Sunday, January 23, 2011

Storytelling in the South

The rich tradition of storytelling in the South unites residents and visitors in a common love of relaying fiction and sometimes fact. Often combined with music and drama, storytelling in the Southern tradition is rich in culture, history, arts, humor, and outdoor activities and emphasizes the importance of community and the power of family.

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling, an art that predates written history, is one of the earliest forms of human communication. Although the importance of storytelling is often underestimated, the late Southern writer Reynolds Price expressed: “A need to hear and tell stories is essential to human beings, second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.” Storytelling obviously is not limited to the American South as the National Storytelling Network illustrates -- almost every state has an association. However, the power, intimacy and skills of storytelling in the South are unsurpassed.

Storytelling is not simple. It requires imagination, narrative, and interaction; in addition, if often depends on non-verbal communication and expressions. In fact, storytelling can be a high art form. For example, East Tennessee State University offers a master’s degree in storytelling. Other regional universities also offer programs, such as the storytelling project of Florida Atlantic University that seeks to advance the knowledge, appreciation and application of storytelling through classes, workshops, and outreach programs. Some programs focus on specific objectives, such as The Storytelling Project at UNC-Greensboro that focuses on teaching tolerance to kids of all ages (one story at a time) and uses storytelling to foster respect for diversity.

Types of Storytelling

Unlike the South, in some regions storytelling fell out of favor, particularly as the written word and printed material were used to share information. If storytelling survived, it was typically limited to library story hours and young children. However, the South is well known for its many stories where stretching the truth is not a vice — sometimes:

  • Tall tales, often known as Jack tales that are very popular in Appalachian folklore, are familiar traditions. Usually centered on a weak, sometimes foolish, but usually kind character, these tales are oral traditions (as opposed to written). Many also trace back to sources in England.

  • Folk tales with a moral often have animals as main characters. Probably the best known stories of the South are the Uncle Remus tales recorded by Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908), who was born in Georgia on a plantation where he served as an apprentice. The stories represent dialect tales that Harris had heard from slaves before he became a well-known writer for the Atlanta Constitution. Such tales often feature a trickster animal (Br’er Rabbit) that disobeys normal rules and succeeds through wit rather than strength or authority. Connected to storytelling traditions with roots in Africa, these animal tales, seemingly stories of simple entertainment, suggest more complex lessons about the value of cunning and escape from submission.

  • Myths and legends, brought forward from native American, African, and European traditions, are also common in the South. Ghost stories, such as “A Christmas Haunting,” are also prominent, and their characters are not limited to humans, such as the legend of Joeabb the frog.

  • Other family, church, and community tales are often great attention grabbers.

Storytelling Circles and Networks

Storytelling, by preserving the heritage of the region, serves as a bridge between families, generations and areas; reaches across barriers of age, gender, wealth and race; and provides the foundation for meaningful connections that in others cultures may be lost. Obviously, the South would be the preferred site for an international storytelling event, and it’s the home of the International Storytelling Center, located in Jonesboro, Tenn., which conducts a festival each October (attended by more than 10,000 people). It also sponsors “tellers”-in-residence from May to October.

Many states in the South have statewide guilds and local storytelling circles. North Carolina is a prime example with a statewide guild, circles in cities such as Asheville, and groups with a specific cultural focus such as the N.C. Association of Black Storytellers. In fact, North Carolina is also the home of the Storytelling Arts Center of the Southeast, which sponsors a regional festival each spring with workshops and performances, a liars’ showdown (with a maxim of “where lying through your teeth is an art”) in January, and a fall festival in October with music and storytelling. Another example of a state with a strong storytelling network is South Carolina. Often these networks and events capture the attention of regional media as illustrated by the festival report of the North Carolina statewide television network.

When I participated in the Liars’ Showdown, my tale of a talking collard plant (that lied) was representative of the traditional Southern tall tale. Held at the Storytelling Arts Center of the Southeast in Laurinburg, NC, the event featured storytellers from throughout North Carolina (including Asheville, Cary, Hickory, Marshville, Monroe, Raleigh, Saint Pauls, Waxhaw, and West End) as well as South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Other participants told tales about a Greyhound bus that flew to Africa, false teeth in a mud puddle that ate fried chicken during a tent revival, moon rocks found in a cow pasture, and a boy who could swallow an ocean. The regional talent is almost as good as the national storyteller such as Suzi Whaples of West Virginia who receives top billing.

The rich tradition of storytelling has an unlimited future in the South. Although it predates written history, storytelling will never be out-of-date even in the era of digital communications. Because it features imagination, intimacy, and interaction that the Internet cannot offer, storytelling – with its strengths in combining culture, history, arts, and humor and emphasizing the importance of community and the power of family – will be a significant part of Southern culture for a long time.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It's Time for Snow Cream

Has it snowed for more than two hours? If so, what are you waiting on? It’s time for snow cream.

Few people remember how to make snow cream today because everyone has ice cream in the freezer. But better than ice cream is an old-fashioned, homemade creation of freshly fallen snow flavored with a little dairy, vanilla, and sugar. In the South, snow cream is treasured because snowstorms are infrequent and often breathtaking.

The directions are simple. In a large bowl, combine evaporated milk, vanilla, and sugar until smooth. Then slowly stir in snow and keep adding snow until the mixture is thick — you want it thick. The result is thinner than ice cream but very tasty. Don’t save; don’t freeze (although you can). Eat at once.

What are the secrets? Use evaporated milk because it gives a creamier texture than milk. (Because the snow waters down the taste, the richer you make this mixture, the better.) Some folks also chill all ingredients (and the mixing bowl) first; this keeps the snow from liquefying rapidly and watering down the flavor. In fact, if you can, stir the snow into the mixture outside where the chilly temperature should keep the snow almost intact.

The most important step is to collect only clean snow. If young kids help you with this project, stress the importance of making sure that the snow is clean and using only clean snow. My family always insists that we can’t use the first flakes of a snowfall. We make sure that the snow is clean by waiting until it has snowed at least two hours and more is on the way. (The last snowfall more than passed the clean-snow test.)

Another idea fairly obvious: Collect the snow where birds and other animals have not visited. Take only the freshest snow – collect it from the top of the snow that has fallen and while it is still coming down.

Other options: Some folks like to add one or two beaten eggs to the mixture before the snow is stirred in. If you can’t eat raw eggs, skip that option (or use an egg substitute).

The rewards are immediate. Gather the young and young-at-heart, enjoy a homemade creation that connects many generations, and tell a few stories about the old days. Then watch the forecast for another snowfall so that you can repeat this experience.

1 can evaporated milk (12 fluid ounces)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup white sugar
1 gallon snow