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

All the Fixin’s: An Introduction

Hello lovelies! Over the past year, one of our favorite series to write — and one of the most popular with you guys, according to an overwhelming majority of folks who filled out our reader survey — has been “Eat This, Drink That.” Scout has explored many wonders of the Southern culinary canon, and Zelda has really honed her cocktail skills. Some of the recipes have gone brilliantly according to plan; others, not so much. But all of them have taught us more about our food heritage, not to mention pastry skills, simple syrups, and how to handle a cocktail shaker.

With this new year, we wanted to turn a new page in the blog as well, but we didn’t want to abandon the food and drink posts that we, and y’all, have come to enjoy. And we also wanted to get back to the original concept of the blog: exploring the idea of home and heritage and what it means to us, in this time and this place, to be “Southern.”

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So without further ado, we present to you our brand-new series, “All the Fixin’s.” The idea comes from a few places: wanting to learn more about Southern cooking and expand our kitchen repertoires, wanting to get in touch with our specific Southern heritages and what they mean to us, and wanting to explore not just the mechanics of making Southern dishes but also the history and stories and cultural weight that they carry. As Zelda wrote in her last Required Reading, food is an essential piece of what binds a culture together, feeding both our bodies and our souls. So much of our history and traditions are bound up in the bread we break together, be it challah or cornbread or buttermilk biscuits. And so with this series, we’re diving deep, each into a cookbook that pulls together the specific flavors of our family trees.

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For Scout, that book is Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes. Recently written by Ronni Lundy, Scout’s somewhat-distant-but-not-that-distant cousin (she’s not quite sure combination of first’s, second’s, removed’s, etc. applies here), it combines recipes with narrative and history, and really gives some context to the dishes. Most of Scout’s Southern recipes come from her grandmother’s binder, cut from local papers or back issues of Southern Living and stuck together from being carted around for so long and splattered with various batters, and Victuals basically takes those conversations around the kitchen table and puts them in book form. It also doesn’t hurt that the book itself is beautiful, with full-color photos, courtesy of Johnny Autry, of the mountains and the people and the food that accompany their story.

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As for Zelda, she’s taking on Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. A good quarter of her blood comes spiced with Cajun flavors, Tabasco and okra and andouille and the like. Some of the recipes in this very book are childhood dishes she grew up with (see, the jambalaya her mom makes every year for Mardi Gras), and all of the dishes bring up memories of childhood story time, when she and her siblings would beg her dad to tell them stories of his childhood, and his dad’s childhood, in the bayou of Louisiana. Those were summers spent under magnolia trees, watching gumbo or étouffée appear like magic under a great aunt’s spoon. And while the most essential Cajun recipes in her house come on stained and crumpled scraps of paper, passed down from generation to generation, when asked to pick an actual, publicly sold text from which to learn the region’s cooking, this is the one both of her folks picked.

So that’s where we’re going, and we hope you’re as excited to come along with us as we are to get started. There’s shrimp creole and chicken and dumplings and maybe even beignets in our future. Some things may (hopefully) go brilliantly. Others may fall flat. But all will teach us something about who we are and where we come from. And it doesn’t hurt that it will make for damn good eats.

Required Reading: Volume Nine

My mother collects cookbooks. It started (she thinks) with the Moosewood Cookbook, purchased in March of 1983. She had always loved to cook, and to bake especially, learning hamantaschen and icebox cookies in her mother’s Pittsburgh kitchen. From one book, her collection grew, adding Jewish Cookery and Cookie Cookery (related in name only). When my father entered the narrative, he brought a healthy dose of Cajun cuisine to their marriage and the Joy of Cooking, referred to more commonly in my house as simply “The Bible.”

At some point along the way, one cookbook blossomed into a dozen, which grew to a shelf, which ballooned into two full bookshelves and counting. My kitchen in Kentucky holds an estimated 200 cookbooks at minimum, sprawling across specialties and cuisines. I may have learned to cook in the days before Google, but our house was its own encyclopedia of recipes, with my mom the helpful librarian. I’d ask her how to make a particular dish — say, strawberry rhubarb pie — and without missing a beat she’d start pulling volumes from shelves, not to mention scraps of newsprint and magazine cut outs from her Heinz recipe box.

A tiny excerpt from my mother's collection, the "Family Heritage Shelf"

A tiny excerpt from my mother’s collection, the “Family Heritage Shelf”

This is all to say that I come by my addiction to books — cook- and otherwise — honestly. It’s in my DNA: I never really stood a chance. My parents started me off with the classics: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), The New York Times Cookbook, Moosewood, and, of course, my own personally inscribed copy of “The Bible.” In it, my parents wrote, “In our family, cooking is an expression of love.” And while this is definitely true of our quirky little clan, I don’t think it’s a uniquely Zelda trait. Food, in its best form, is weighted with memory and steeped in sentiment. It nurtures our bodies and our souls, providing comfort or piquing curiosity as it tickles our taste buds. And it’s a cultural touchstone, too — perhaps the most essential and elemental piece of what binds a group or a region together. Who we are, as families or communities, so often comes down to the bread we break together.

Take the South as just one example. The first thing most folks think of when they hear the word Southern is food. You know exactly which kind I mean: soul food, comfort food, food of the people that sticks to the bones and comes from the heart. So much of my own personal understanding of my heritage (Southern and otherwise) is culinary: the gumbo recipe passed down from my grandfather, the hot fudge sauce that appears so effortlessly under the touch of my grandmother’s spoon, the hamantaschen that would arrive at our house each year from Queen Esther, who apparently resided in Osprey, Florida. As an adult, I started to explore Southern cooking as a way of understanding the South and my place in it. Some of my lessons were hands-on — Derby pie with a high school bestie, fried chicken from Scout’s Gaga — but many of them were from books.

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

Though I still have a long way to go to match my mother’s collection (and nowhere near enough shelf space to accommodate such a repertoire), I have amassed quite a few cookbooks of my own. I love them for the poetry of their descriptions, the beauty of their photographs, the wry wit and wisdom inked into the page by their authors. And I love them for their potential, all those untapped recipes just waiting to be brought to life. To write up all my favorites would take far too many pages, so I’ll start on theme, with the culture that brings us together in this particular corner of the internet. Some of these I own, some reside on my mom’s shelves, and many are still on my wishlist. If you want to get to know the Southern people, you must get to know their eats. This is where I’d start.

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General Knowledge:

The Southerner’s Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories (2015): Compiled by the editors of Garden and Gun Magazine, this recent addition to my shelves runs the gamut from classics to regional delicacies, with anecdotes and advice woven in between. I’m a particular fan of the gorgeous copper detailing on the front cover, and of the glossary titled “The Southern Larder,” which goes through many of the quirkier ingredients called for in the book and explains what they are and where you might find them.

Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (2012): Winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in American Cooking, this tome is Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s answer to Julia Child’s similarly named masterpieces. Dupree calls Southern cooking “the Mother Cuisine of America,” and this extensive guide will walk you through all the essentials, from biscuits to gravy.

The Heritage of Southern Cooking (1986): Camille Glenn, pictured in charming cartoon detail on the books cover, used to be the food editor at Scout’s and my hometown paper, the Courier-Journal. She left no stoneware unturned when compiling this book, which holds 550 recipes, from duck to dessert. My mom swears by her recipe for pecan pie, an essential in any Southern baker’s wheelhouse.

At My Grandmother’s Knee: Recipes and Memories Handed Down by Women of the South (2011): Faye Porter dedicated this book to “all the women in my life who have shared with me the joy of cooking, baking, loving, making a home, and giving from their hands and hearts.” And while we hate to indulge gender stereotypes (Southern dudes can cook too!), it is true that most of what we learned about cooking, and about the love of cooking, came from our mothers, our grandmothers, and the other great women in our lives.

The Taste of Country Cooking (1976/2006): It is impossible to talk about Southern cooking without talking about black Southern cooking and the essential contributions that so many African-American chefs made to the region’s culinary identity, often without receiving any acknowledgement or credit. Edna Lewis, thankfully, is a great chef who did get the spotlight she deserved, and her tribute to the foods of her childhood home in Freetown, Virginia, is considered one of the great classic Southern cookbooks.

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Sweet Treats:

The Southern Baker: Sweet and Savory Treats to Share with Friends and Family (2015): It’s the subtitle of this volume, compiled by the editors of Southern Living, that I think gets at the heart of what makes Southern cooking so unique. A Southern dish is not meant to be precious. It is not fussed over or plated with surgical precision. It is meant to be shared, served up in big sloppy spoonfuls or generous slices and always, always with love.

Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile-High Pie (2014): I actually interviewed Sarah Baird, back when I was writing for the Louisville Eccentric Observer and her book was just coming out. Sarah’s training is as a culinary anthropologist, and she told me, “ I have a deep interest in how food impacts culture and society: the intersections between culture, society and food; how those work together; and specifically, underrepresented or underserved stories about food.” This book was her attempt to tell some of those stories, from the often overlooked corners of her (and my and Scout’s) home state.

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Regional Specialties:

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984): My personal Southern heritage comes well-seasoned with Tabasco and filé, and this, my father claims, is the best Louisiana cookbook out there. Whether you’re looking for gumbo or jambalaya or Prudhomme’s famous blackened redfish, this book has all the Cajun and Creole classics your stomach could desire.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (1992): Where my Southern roots come from the bayou, Scout’s are grounded in mountain soil. In true Appalachian spirit, the recipes in this book are interspersed with a healthy dose of storytelling and advice. The recipes in this book are unpretentious and full of flavor, just like the folks that make them.

Community Cookbooks: The South has a great tradition of hometown cookbooks, put together by Junior Leagues or women’s groups and offering the best portrait of a town, an identity, and a cuisine. Some of the best (in my, my mom’s, or Scout’s opinion) include The Mountain Laurel Festival Cookbook (Bell County, Kentucky), Talk About Good! (The Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana), The Plantation Cookbook (Junior League of New Orleans), and Recipes to Remember: A Kentucky Cookbook (Kosair Children’s Hospital Auxiliary; Louisville, Kentucky).

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The New South:

Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen (2011): Brian Sonoskus, chef and founder of the Tupelo Honey Cafe, was one of the founders of the farm-to-table movement, which has since spread from North Carolina to Williamsburg, Portland, and beyond. But what is normally written off nowadays as hipster posturing is in fact a very traditional Southern concept: that you should use the best of what your region has to offer, that you should know the folks who grow your ingredients, that quality ingredients assembled with love and care will offer a far greater reward than your fussiest amuse-bouche.

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (2013): Chef Edward Lee was born to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn. So how did he become the most famous chef in Louisville, and one of the most innovative culinary voices in America today? This book tells the tale of his unique, Southern cooking, which mixes together flavors and techniques from his heritage with the traditions of his adopted home.

images via: Zelda’s mama’s photo archives, GARDEN AND GUN, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE, TUPELO HONEY CAFE