just saw “The World According to Garp” this weekend so I am all about the John Irving right now. I can’t wait to read it!

Anyway, so I met Tim Johnston. I actually was the only one in the kitchen when he knocked on the front door. I knew it was him because I recognized him from his picture. My brain exploded quietly between my ears, but a quiet internal voice said, “Amelia, just be cool, for God’s sake.”

And I think I was pretty cool, actually. It was easy because Tim was very much a nice, regular gentleman much like many of my parents’ friends. Together we suffered through an agonizing Hawkeye defeat. I kept sneaking little glances over at him and thinking, “What is this guy’s life like? How does it feel to walk through a stranger’s house and see not one but two copies of your book sitting out waiting to be signed?”

I keep thinking that the second I find out I have an agent, I’m going to collapse on my bed and just scream for joy. And then do the same thing when I get my book deal. The future after that is just like the end of a fairy tale, a vague “happily ever after” where I am a real, legitimate, for serious AUTHOR LADY who can actually say, “I’m a writer.” But Tim was just a gracious, nice, regular person who ate snacks and watched a football game with my crazy friends and family. How much does getting your biggest wish really change your life and who you are?

That is a question I really wanted to ask him, but I didn’t, because I was too scared to ask him any questions. Some good ones would have been: “How did you get an agent? What is your life like now? Did you get to quit your day job? Do you get recognized? How has this experience changed your life? What advice do you have for someone who wants to live a life like yours? When did you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer and not labelling yourself as whatever you do to pay the bills?”

Well, we are Facebook friends now, so maybe someday I’ll get to ask! Be cool, Amelia, be cool.

Please go buy and enjoy Tim’s book. I have ordered my copy and it’s on the way. Don’t share books by local folks, go buy a copy and support them. Very few things in the world make me as happy as seeing an Iowan become wildly successful on a national or international level. We need to support the people who make our state proud and spread the Iowa love!

 

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