Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Is a Whirligig?

Whirligig by Vollis Simpson of Wilson, NC, on display
in Wilmington, NC, at the Cameron Art Museum
Have you seen a whirligig recently? Everyone seems to have a particular idea of what a whirligig is and when to use the word. Simply, a whirligig is an object that spins or whirls. Individually as well as in groupings, whirligigs have become noteworthy, particularly in the American South, as an artistic form of creative expression.

A whirligig -- as fun to say as it is to see -- is a whimsical, wind-powered creation that whirls and turns on a pivot. The term dates to the fifteenth century and appears to have its roots in the Middle English word of whirlegigg, which was formed from whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top). The term is applied to a variety of items – living and inanimate objects.

Creation by Self-Taught Artist

Small whirligig by Simpson

A whirligig is an inimitable creation by a self-taught artist who has no formal training – except for the whirligig that is a beetle, so named because it swims about in circles. With two pairs of eyes and clubbed antennae, the whirligig beetle lives on the surface of water where it spins and spins. Otherwise, whirligigs are inanimate and typically crafted by folk or visionary artists. The simplest wind-powered whirligig is a pinwheel, which demonstrates an important feature: blade surface. Although the designs of whirligigs may be simple, some are very complex, particularly when a creative artist such as Vollis Simpson of Wilson, NC, finds a “man or mule, hat or cat, hidden in any castoff sheet of steel” and fashions it into a whirligig.

Components are crafted out of wood, plastic, metal, and other materials, sometimes taken from discarded objects to recycle their parts and extend their lives, and then hand-painted to provide artistic expression. Antique whirligigs have been preserved in museums as creative expressions of earlier generations, as described in The New York Times. However, whirligigs are making a modern comeback, with credit for reviving them during the 1980s given to Ander Lunde of Chapel Hill, NC, who published eight books on how to build whirligigs.

Literary Connection

A whirligig as an artistic expression is sometimes even literary. For example, Whirligigs is the title of a collection of twenty-four short stories by North Carolina author O. Henry (born William Sydney Porter) that also includes the well-known “The Ransom of Red Chief.” In the collection, a lesser-known story, which takes the title of “The Whirligig of Life” to express the whimsical nature of life and relationships that change as the wind blows, recounts the visits of a Tennessee couple to a justice of the peace to “divo’ce” unhappily only to reunite blissfully the next day. In addition, Shakespeare uses whirlagig as a metaphor for “time” in Twelfth Night when the clown Feste states that “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” an expression we know currently as “you reap what you sow.” Sometimes whirligig is a label applied to a person, such as in The Gambler by Tyodor Dostoyevsky, whose character expresses concern that a stepfather “is going to marry that silly whirligig of a Frenchwoman--that actress, or something worse.”

Whirligigs stand guard over a field at the entrance to Fearrington
Village in Chatham County, NC

Cultural and Educational Destination

More often the artistic expression is visual art – and a tourist attraction. Sightseers enjoy watching whirligigs move as the wind blows and learning about the artists who created them for fun. Some whirligigs can be found at restaurants and in parks, and others adorn private gardens and yards. However, they attract more attention when massed in collections. The most famous location probably is the “whirligig farm” on Wiggins Mill Road in Lucama, NC, that had been constructed by Simpson on his land where more than thirty whirligigs, some more than five feet high, once attracted many visitors. Tourists are now directed to a new two-acre downtown park in nearby Wilson where these whirligigs have been designated to serve as a centerpiece to help shape the city’s industrial artisan district and be a cultural and educational destination. Wilson also holds an annual Whirligig Festival in November, and this event includes a whirligig building contest with Simpson as a judge.

On display at Cameron Art Museum
Small whirligig by Vollis Simpson

Cultural Recognition

Work of a junkyard poet
Whirligigs crafted by folk artists are also exclusive justification for a cultural award or recognition. Although garden shops, particularly online suppliers such as Wind & Weather and Plow and Hearth, sell mass-produced whirligigs, the ones individually crafted by folk artists such as Simpson, whose work has been profiled by Public Broadcasting System, are recognized for their cultural contributions. Although Simpson was wittily labeled a “junkyard poet” by The New York Times, he has been celebrated by organizations such as the N.C. Folklore Society for his “meaningful contributions to the transmission, appreciation and observance of traditional culture and folklife” and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources that presented him the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor. Southern Living has also presented a Heroes of the New South Award to Simpson for his contributions to art and culture. In addition, his work is now part of the permanent collections of the American Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore, High Museum in Atlanta, and N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. 

When Simpson and his whirligigs were honored during a fundraiser at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC, I visited to gauge the interest and reaction of the museum’s patrons. I left with the feeling that whirligigs tell an authentic story in our regional folklife. Although whirligigs mass-produced in Asia with stamped and painted metal can be cheaply bought, the true artistic ones – only the ones that connect to culture – hold value in the American South.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Haggis: A Glorious Sight in the South

Haggis is not typically considered Southern food, but it frequently shows up on dinner tables for special occasions when Southerners celebrate the heritage of three Scottish ethnic groups – Lowland Scots, Highlanders, and Scots-Irish – hundreds of thousands of whom settled in this region during colonial times.

The “exodus of Scots to America” still shapes the identity of Americans with Scottish ancestry, particularly in many parts of the South, as described in Transatlantic Scots, a recent study edited by Celeste Ray.
Celebrating with haggis is simply one way to use food to preserve a broader cultural identity. What makes haggis worth celebrating? The reason can’t be the ingredients (as listed by Food Network):
  • 1 sheep liver
  • 1 sheep heart
  • 1 sheep tongue
  • 1 sheep stomach
  • 1/2 pound suet, minced
  • 3 medium onions, minced
  • 1/2 pound dry oats, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried ground herbs
Perhaps its charm can be explained by the lyrical honor afforded to this national dish of Scotland by native poet Robert Burns. Proclaimed “a glorious sight” by Burns in his “Address to a Haggis,” haggis was a common but nourishing dish of the poor in Scotland. It was very cheap to prepare because it used leftover parts of a sheep (the most common livestock in Scotland) that would otherwise be thrown away. (Learn more about the history of haggis on YouTube.)

This tradition of Scotland was brought to American by the numerous Scot immigrants, who formed St. Andrew’s societies in their new regions. These groups initially provided charitable relief for Scottish natives and their descendants who were in want or distress in their new land as well as fostered a spirit of community and identity among Scottish Americans. They still exist today in several states and large cities to celebrate Scottish heritage and traditions in the United States.

The chef ceremoniously presents
the haggis.
Although membership is usually limited to natives of Scotland and their descendants, guests frequently are invited to attend special events. When I attended the annual St. Andrew’s Day Dinner conducted by the St.Andrew’s Society of North Carolina, I was not prepared for the high honor that haggis would receive.

Before the dinner was served, a “ceremonial presentation of the haggis” was formally conducted. A platter with a freshly boiled but uncut haggis was marched regally into the dining room by the chef who was closely watched by everyone present. As the chef held high the platter for all to see, a respected member recited by memory the full poem by Burns. After the chef had majestically dissected the haggis, the wait staff brought out servings for all the guests.

An individual portion of haggis
served after the chef had presented
a platter of haggis to the guests.
A national dish of Scotland, haggis is best served with Scotch whiskey and presented with a bagpipe tune to enrich the cultural experience. Such was the case at this dinner. Scotch whiskey was at every setting before guests entered the dining room. After they were seated but before the chef presented the haggis, Bill Caudill, pipe band director at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, played the initial bagpipe selection of “Flowers o’the Forest.

Scotch whiskey awaited each guest
before the haggis was served.
After the main course was served, the Scotch whiskey was used to toast St. Andrew, then the president of the United States, and finally the queen of England. Then the wait staff served five-onion soup, filet mignon, green beans, twice-baked potato, and rolls with butter. Dessert -- crème brûlée -- was later served with coffee (or iced tea for the Southerners present).

In keeping with Scottish traditions, haggis is customarily served on January 25, Burns Day (when the poet was born in 1759); April 6, Tartan Day (that celebrates Scottish heritage); November 30, Day of St. Andrew (patron saint for Scotland); and December 31, New Year’s Eve (when Scotland celebrates Hogmanay, a festive time steeped in many traditions).

McKean's ships haggis
throughout the United States.
Can’t wait for one of these occasions? Order online from McKean’s, the purveyor of Scottish haggis in the United States. Based in Glasgow in the heartland of Scotland and a supplier of haggis since 1850, McKean’s ships haggis in a “cook-in bag” in an insulated container with “ice-pack.” Five pounds serve up to ten people as a main course.

How can something made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep be so appreciated? Chopping them; adding minced suet, onions, oatmeal and seasoning; and then boiling the mixture encased in a sack made from the lining of a sheep’s stomach only prepare the final result — a large spherical sausage — for the grand occasion: a ceremonial presentation.
Is haggis ever for breakfast?

The traditional presentation is indispensable for making the haggis “a glorious sight.” However, haggis by itself doesn’t demand a second helping, but when served with Scotch whiskey and bagpipe music, it beats going hungry.