Friday, July 26, 2013

Festival of the Peach: Candor Is the Scene

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.] 

Communities that spread over a multi-county area often unite each year for a common celebration. For the N.C. peach community, that event occurs on the third Saturday in July in Candor, a small town in Montgomery Country that brings everyone in the peach-growing Sandhills region together. Although Candor is the home of fewer than 900 residents, it hosts the N.C. Peach Festival because the peach is so important to its identity and its way of life.

The festival brings out peach
costumes as music is played.
Peaches are clearly the star attraction. Boxes, baskets, and bags of freshly picked fruit are sold on sides of streets, from the back of trucks, and at stands of service organizations and neighboring growers. A common sight is a heavy box of peaches being carried by a person navigating through the throngs of streetgoers.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sorghum Molasses: A Tradition Worth Preserving

Is sorghum molasses sweet and flavorsome for you, or is it a syrup that is sticky and sinister?

Although I only occasionally eat sorghum molasses, I’m sure that I would have learned how to make it if I had grown up on a farm. It was syrup that my father grew up eating regularly, and throughout adulthood he ate it as part of his daily supper -- only his was bought in a store.

Sorghum molasses is a rich, brown, sweet, thick syrup. Enjoying it with hot biscuits at breakfast is a tradition in the South. Sorghum molasses is also used on pancakes and hot cereals such as grits, and the syrup can be used as a sweetener in baking and cooking. Because most sorghum varieties are heat-tolerant, they once were very important for poor and rural people. Many Southerners grew up with sorghum as a sweetener when refined sugar was not readily available or affordable.

Impurities are skimmed off the juice
during boiling as it becomes concentrated.
Sorghum is a species of grass grown commonly as a fodder plant and for grain. Sweet sorghum – one of the varieties of sorghum that has a high sugar content -- is also grown for syrup production. Introduced into the United States from Africa, sorghum has been widely cultivated in the American South since the 1850s, although sorghum is not grown as frequently as it once was. In fact, sorghum syrup is harder to find than other syrups, and only a few family-owned farms in the South still operate sorghum cane mills.

Sign at the farm entrance
welcomes visitors.
When the Charles Martin Farm, in Jackson Springs, NC, invited the public to an “old-fashioned” demonstration, I jumped at the opportunity to see the process. First, the tall canes are cut and stripped of leaves. A worker feeds the stalks a few at a time into a roller mill, which traditionally was pulled by a horse or mule. As the stalks go through the mill, rollers extract a green juice by crushing the stalks. Next the juice is concentrated and purged of impurities by being boiled in a wood-fired evaporator pan. Even after the boiling process, the juice — now brown — still retains most of its nutrients and sugars. When it develops a thick, honey-like consistency, a metal ladle is used to transfer the syrup into a glass container. (If the syrup is still cloudy-looking, then it is not ready.)

The roller mill is typically operated
by animal power (mule or horse).
When I visited the Martin Farm, where sorghum molasses is made annually as a traditional family craft, I was one of the few spectators even though local print and broadcast media had publicized the event. Most of the spectators seem to be friends from neighboring areas who were joining again in a annual community activity. Because making syrup is very labor-intensive, its production has fallen drastically since World War II. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee now grow the most sorghum for syrup production in the South.  In middle to late October many of these states still have festivals that celebrate the sorghum harvest such as the ones in Caldwell County and Sampson County, N.C.

Stalks leaving the roller mill
have little juice remaining.
A previous generation would have told us that sorghum molasses is not only charming and flavorsome but nutritious as well. Perhaps we are missing an opportunity to come together and socialize as a community because sorghum molasses rarely has a place on our kitchen tables.

Note: An earlier version of post was published on the blog NCFOOD by the North Carolina Folklife Institute on Jan. 11, 2013. Components of the original post included in this one, which has been modified by minor edits and updates, are reprinted by permission from the North Carolina Folkife Institute.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Heirloom Seeds and Plants: Preserving State Food Traditions

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.] 

            Do you wish that you could grow the same vegetables that Grandma grew? The flavors that she tasted and the nutrients that she enjoyed are legendary, and many of us reminisce about how we miss the flavors of yesteryear. Because this desire to appreciate traditional foods is growing, a cultural movement to preserve heirloom seeds and plants has slowly but increasingly developed in our state. Efforts in the western counties, in particular, are significant.

Plants are grown for heirloom seed
production on farms in the South.
            To understand this trend, we first have to appreciate the difference between heirloom vegetables and their modern hybrids. Although many heirlooms date back more than 100 years, gardeners typically consider any plant introduced prior to 1951 (the year of the first hybridized plants) to be an heirloom variety. However, some date back centuries to the cultures of American Indians, and others can be traced to ancestral countries in Europe and Africa.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bluegrass Jam: In Memory of Past Tunes and Passed Musicians

The cars and trucks parked outside an old, tattered wood-frame store that appears abandoned are the first hints that a bluegrass jam is about to begin. The sign by the side of the road with an adjacent post holding the oval frame for a missing Esso sign confirms the date. Stopping for an hour or more to connect to the spirit of tunes and musicians still revered can rejuvenate the soul.

The sign by the road tells the
date of the next bluegrass jam.
The oval frame for a missing sign
confirms that life is a-changing.

The jam sessions are held twice a month in a shady area behind the store, which has been a music scene in Chatham County since 1999. The musicians seem more interested in enjoying their own company and collaboration than in entertaining guests in front of their stage. These musicians meet in memory of Reno C. Sharpe who passed in 2009, and they perpetuate the values and memories of an era being smothered by the hustle and bustle of impersonal modern life where a person is more likely to send a text message than speak to a neighbor.

A short path from the store leads to
the area where the jam is held
My wife and I arrived only a few minutes after the session had started. The musicians outnumbered the audience. Nine musicians were on stage with only five people in the audience. She quickly observed that she was initially the only woman present, but soon other women arrived as well as young girls with older men who appeared to be their grandfathers. About an hour in the session, a female guitarist joined the musicians who warmly received her and then were delighted when she picked “Tennessee Waltz,” popular since the 1940s, for them to play when it was her turn to select a song. “It’s in C, y’all,” she coached the others for the right key before starting the tune. She also sang alone except for brief sections when a few of the men joined in. In other songs, her female voice combined eloquently with the lower male voices to create a beautiful harmony.

Photos are taken frequently, even by
young members of the audience.
Almost everyone had parked in the driveway in front of the store except three cars that had parked next to the bandstand. One musician, who seemed to be the oldest in the group, arrived late and left early, and he was one of the drivers who unquestionably had next-to-stage parking. The elevated stand, covered by a rusting sheet metal roof, even has a handicapped-accessible ramp for aging musicians who need a little help as he did and can no longer climb steps easily. The chatter among the musicians after a tune had ended indicated that the sheltered stage had been built in 2010.

The Eagle Scout project
improves the area where
the jam is held.
Twelve benches, all named in honor or memory of community members, enclose the stage in semi-circle patterns in an unmowed grassy area underneath huge, leafy trees that provide welcoming shade in summer months. A marker indicates that the benches were part of an Eagle Scout project by Jason Buchanan of Troop 900 in spring 2012. When I was there on a July morning, the audience changed seats and moved among the twelve benches — to stay out of the direct sunrays — as the temperature began to rise. A musician even commented, “It’s hot – just saw a dog chase a cat, and both were walking.”

The house rules specify that only acoustic instruments can be played. After an hour into the jam session, the group peaked with 14 musicians and instruments – nine guitars, one fiddle, two mandolins, one banjo, and one bass guitar. A bass fiddle also leaned against the rear wall behind the musicians, but no one ever played it. By the time the session ended, the number of musicians had dropped to 11.

The music was harmonious, even when nearby cows joined in with their own vocal parts. “I think the cows liked that one,” one guitar player said as a song ended to acknowledge the accompaniment of the bellowing bovines. When the next song ended, another musician remarked, “The cows want more.” Then as the group played and sang “Take These Chains from My Heart,” the last of Hank Williams’ number-one hits, the cows were quiet, perhaps in respect to the memories that the song and the musicians were evoking.

Jam members play by the rules.
As informal as the jam session is, it has etiquette rules and adheres to other expectations of a bluegrass jam. A newcomer in the audience observes how politely one musician is offered to “take the lead.” Before “Why Don’t You Tell Me So?” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs can begin, the lead announces, “G chord.” Sometimes a musician asks, “Which way are you going?” Another time a musician is reminded that it’s his turn: “That’s yours, Mac.” At one point, “Whose turn is it next?” is answered with “It’s Paul’s turn, ain’t it?” When the lead singer for a song appears to forget some lyrics, a group member says encouragingly, “Just make one up.” When another song ends, “Y’all make me feel so good,” is heard from the stage. An occasional “Good job” is also heard before the next tune begins.

The audience moves occasionally
to find seats in the shade.
The next song was “Crying My Heart Over You,” a hit written in 1982 by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Carl Butler, and Earl Sherry. The group moved seamlessly between songs with lyrics and others played as only instrumental tunes. As the sun continued to rise, the chords of “Down Yonder” rang out. The sweet blend of instrumental sounds makes it seem like the musicians play together much more frequently than twice a month — jam sessions at the Reno Sharpe Store are held on only the first and third Saturdays of each month, beginning at 10 a.m. In addition, a special annual celebration is held each August. (A video of a bluegrass jam inside the store with Mr. Sharpe — in the background by the window — uploaded in 2009 also helps to preserve these memories.)

The store maintains its ambiance
even though it is officially closed.
The store, built in the 1880s, was moved in 1920 to its current location. Reno C. Sharpe owned and operated the store with his brother after taking control from their grandfather in the 1940s, but it officially closed in 2003, only six years before Sharpe died. However, its history is another story – best told by the family themselves.

My morning was well spent — a time to observe a close-knit community come together and share cherished memories with their music. My only discomfort was the apparent rule that no song could end with applause from the audience. The musicians clearly deserved that usual tribute of appreciation, but perhaps at this place just showing up is all the appreciation that they need.

After the jam, the community continues to preserve memories by adopting a highway.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Celebrating Freedom: Understanding the Emancipation Proclamation

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we rightfully embrace the Declaration of Independence. However, the freedoms that we cherish are only partially enshrined in that document. Without the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, our liberties would be particularly constricted. Citizenship and its rights were also more clearly defined during American Civil War era and its aftermath, although clearly the Civil Rights Movement was indispensable for guaranteeing these rights to Americans who had long been denied them.

After the Civil War had ended, three Amendments to the Constitution were necessary to abolish slavery (13th), define citizenship (14th), and prohibit barriers to voting (15th). However, Congressional resolutions, such as the Crittenden Compromise, establish that the principal initial goal of the war was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. As the war continued and thousands of lives were invested in establishing a “more perfect Union,” the goal of firmly dealing with slavery as a legal institution and ending its practice in the states in rebellion became equally prominent.

Even before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Congress had sent him at least four acts significantly affecting the practice of slavery. The D.C. Emancipation Act ended slavery in the Capitol on April 16, 1862. On June 19, 1862, a law ended slavery in all current and future U.S. territories. In addition, two confiscation acts were passed to seize property from Confederate supporters in the South and emancipate their slaves who came under Union control. The Emancipation Proclamation broadened this effort and established the end of slavery as a wartime measure directed against the Confederacy.

Although limited in scope, the Emancipation Proclamation provided an additional foundation for national changes brought about by the constitutional Amendments ratified during Reconstruction. Because 2013 is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the issuance of the Proclamation, it and its preliminary version have received much attention. Even as significant as the Proclamation is in American history, it is often misunderstood and Lincoln's language “henceforward shall be free” is frequently misidentified as the provision that ends slavery.

Exhibit at the N.C. Museum of
History in 2013 included a copy
of the Preliminary Proclamation.
The exhibit Freedom Coming, Freedom for All at the North Carolina Museum of History in mid-2013 brought the preliminary Proclamation for public display. When I visited, only three others were present, and I wished more people were interested in seeing this historic document because few Americans have actually read the Proclamation. If they had, they would observe limitations of the document, unusual exceptions that significantly limit “henceforward shall be free,” different language than that typically associated with Lincoln such as his poetic Gettysburg Address, and the opportunity for Confederate states to avoid the authority of the Proclamation. In fact, reviewing the reaction of critics to the Proclamation also helps to place it in better focus.

Stamp issued in 2013
for the Proclamation's
sesquicentennial anniversary.
Much of the misunderstanding is caused by a tendency to reduce important and sometimes complex documents to only a few words or a catchy phrase such as “All men are created equal” as in the Declaration of Independence. The Emancipation Proclamation is often reduced to “henceforward shall be free,” as the U.S. Postal Service did when it issued a stamp in 2013 to mark the sesquicentennial of the Proclamation. (However, contrast the assertive language of this stamp with the plain stamp issued in 1963.)

First and importantly, the Proclamation did not apply to all states. Exempt were the border states of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia where slavery remained legal. In addition, areas of states that had seceded were also except such as parts of Virginia and Louisiana. In fact, the entire state of Tennessee was excluded. Also lost in the passage of time is the irony that the effective date of the Proclamation was known in the South as “Hiring Day.” Many owners “rented out” enslaved workers who were three to five times more likely to be hired out than bought or sold. Throughout the South, New Year’s Day serving as “Hiring Day,” and hiring contracts ran from January 1 to December 25. Thus, the Proclamation became effective on the day that new hiring contracts were also effective.

The stamp issued in 1963 for the
Proclamation's centennial celebration
did not include the assertive language
of the 2013 stamp.
Even though the Proclamation is often interpreted as specifically making the end of slavery a goal of the war for the United States on the level of the aim of preserving the Union, it clearly offers a state in rebellion “an out,” as explained by Prof. Reginald Hildebrand at a lecture on “The Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation” that I attended. Specifically, a seceded state had 100 days to rejoin the Union, and if a state ended its part in the rebellion, the Proclamation no longer applied to it. In addition, the Proclamation lacks the authority of law. The other limitations on slavery were enacted by Congress, but the Proclamation is only an executive branch policy.

Page 1 of the
Preliminary Emancipation
Further, reaction was particularly less than positive by some critics of Lincoln. If slavery is such a moral issue, how can a 100-day delay be justified? Much of the world had already eradicated slavery, at least officially. In the Western Hemisphere, every nation except Cuba and Brazil had outlawed slavery. The diary of Adam Gurowski, a Polish writer in exile in the United States, establishes what could be viewed as contempt for the Proclamation. When Lincoln issued the preliminary Proclamation, Gurowski wrote on Sept. 22, 1862 that the delay of 100 days and allowance for a state to end its rebellion — and thus keeping slavery intact — was “the last desperate effort made by Mr. Lincoln” to save slavery. Gurowski was equally critical of Lincoln’s language. He wrote that the Proclamation “is written in the meanest and most routine style; not a word to evoke a generous thrill, not a word reflecting the warm and lofty comprehension and feelings of the immense majority of the people on this question of emancipation.”

The Declaration of Independence was indispensable for starting a revolt against King George III, but it only partially explains the freedoms of Americans “created equal ... with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Other documents are equally central, and we need to view all of them carefully and objectively to appreciate their meanings. 

Note: The lecture by Prof. Hildebrand was part of the program "Old and New: Studying the South in the 21st Century" that I attended as a recipient of the Bushing Humanities Fellowship from Sandhills Community College.