All The Fixin’s: Shrimp Creole

This week’s recipe was cooked under trying circumstances, dear readers. For starters, the day was sweltering. Zelda’s normally lovely flat was invaded by flies too big to be discussed here without shuddering. Her air conditioning struggled to battle the monstrous heat. It was, to be frank, not pretty, and we were all on edge. But we soldiered on, for we had a mission: to cook the delicious, spicy tomato and shrimp stew known as Shrimp Creole. Welcome to All the Fixin’s.

Shrimp creole is a family favorite in Zelda’s house, although the version her mama makes is an improvised simplification. This here is the real deal: slow-cooked sauce with a Holy Trinity base (for those of you not in the know, the Holy Trinity of Cajun cuisine consists of onion, celery, and green bell pepper), three kinds of pepper (plus Tabasco), fresh Creole tomatoes, and, of course, fresh shrimp. Now we, as you know, live in Brooklyn, and fresh tomatoes and shrimps were in short supply. As she often does when preparing for these posts, Zelda embarked on a tour of her local grocers, scouring the shelves and refrigerated cases for the produce of her dreams. Alas, it was not meant to be, and she had to settle for canned (tomatoes) and frozen (shrimp). Now our patron saint of Cajun cooking, M’sieur Paul Prudhomme, is vehemently opposed to frozen seafood. As he writes in the Louisiana Kitchen intro, “All recipes assume fresh, uncooked shrimp. Never use frozen shrimp if you can help it.” But we couldn’t help it, dear readers, although Zelda really did try. So we crossed our fingers and hoped Paul would forgive us (the heat and the vermin led us to believe that he had not, and that in fact he was haunting us as punishment for our icy sins).

Sweat dripping down our brows and flies buzzing about (charming, we know), and ably assisted by friend-of-the-blog Stephanie, we embarked on our culinary quest. Like most Cajun dishes, this required a lot of prep: seemingly endless chopping plus the detailing of the defrosted shrimp, a task that Scout found particularly challenging and frankly kind of icky. The cooking process is similar to our previously conquered jambalaya, with a lot of adding of ingredients, stirring for a few minutes, adding more, stirring again, add and repeat until the flavors have all joined into an exuberant bouquet. It was a long and arduous process, but we had the Dixie Chicks playing and plenty of beer, and after an hour or so we were rewarded with large bowls of spicy, savory stew.

Scout admittedly is neither a shrimp person nor does her body handle spicy cuisine very well, so this was not the ideal dinner for her. But even so, she declared the meal a success, and Zelda and Stephanie gobbled their bowls right up undeterred. As Paul had promised, the sauce had a natural sweetness and incredible flavor, and in the end we declared it a success. Now please, dear Paul’s ghost, could you leave us be now? We have more work to do.

Shrimp Creole (adapted from “Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”)

Ingredients

3 ½ pounds large shrimp (Paul calls for fresh shrimp, complete with heads and shells and as fatty as possible, so as to maximise flavor and make one’s own shrimp stock. We settled for pre-peeled and deveined frozen, as is the American way. And since Trader Joe’s sells frozen shrimp by the pound, we bumped it up to an even 4.)

2 ½ cups seafood stock (If you are feeling particularly ambitious/unhurried/fearful of spicy Cajun ghosts, you can make your own stock with the heads and shells of your fresh shrimp. Or you can do as we did and just buy the damn thing in a box.)

¼ cup vegetable oil (Paul calls for chicken fat, pork lard, or beef fat here, so if you have access to these, feel free to substitute for a presumably richer flavor)

2 ½ cups finely chopped onions

1 ¾ cups finely chopped celery

1 ½ cups finely chopped green bell pepper (about one pepper)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons salt

1 ½ teaspoons white pepper

1 teaspoon ground red pepper (a.k.a. cayenne)

¾ teaspoon black pepper

1 ½ teaspoons Tabasco sauce (Original Red, not any of those newfangled varieties)

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 ½ teaspoons dried sweet basil

3 cups finely chopped peeled tomatoes (If you can, you should use Creole tomatoes, as decreed by Paul. Barring that, he suggests using the best vine-ripened tomatoes available in your area. You can also just use canned, which is the route we went: one can diced, and one can petite diced.)

1 ½ cups canned tomato sauce (one instance where Paul does actually recommend the canned route)

2 teaspoons sugar

White rice

Directions

If you are using fresh shrimp, rinse and peel them, and use the heads and shells to make stock. If you are using frozen, defrost and remove tails/shells if necessary.

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, heat the oil (or fat/lard) over high heat until hot.

Add one cup of the onions and cook over high heat for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the onions are a rich brown color (but not burned), approximately 5 minutes.

Add the remaining onions, celery, bell pepper, and butter. Cook over high heat until the pepper and celery is tender (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Add the garlic, bay leaf, salt, and all three peppers. Stir until well-combined.

Add the Tabasco, thyme, basil, and ½ cup of the stock. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. In Paul’s words, this is to “allow the seasonings to marry,” and the vegetables to brown further. Stir frequently, and make sure to scrape the pan bottom well.

Once you have reached the state of spicy matrimony, your kitchen should be smelling pretty fantastic. But wait, there’s more! Add the tomatoes. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and scraping the pan bottom.

Add the tomato sauce, stir to combine, and then simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the remaining 2 cups of stock and the sugar. Continue simmering the sauce for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

At this point, the saucy portion of your labor is done. If you wish, you may now set the sauce aside to cool and refrigerate overnight (Paul recommends this delay for the flavors to really set). When you’re ready to add the shrimp to the mix, simply skim the oil off the surface and reheat the sauce to a boil. Then turn the heat down to very low, add the shrimp, cover the pot, and cook until the shrimp turn pink (about 5 minutes).

If however you wish to enjoy your Creole feast right away (Zelda and Scout, party of two!), you may now turn the heat off. Add the shrimp, cover the pot, and let it sit until the shrimp are plump and pink. This should take about 5 to 10 minutes. It is also a great time to cook your white rice, enough to serve all your dinner guests.

If you are fancy, like Paul, you will preheat your plates in the oven at 250 degrees. Then serve ½ cup mounded white rice with 1 cup of sauce spooned around it and 8 or 9 shrimp arranged on top. If you are a heathen, simply slop a pile of rice in a bowl and ladle as much spicy, tomato-y, shrimpy goodness on there as you like. It tastes delicious either way.

Fairy Parties and Polar Bear: Why I’ll Always be a Camp Person

It’s the middle of the night, probably around 1 a.m. I’m 12 years old, asleep on a mattress that my now-27-year old body would not be able to comprehend sleeping on — like, ever. Suddenly, I am awoken by the shouts of college-age counselors decked out in fairy wings and tutus, throwing glitter and announcing that there is a “Fairy Party” in the lodge (basically, the common room for just your age group). I love camp.

As discussed here on the blog before, I went to an all-girls sleepaway camp for nearly a decade of my adolescence. I loved it, so much that one of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t go back to be a counselor when I was the right age. Hindsight is 20-20, I suppose. Still, from the age 8 to the age of 16, I spent at least part of each summer at Rockbrook Camp in Brevard, North Carolina.

The summer always makes me miss camp — the camaraderie, the spontaneous singing, the traditions that make sense to absolutely no one but the people who experienced them. As Ira Glass recently posited in an episode of “This American Life,” there are Camp People and Non-Camp People. And I will always be a Camp Person.

Camp encompasses absolutely everything I loved about summers growing up: the fresh mountain air, the general enthusiasm for everything, the learning of new skills that may or may not come in handy in the future. But I think all the things I loved most about camp are wrapped up in the silly traditions, like the above “Fairy Party.” These silly rituals took something that present-day me loathes (being awoken by loud noises in the middle of the night) and turned it into something exciting, covered in sparkles and glitter and served with dance music and candy in the lodge.

Camps are full of these types of traditions, but these are a few of my favorites: the Fairy Parties, obviously; the Jungle Breakfast, when we were awoken at dawn to eat breakfast in the lodge in our pajamas and then got to sleep through regular breakfast; surprise shaving cream fights; Birthday Night, when instead of sitting with your regular cabin at dinner you were divided among 12 tables (one for people whose birthdays fell in each month of the year), and there was lots of cake; Biltmore Train, which is basically just lots and lots of ice cream; or unluckily bidding on a blind item on Auction Night, then finding out that it’s Polar Bear and your whole cabin has to go jump in the lake before breakfast (it was summer, but goddamn if it wasn’t still cold AF). The list goes on and on, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.

I like the unsanctioned traditions too, the ones that involve less planning and just seemed to happen organically each year — like the one rainstorm where everyone who’s brave enough rolls down the hill, or the unofficial fastest shower-er competition when the deducky (read: bathroom) is over-crowded (yours truly is ‘04 Champion). There are the unsanctioned prank wars (my year had a particularly vicious one with the year below us), the scary stories and camp legends, that one lunch or dinner that is somehow non-stop singing, the way muffins just taste better after the first activities of the day, and finding that spot in camp that feels like it’s just yours and being able to go back to it every year. I miss the inside jokes, the favorite songs, the favorite meals, the intense competition with the boys camp down the road — the little things that somehow manage to continue year after year, because people keep coming back and passing their unofficial traditions down to new campers. And so eventually they become official traditions, official camp legends, new pieces of the camp mythos, on and on for generations.

If I ever have a daughter, I will send her to Rockbrook. If for some reason she hates it, I won’t make her go back, but it’s hard to imagine this purely hypothetical child not taking to this place that I love so much. For so many summers, Rockbrook was my home, those cabin-mates my sisters, and all those silly traditions became more important to me than any holiday for the rest of the year. And my times at camp are still some of the fondest memories of my childhood.

A few months ago, I was waiting for a train at the Nevins Street station here in Brooklyn. As the train rolled in, I spied a girl with a Nalgene covered with a Dolly’s Dairy Bar sticker through the window, her face obstructed by the closed door. I waited eagerly to tell her how much I loved Dolly’s, how it was the highlight of trips to Brevard when I was at camp. And then the door slid open, and I realized it wasn’t just another random person who had been to Brevard: It was my cabin-mate of four years, and my sister for life, sitting fatefully in the train car I was waiting for on a Tuesday morning on a beautiful spring day in New York City.

I hadn’t spoken to her outside of social media in years, and we had a mere three stops on the subway to catch up, but it felt normal. Unhindered by awkwardness, we just picked up where we had left off. Since that meeting, she’s spent the past couple months hiking the Appalachian Trail — the most summer camp thing an adult can do — working her way from Georgia to Maine. It’s something I’d love to do but really don’t think I have the wherewithal for (although I’d like to think that if I decided to, camp would have prepared me well). My camp friends and I may be in different places now, all adults doing adult-ish things. But we’ll always have the Biltmore Train, and the sing-a-longs, and Polar Bear, and the Tevas vs. Chacos debate, and having to explain to non-camp people what a Crazy Creek is.

There’s something unique about camp friendships, and I think it stems from all those weird and silly traditions along with the serious ones. The songs and the shaving cream fights are just as important as Spirit Fire: They’re what make me get all warm and fuzzy when one of my camp friends comments on a picture I post, or when someone says something that intros a camp song that I just can’t not start singing. Camp brought me friendships with people I never would have found otherwise, people who are so different but all so wonderful in their many varied ways. Camp is strange, and wonderful, and beautiful, and so hard to explain to those who did not have the privilege of experiencing it (and sometimes even if they technically did, but they’re just not Camp People). I am a Camp Person, and I will always be a Camp Person. Rockbrook Camp Forever.

A Brief History of the Modjeska

I went back to my beloved Kentucky home this weekend, for the first time since December. I was there for a family friend’s wedding, and for Father’s Day, and spent a glorious 72 hours eating doughnuts and barbecue, hitting up my favorite bookstore, dancing in a garden, and doing yoga and watching John Oliver and laughing so hard I cried with four-fifths of my immediate family (my sister, sadly, was stuck in D.C.). It was a much-needed break from the stress of daily life. For three days, I looked at the stars instead of my Twitter feed and did my best to tune out the news, focusing on SherlockCars 3, and old friends instead. There’s a particular sweetness to that feeling of comfort and safety, a warm fuzzy joy that only comes when you are home and safe and loved. I wanted to wrap it up and bring it back with me, at least a small piece, to infuse into my everyday New York life. And in this case, as is often my way, that little morsel of home took the form of a caramel, marshmallow confection known as the modjeska.

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Now if you’re not from Louisville, you are probably wondering: “What on god’s green earth is that funky, vaguely-Slavic-sounding term Zelda just threw out?” I can picture the look on your face exactly, because I’ve seen it on roommates and coworkers when I return from the Bluegrass State bearing a slim white box full of neatly wrapped treats nestled in paper beds. “A mo-what-now?” they say, picking up a piece and holding it a safe distance from their mouths, unsure if they dare test it. Now, if I were a more selfish person, I would leave them to their confusion and guard this secret delight for myself. But despite my better judgement, I find myself enlightening them. After all, I have made it an unofficial life mission of mine to spread the word of Louisville’s underappreciated glory to the world — culinary or otherwise (see: this blog). And so, I explain.

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The modjeska, in its simplest form, is a candy consisting of a marshmallow dipped in caramel. It was invented in Louisville in 1883 by Anton Busath, a French confectioner who had immigrated to the Ohio River town. Busath slaved away for years, perfecting his “caramel biscuit.” Around this time, a Polish actress also made her way to Louisville. Busath saw her perform at the McCauley Theater, near his downtown shop, in the debut U.S. production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” He was so enamored with her that he wanted to give his crowning achievement her name. He asked her for permission, she granted it, and thus, Helena Modjeska found herself the inspiration for a Kentucky classic. She was so tickled, she sent Busath an autographed portrait, which he hung in his shop.

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When Busath Candies was destroyed by a fire in 1947, Busath asked his friend and fellow candy-maker Rudy Muth if he could use his kitchen to produce the caramel treats, as Christmas gifts for his friends and family. Muth agreed, sharing his space, and in gratitude Busath gave him the recipe after deciding he couldn’t reopen his own shop. Another local confectioner — Bauer’s Candies — renamed their own caramel biscuit in a tribute to Busath after they closed. Both Bauer’s and Muth’s Candies continue to produce their own versions of the modjeska in Kentucky today (in traditional and chocolate varieties), shipping them all over the world.

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I discovered the glory of the modjeska when I moved to Louisville at age 11. There was a small market across the street from Scout’s and my school called Burger’s (RIP sniff sniff), and there was a jar of the candies (Muth’s version) right by the register. I still remember biting into it for the first time — the sticky caramel yielding to a soft cloud of marshmallow — and thinking that I had found the perfect dessert. I had always been a caramel lover, but this was on a whole other level. Some people are turned off by the marshmallow, thinking it will be weird when wrapped in a non-chocolate coat. But trust me: It is magic.

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Nowadays, I’m partial to Bauer’s; their marshmallow and caramel are denser, with a richer flavor to the caramel. And every time I go home, I find myself hauling a box back with me. Sometimes I share with my office, or with Scout. Sometimes I hog the whole thing to myself, rationing out the treats so as to savor the experience. For a dangerous stretch of last year’s election, I had a box in my desk drawer for “emergencies,” which proved to be more frequent and not at all far between, resulting in my plowing through the whole batch at an alarming rate. It is a quality candy, to be sure, made the old-fashioned way that follows a now 100+ year tradition. But I think the real reason I love modjeskas so much, and why they hold a particular place in my heart that no other food does, is that they taste like home.

IMAGES VIA: BAUER’S CANDIES, NPRENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA, PINTEREST,  MUTH’S CANDIES

Brooklyn, NY to Louisville, KY Summer 2017

We drove a lot when I was a kid. Road trips were fairly standard as the highway was often the most efficient mode of transportation for getting to the small town that my grandparents made their home in, or to the tiny island off the coast of South Carolina where we often vacationed. I know as a child I complained from my spot in the back seat, murmuring the dreaded, “Are we there yet?” But I’ve grown to enjoy immensely the feeling of the road beneath my wheels…or under someone else’s wheels that I’ve borrowed, as I no longer have any of my own — such is life in New York.

Summer is the perfect time for a road trip, especially if that road trip means leaving Brooklyn. Summer in the city brings hot sticky days and nights that are not much better, as the stench of hot garbage invades every space. Sounds lovely doesn’t it? Trust me: Stick with your idyllic images of New York in the fall, because New York in the summer is anything but. So sometimes you just need to climb in a friend’s car and escape, and for Zelda and me, the perfect escape is back to our hometown of Louisville.

Road trips hardly ever play out the way we want them to. We’re too often hindered by time or money constraints to really give in to the romantic ideals of just following the road wherever it may take us. But sometimes we can almost get there. We can choose a rough approximate of a route, stop when we feel compelled, and let the journey be the destination. I’ve done this once before. For spring break during  my senior year of college, I foreswore the beach to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and explore the wonders of the Appalachians with friends, eventually dragging them back to my hometown. It was pretty much everything I wanted. I stood on the Eastern Continental Divide. I saw the sun set over the Blue Ridge Parkway. I even taught a friend to drive a stick.

I found in planning that road trip that the best course of action is to have a few points of interest picked out to guide your route, and then to let the journey do the rest. This summer, I’m taking friends-of-the-blog Jason and Sarah for a grand tour of the old homestead, and since they are among those rare unicorns known as “New Yorkers with cars,” we will be kicking it road trip style. Now I know we won’t have time for the leisurely journey of my dreams (#adultingproblems), but if we  did, this is what it would look like. This is my rough guide to get your road trip from North to South started, from my current home to my always home. Turn on our first-ever playlist, Highway Cruisin’, and join me on the adventure.

Brooklyn, New York to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

When you’re leaving New York, if you live in Brooklyn, I highly recommend you leave via Staten Island over the Verrazano Bridge. The tolls are a bitch, but it’s worth avoiding having to drive anywhere in Manhattan. Plus, the bridge itself is beautiful. If you’ve got at least three people, you can make use of that high-occupancy-vehicle lane and wave goodbye to the non-carpoolers as you speed by them (I especially revelled in this last fall when we left the city around rush hour, and traffic was at an almost standstill). As you cross into New Jersey via the Goethals Bridge (not as picturesque as the Verrazano, but it does the job), we can really get started.

New Jersey should come with an initial snack stop, preferably at Wawa. I learned of the wonder of Wawa from the many Mid-Atlantic dwellers at my college, who constantly sang its praises. It is, unequivocally, the best road trip food stop ever. Cue indie movie shopping montage: Grab a hot sandwich and a cold fountain drink; stock up on sour gummies, salty pretzels, and, if you’re lucky, some Old Bay Chips; and head back to the road, fully ready to appreciate the wonders that await.

Our first stop is Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — once the center of the American Industrial Revolution and the home of Bethlehem Steel. Fun fact: The Verrazzano Bridge you crossed to leave Brooklyn was constructed from Bethlehem Steel, not to mention many other American landmarks (including but not limited to: the Chrysler Building, Alcatraz, and the Hoover Dam). Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy in the early 21st century, and the steel plant has since been turned into a thriving arts and culture district called SteelStacks. The plant’s five tall blast furnaces, now defunct, stand as a backdrop to this new area, which is home to several arts venues as well as a casino. If you show up on a weekend, there’s bound to be something happening, plus it’s a short walk to any number of restaurants and bars in Bethlehem’s South Side. If you’re feeling done for the day, you can stay at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. It’s supposedly haunted.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

If you’re like me, your vacations mostly revolve around which museums you can go to and what historical sites you can see. The history nerd in me will never die, and our second guiding point on this fictional journey is an homage to that. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is best known as the site of the Civil War battle that bears its name. The battleground is now part of the Gettysburg National Military Park, and in these times when the NPS is leading our social media rebellion, I feel it’s right to pay a little visit to one of our nation’s hallowed spaces. Plus I’ve wanted to visit since I had to memorize Lincoln’s famous address in the fourth grade.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the deadliest of the whole Civil War in terms of casualties, and President Abraham Lincoln, in his address, originally dedicated the battlefield as the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, four months after the end of the battle. If you’re pressed for time, you can make a stop at the visitor center, get the official map, and take a self-guided tour of the important spots via car (or you can download the map here). If you have a little more time, the site has daily talks and hikes led by park rangers. We here at Zelda and Scout usually opt for the latter; the people who work at places like this usually have an unrestrained amount of passion for the place, and, if you’re lucky, a little bit of theatrical ability as well (Years ago, Zelda and I had a particularly good experience with a Beefeater named Alan at the Tower of London. 10/10 would recommend).

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Huntington, West Virginia

But maybe history’s not your thing, or you just don’t want to spend the day wandering an old battlefield. Just get back in the car and head southwest toward the great state of West Virginia. I have some mixed memories about road trips through West Virginia. The fastest way to get from Louisville to Baltimore (where I attended college) was to cut diagonally through the state, and for a long time it was the bane of my existence: a stretch of 100 or so miles where there was nary a gas station to stop at, or so it seemed. But when you’re not trying to get from point A to point B in the most expedient manner possible, West Virginia really lives up to its state slogan: Wild and Wonderful.

Our next official stop is the greater Huntington area, but it’s a long six hours from Gettysburg to there, so I urge you to give in to your spontaneous road trip heart and stop whenever the spirit moves you along the way. Maybe grab a bite to eat in Morgantown, or pause to enjoy nature at one of the many state parks, or make a pitstop in Weston at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum where you can take a paranormal tour — whatever floats your proverbial boat.

Huntington lies on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia, just adjacent to the town of Ashland – close enough that they could be lumped together as one greater metropolitan area (in order to get over my years of ingrained anti-West-Virginia bias, I hang on to that little nugget). West Virginia tends to get a bad rap, but it really does have a lot to offer. Huntington is home to Marshall University, several historic districts, a number of cultural festivals throughout the year, and the internet’s own McElroy Brothers (who’ve done a number on your author’s preconceptions about West Virginia).

If you’re there in July, you might make the West Virginia Hot Dog festival, and in August there’s the Rails and Ales Beer festival. If there’s not a festival of some sort going on, Huntington has eleven public parks equipped with walking trails and footbridges to help you take in the suburban Appalachian scenery. If you’re more of a thrill seeker, you can check out Camden Park and ride the Big Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1958 (I’m more of a log flume girl myself, and they’ve got one of those too!).

Before you head out, stop at Jolly Pirate Donuts to grab some good good snacks to go in their signature treasure chest.  

Huntington, West Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky

On this final stretch of the trip, the only stops you should make are at distilleries (okay maybe there are a few other stops that might be worthwhile — some scenic overlooks, a cave or two — but you’re reading this blog, so we assume you’re in it for the bourbon). Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Buffalo Trace are just off your route, and I know from experience that both tours are well worth a stop. Buffalo Trace is an especially scenic distillery, and the guides there are as passionate about the history as they are about the bourbon. You will learn things, but you will also get to drink (though you do need to drive to your final destination, so drink responsibly).

Take the rest of the drive up I-64 to reach our final destination of Louisville. I’ll save my tips for all the things you can do there for another post — or several  — but in the meantime you can read about some of Zelda’s picks in the New York Times!)

Sometimes a break isn’t about where you go. Sometimes it’s just about taking a second to appreciate the scenery. Don’t just roll those windows down: Actually look at what you may be passing by. And if something strikes your fancy, go ahead and stop for a spell. You’ve got plenty of time.

Photos via: AJ Indam, CyberxrefWV funnymanKittugwiki

On S-Town and Stories and Why They Matter

“John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.” That was the subject line of an email that Brian Reed, a producer for the radio show This American Life, received in 2012. John B introduced himself. He talked about his shit town (known more widely as Woodstock, Alabama). He asked Reed to help him solve a murder.

Like millions of other people, I spent the past few days falling headfirst into S-Town, the podcast that emerged from years of reporting by Reed, all sparked by this missive. I’m going to warn you now, if you have not yet listened to S-Town, this post contains spoilers as to the content of the podcast. So please, do yourself a favor, and go spend a few hours journeying through its seven chapters now. I’ll wait.

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The podcast was produced by This American Life and Serial, Sarah Koenig’s true crime wunderkind. I was a huge fan of Serial, so when this new show was billed as an outgrowth of that one, a murder mystery cut from the same cloth, I was intrigued. The actual show would turn out to be so much more.

S-Town is a murder mystery, it’s true. But not of the one the previews introduce. It is also an investigation, an autopsy, a celebration of a life cut short. John B killed himself, you see, a few years into his correspondence with Brian. And what began with one death — that of a local kid, whose murder John believed to have been committed by the son of a local lumber scion and subsequently covered up, and which turned out not to have happened at all — turns into a deep examination of another. The podcast traces the aftermath of John’s death: the battle over his estate, the feud between his relatives and friends, the aftershocks that ripple through his community and, more slowly, through his spiderweb of friends. More importantly, it grapples with who John was and the life that he lived, restoring clocks and rescuing puppies, caring for his mama and seeking human connection, building mazes and inhaling mercury and loving and losing and worrying and hating Shittown.

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The podcast has been described in several reviews as Southern Gothic, and I believe the label is a fitting one. Wikipedia, the internet’s number one source for all cursory knowledge, describes the term: “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.” Its characters, “madness, decay and despair, continuing pressures of the past upon the present.” S-Town unfolds like a novel — even the episodes are called Chapters, numbered I-VII — weaving through time and space, from interviews to digressions into fire-gilding techniques or climate change. It visits characters mysterious and strange (and yes, definitely eccentric), from John’s friends and family to former professors and fellow horologists, his mama and cousin, proteges and friends. While there is very little hoodoo, there is much exploration of gender roles and ambivalent sexuality, especially when it comes to John himself, who describes himself at different times as various percentages of straight vs. gay. The setting is either lush and verdant or horrifyingly decrepit, depending on whose eyes you see it through. There is poverty and crime, violence in the form of murders that weren’t and suicide and self-mutilation that, heart-breakingly, were. And there is madness here, although whether it arises from the environmental decline of the world or the poverty of rural Alabama or too much mercury or simply bad genes, or all of the above, is anybody’s guess.

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But what I think makes S-Town such a vitally Southern story — setting the, well, setting aside — is that its roots are so clearly grounded in the region’s storytelling tradition. The South is rich in lore, a region that can’t shake the shadow of its history and digs deep into its roots, pride mixing with surrender. This tale is one of a town grappling with a complicated history and an ugly present. It’s also the story of a community that comes together, cobbled together from parcels of land and sheer resolve. It’s a saga of families both biological and chosen, of the scars our parents leave on us, of the legacy we leave behind. It’s complicated and messy, and the gears don’t always seem like they’re going to fit. It is exquisitely real.

To be a human being is a lonely thing. We are all, each of us, trapped inside our own minds, starring in a movie of our own making without a ticket to anybody else’s cinema. And we tell ourselves stories, as one of my favorite writers says, in order to live — to feel less alone. The last chapter of S-Town in particular asks a question: “What gives a life meaning?” The question is specific — what did John B think defined a life as worthwhile, and did his own, when he ended it with a swig of cyanide, fit the bill? But it also endlessly broad. What makes a life worth living? What can each of us hope to accomplish with our few precious days on this earth?

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I believe we can listen. I believe we can tell our story. And I believe, if we’re lucky, we can help to tell the stories of others, especially those whose voices are often muffled. That’s why I’m a writer. I write because I do not understand, as a way through the darkness. I write to puzzle the knot of my life into something slightly less kinked, and to tell the stories of the folks I meet along my way. We all live in bubbles — whether in hipster corners of Brooklyn or small towns in Alabama — but stories, both journalistic and fictional, help us to see beyond our sphere. And what Brian Reed does so brilliantly here is to follow the witness marks of John B’s life, to reconstruct as best he can what all the gears and pulleys of his mind looked like, and to invite us inside for a spell. In another’s hands, this would have been the story of a crazy dude in a shitty redneck town, who subscribed to conspiracy theories and wasted his resources on obscure projects and died writhing on his front porch. But Reed tells his story with curiosity and respect. He always questions, never assumes. He listens. He looks at every angle. He tries to find the whole, messy truth.

John B McLemore is dead. He died in the same Shittown where he was born and raised, never straying too far beyond its borders. But his life, which at first glance seem small, left a mark on this great wild world that continues to ripple out. And a storyteller named Brian Reed helped, is continuing to help, him do that. To borrow from another of my and Scout’s heritages, it is one of the greatest mitzvahs a person can do. To really listen to someone. To see them. To celebrate them. To tell their story, without reducing any of its complexities or quirks to stereotype or a cheap joke. To make them remembered.

IMAGES VIA: FORBES, SHEKNOWS, PASTE MAGAZINE, PEDESTRIAN

Six Badass Southern Women You Should Know About

March is Women’s History month here in the United States (and also the UK and Australia), and while we believe that any day is a good day to celebrate women and their accomplishments, we will happily take this opportunity to turn the well-deserved spotlight on some badass, brilliant ladies. These six were trailblazers in their fields, which range from athletics to advocacy, TV to torah. They are brave, they are fierce, and they all hail from below the Mason-Dixon line.

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Wilma Rudolph (Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee): Rudolph was a premie, entering the world as the 20th of 22 siblings and weighing a mere 4.2 pounds. At 4, she suffered a bout of infantile paralysis, which left her with a twisted leg and foot, forced to wear a brace. By the age of 12, she had also contracted polio and scarlet fever, battling back every time. The odds were undeniably stacked against her. But in 1953, while playing on her high school’s basketball team, she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple, and everything changed. Temple coached Rudolph, who joined TSU’s summer program and ran with the Tigerbelles for two years. At 16, she went to the Olympics for the first time, bringing home a bronze medal for the 4×100 relay. And four years later, at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, she took gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 relay, making her the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. She was hailed as “the fastest woman in history,” and her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in her hometown of Clarksville’s history.

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Mae Jemison (Decatur, Alabama): Jemison may have grown up in Chicago, but her first three years were spent in the Deep South. The daughter of a maintenance supervisor and an elementary school teacher, Jemison loved science from an early age. She loved nature and dinosaurs and stars and space, watching the shuttle launches on TV with her classmates. But something bothered her: “At the time of the Apollo airing, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.” Jemison fell in love with dance, went to Stanford, served in Peace Corps, watched Sally Ride shatter that annoying glass ceiling. And in 1987, she was accepted into NASA’s Space Program, one of 15 applicants chosen from a pool of over 2,000. She served as Mission Specialist on STS-47, from September 12 to 20, 1992, making her the first African-American woman in space. With her, she took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; a photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to fly an airplane; and a few small pieces of West African art, to symbolize that space belongs to all nations. Now retired, she’s a professor-at-large at Cornell and a tireless advocate for science education, especially for young girls and minority students.

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Penny Ann Early (Kentucky): Early earns her place on this list for two famous firsts. Number one: In 1968, she became the first licensed female jockey in the United States. She entered three races at Scout’s and my hometown race track, Churchill Downs, but her male peers were so incensed that they boycotted, refusing to ride with a girl. But Early wasn’t done. Hearing about the controversy, the now defunct Kentucky Colonels basketball team decided to sign Early — all 5’3” of her. Coach Gene Rhodes was less than amused by the stunt and protested to management, claiming he would not let her play (to be fair, Early hadn’t so much as picked up a basketball in her life). But on November 27, 1968, in a game against the Los Angeles Stars, Early got her moment. Clad in a mini skirt and a turtleneck with the number 3 on it (representing the three races she’d been prevented from riding), Early subbed in and inbounded the ball to Bobby Rascoe, who immediately called a timeout. Early was subbed right back out, her basketball career amounting to mere seconds, but it still made her the first — and, so far, only — woman to play on a professional men’s basketball team.

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Mia Hamm (Selma, Alabama): Hamm moved around as a kid, bouncing base to base as an Air Force brat. At one such base, in Florence, Italy, she was first introduced to soccer. Hamm had been born with a club foot and wore corrective shoes as a toddler, but she immediately took to the sport and quickly excelled. As a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she led the women’s soccer team to four NCAA championships; of the 95 games she played on the team, they lost only one. But the truth is by the time she got to UNC, Hamm had already made a name for herself as a soccer star. She joined the U.S. women’s national team at just 15, the youngest player ever to do so. In 1991, she played in the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup — at 19, again, the youngest member of the squad. She scored the game-winning goal in their first match. She scored again in their second. And in front of 63,000 spectators, she and her teammates beat Norway 2-1 to become the first ever women’s world champions. Hamm would go on to lead the U.S. to another World Cup victory in 1999, as well as two Olympic gold medals. She was twice named the women’s FIFA World Player of the Year, was one of two women on FIFA’s list of the 125 best living players, and until 2013 she held the record for the most career goals ever scored by a soccer player, of any gender.

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Paula Ackerman (Pensacola, Florida): Born and raised in Pensacola, Ackerman moved to Meridian, Mississippi, in 1922 with her 15 month-old son and her husband, a rabbi. The family was active in the Reform Judaism movement, and Ackerman taught confirmation classes at their congregation, Temple Beth Israel, and would fill in for her husband when he was sick or out of town. Then in 1951, when he died, the congregation asked her to take his place. She accepted, making her the first acting female rabbi in the United States. Although she was never officially ordained (that wouldn’t happen for a woman until 1972), she led the synagogue until 1953; even when the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations rescinded his permission for a woman to assume such a role, the congregation insisted on keeping he. At the time, when asked about her appointment, Ackerman wrote to a friend, “I also know how revolutionary the idea is—therefore it seems to be a challenge that I pray I can meet. If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman’s larger participation—if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for congregational leadership—then my life would have some meaning.”

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Laverne Cox (Mobile, Alabama): You may know her from “Orange is the New Black,” from “The Mindy Project” or “Doubt.” You may know her from the wisdom she drops on Twitter or the love she spreads on Instagram with the hashtag #TransIsBeautiful. Cox grew up in Alabama, bullied and harassed throughout her youth because she did not fit in. At 11, she even attempted suicide. But, luckily, things got better. After graduating from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in acting and working as a drag queen at a Lower East Side restaurant, Cox entered the public scene when she was cast in Jenji Kohan’s Netflix blockbuster as Sophia Burset — a hairdresser serving time for credit card fraud. Both Cox and her character are transgender women; in 2014, she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance, a first for an openly trans actor. But it’s her advocacy off screen that truly earns her a spot on this list. Her role on OITNB gave her a platform, and boy has she used it: to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, for trans awareness, for women’s rights, for intersectionality, for suicide prevention — just to name a few. She takes her position as a role model, especially for trans youth, very seriously, telling them that things get better and that self-love can be a radical act.

IMAGES VIA: KNOW SOUTHERN HISTORY, WIKIPEDIA, TRIVIAHAPPY, MIA HAMM FOUNDATION, JEWISH CURRENTS, WFMT

Southern Spookery

It’s that time of year again, when we embrace all the cobwebs, adorn our homes with skeletons and decorative gourds, and channel our inner granny witches. That’s right, the spooky season is upon us, and in celebration we thought we’d tell you about some Halloween-appropriate Southern men, women and monsters. The South is known for its many storytelling traditions, as well as its inherent spookiness, so it’s no surprise that the two should combine into some scary folktales and stories. Scout’s been bookmarking spooky Southern tales for the past couple months (thanks, Lore!) just to bring them to you in this most ghoulish of holiday seasons. The four creatures that follow are all purported to be real by some party or another. We may be skeptical, but where’s the fun in that? So put on this playlist, paint the ceiling of your porch blue, turn down the lights, and settle in for some good old-fashioned ghost stories.

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Rawhead and Bloody Bones: Many Southern ghost stories and folklore come from African traditions and culture, but while some connect this particular tale to the Gullah culture, it’s more likely a story brought over from England and adopted by multiple local cultures. Rawhead and Bloody Bones are both bogeyman figures meant to put fear into children and induce good behavior. Whatever the origins, Rawhead, a skull stripped of skin, and his companion Bloody Bones, a headless skeleton, prowl the night looking for misbehaved children. Sometimes they’re said to live near water, sometimes in dark dank cupboards under stairs or sinks. 

The story dates back as far as the early 1500s and is mentioned in sermons, stories and nursery rhymes: Rawhead and Bloody Bones / Steals Naughty Children from their Homes/Takes them to his dirty den/ And they are never seen again. Seems like good motivation for good behavior. also, fun fact: The monsters are the subject of a song by the post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees

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Fouke Monster: Also known as the Southern Sasquatch, the Fouke Monster is the most well-established of the many Southern cryptid (aka a creature whose actual existence is not yet proven) hominids. Somewhere between seven and ten feet tall and weighing between 300 and 800 pounds, the monster was first spotted in the early 1970s. It runs with an arm-swinging gallop and has bright red eyes the size of silver dollars. In 1971, the monster apparently attacked Bobby and Elizabeth Ford in their new Arkansas home. The creature was then allegedly spotted crossing a nearby highway, and supposed footprints were found at a nearby filling station. Sightings died down in the later part of the decade, but the monster resurfaced in the late 90s and sightings continue to occur.

The Fouke Monster is just one of many Bigfoot-like creatures that roam the American South. In Fort Worth, Texas, there’s the Lake Worth Monster. Described as a “fishy goat-man” in a 1969 local headline, the creature is supposedly half-man, half-goat and covered in scales. South Carolina has the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, and Louisiana has the seven-foot-tall, web-toed Honey Island Swamp Monster.

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The Bell Witch: In the early 19th century, the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee, a small town just a ten-minute drive from the Kentucky border, claimed to be haunted and cursed by a poltergeist named Kate. The inciting incident was an encounter with a chimerical animal with the body of a dog and the head of rabbit. For days after this event, the Bell family’s nights were disrupted by pounding on the exterior of their home, the source of which could never be found. Eventually, the banging and clanging started coming from inside the house (dun dun dun…). Scratching on walls and slamming doors were accompanied by strange whispers and objects moving of their own accord.

The Bell’s youngest daughter, Betsy, was a particular target of the spirit. She was said to have been slapped and had her hair pulled by the specter. The whispers grew into discernible voices singing hymns and quoting scripture. Stories of the Bell Witch spread so far that future president Andrew Jackson came to investigate. One of his men was apparently badly beaten, and they all fled the Bell homestead. The ghost-witch focused her intentions increasingly on the Bell family patriarch, tormenting him into ill health and eventually poisoning him, making this particular ghost one of the only ones to actually kill someone. The whole story is incredible…and probably almost entirely fabricated by Martin Van Buren Ingram, who penned an account 45 years after the so-called haunting, based solely on a diary written by Bell’s son nearly 30 years after the fact. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Richmond Vampire: In Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery there sits the mausoleum of one William Wortham Pool. Pool lived a fairly standard life, died at the age of 80, and was interred with his wife in the aforementioned mausoleum. After his death, though, that’s when the rumors started. Folks started saying that the W.W. Pool mausoleum was the home of a vampire. In 1925, a railroad tunnel collapsed nearby, trapping members of a repair crew inside. As rescuers tried to free the trapped men, a ghastly, bloody creature emerged from the rubble and ran toward the cemetery and into the Pool Mausoleum. Though people followed, no one could find it, and no one saw it leave the tomb. A rumor started that Pool was a vampire, and that it was W.W. himself who had been spotted that tragic night. The cemetery is very close to Virginia Commonwealth University, and the vampire rumors spread quickly among the students; the Pools’ bodies eventually had to be moved due to repeated vandalism.

However, the actual story of the 1925 cave-in didn’t need any vampires, ghouls, or other creatures to make it creepy. In truth, the man fleeing the rubble was Benjamin Mosby, who died shortly afterwards in a nearby hospital. A scary sight to be sure, but not necessarily hair-raising…except that when the townspeople eventually went back to unearth the rest of the collapse’s victims, they found only one corpse, leaving at least two laborers unaccounted for. The tunnel was boarded up, and they never recovered the rest of the bodies.

Illustrations Via: Ogres Vs. Trolls, FoukeMonster.Net, Newzbreaker, Kristy Heilenday