Sunday, October 5, 2014

Biscuit Traditions and Love on Wheels

A search for made-from-scratch biscuits brought me to Nashville, the home of country music and also the home of the food truck Biscuit Love. I had just learned about Biscuit Love from a blog post by Southern Foodways Alliance announced on Twitter.

Biscuit Love has garnered quite a following since 2012 when it began rolling the streets around Nashville. The husband and wife team of Karl and Sarah Worley source about 80 percent of their ingredients locally, which they creatively use to prepare a rotating menu of seasonal biscuit choices.

The line for biscuit orders starts early.

Chef Karl (right) keeps biscuits
moving in Nashville.
Karl is also known for his ability to make “beaten biscuits,” described by Southern Foodways Alliance as “an art form.” Karl, who learned how to make these biscuits from the late John Edgerton, noted Southern food author, is supplying them to SFA’s fall symposium later this year.

“Beaten” biscuits were the first biscuits in the South, according to food historians, and were an improvement on hardtack, the bread of traveling warriors and sailors. This “lighter” version of hardtack was made by beating the dough. In the recipe for biscuits in The American Cookery of 1796, the directions specifically call for the cook to “break” the dough while the oven was heating.

My order: farm cheese grits; biscuit with pumpkin spice and chai cheese;
biscuit with smoked sausage, fried egg and cheddar cheese

To break meant to beat with a rolling pin or other instrument – very tough work typically relegated to slaves or servants in the antebellum South. The “beating” process creates pockets of air and develops glutens in the dough that make the biscuits lighter. The recipe’s ingredients were simple: 1 pound flour, 2 ounces butter, 1 egg, wet with milk.

Deciding on which biscuit to order is not easy.

Beaten biscuits, which were made without leavening agents, declined with the arrival of baking powder and baking soda and the introduction of self-rising flour. The legacy of making beaten biscuits was preserved by several food historians, notably Egerton, whose family owned a “biscuit break.” This machine flattens dough that is run though the machine again and again by the cook. Edgerton once said that dough was beaten “100 times for family and 500 times for company.”

The next order is ready.
The Worleys are keeping a significant Southern tradition alive with their food truck and their knowledge of biscuits. Later this year they will open Biscuit Love Brunch, a new restaurant in Nashville. But for now, Biscuit Love rolls on wheels!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Musical Roots in Nashville

If you want to explore the history of country music and appreciate its contributions to America’s music scene, where would you travel? Nashville, Tenn., is the destination for many because The Grand Ole Opry and the famous venues where it has played such as the Ryman Auditorium have such historic importance.

Ryman Auditorium gave birth to bluegrass in 1945.

A long-running radio program, the Opry has always featured the biggest starts in country music. The stage concert, which began in 1925, was initially a simple broadcast known as a barn dance on radio station WSM. Since then the Opry has built a solid reputation by showcasing country music legends as well as contemporary artists who continue their traditions.

The stage of the Ryman and the Confederate gallery
have historic importance to country music fans.

Ryman Auditorium became the home of the Opry in 1943, although it first opened in 1892. When I drove by it the first time, I thought it looked like a church. In fact, its original purpose was to hold revivals downtown for Rev. Samuel T. Jones, who preached hard against gambling and drinking. Known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the building was later renamed for Thomas Ryman, a riverboat captain, who had built it for Rev. Jones. As I stood in the auditorium among the curved pews, I could almost imagine Rev. Jones delivering a fiery sermon to an overflow crowd, many in the balcony built to add seating needed for the reunion of Confederate veterans in 1897.

Arched windows of the Ryman still give the appearance of a church.

The Opry continued to be broadcast from the Ryman until 1974, when The Grand Ole Opry House, a much larger and more modern venue, opened in 1974 in eastern Nashville. When artists perform at the Opry House, they stand in a six-foot oak circle cut from the Ryman’s stage to carry on the traditions in the new location.

Curved pews of the Ryman retain their tabernacle look.

A show consists of several segments, each one with an artist “host” who introduces other performers. For the show that I attended, the hosts were music legends: Connie Smith, Riders in the Sky, Ray Pillow and Jeannie Seely. My main reason for attending the night that I did was to see Kellie Pickler (the new) and Mel Tillis (the old); they with Gretchen Peters, soon to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, were the principal draws for the large crowd of 4,000 plus that night.

Kellie Pickle sings in the oak circle brought from Ryman Auditorium.

Because the Opry is a radio broadcast, the segments are pieced together by the radio announcer who also does the on-air commercials live in front of the audience. Be prepared for several commercial breaks.

The live Opry broadcast is complete with commercials for the audience watching the show.

The mix of artists at the Opry includes bluegrass, folk, and gospel musicians as well as comedic performances and skits. Even the Ryman Auditorium was the scene for lectures by national leaders such as President Teddy Roosevelt and performances by notables such as magician Harry Houdini. 

The Grand Ole Opry House ends the pilgrimage by many country music fans.

The buildings themselves almost seem as important as the Opry, but the magnets to attend a performance are the old-time favorites and the opportunity to see the famous show live. For many in the audience their trip was a pilgrimage to Music City. The growth of country music has significantly shaped Nashville and far beyond this city founded in 1779.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Would You Order Livermush at a Classic Family Diner?

[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.]

Want to step back in time and explore early food traditions of our state? Then stop at a family-owned diner that has been in business for more than 50 years. When you do, expect to find items on the menu that link back to days long ago.

Livermush on the sandwich menu
quickly aught my attention
The menu boards immediately caught my attention when I entered The Hub, a place popular for breakfast and lunch in Anson County. Located about 50 miles east of Charlotte on busy U.S. 74 that bypasses the downtown heart of Wadesboro, The Hub has been in business since 1961, according to Scott Drye, who began working in the diner when he was 11 and is the son of the owner. He said his father took over the diner in 1969 and has been operating it ever since.

Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Scottish Heritage Preserved in Games, Music, Food, and Religion

Cultural history of the American South can be learned by attending events that preserve traditions of previous generations, particularly when the activities emphasize music, skill contests, food, religion, and other aspects of society and family. An excellent example occurs in Scotland County, N.C., during the first weekend of each October.

The Highland Games of Scotland County, held on the grounds of the John Blue Home and Historical Complex in Laurinburg, celebrate the rich Scottish heritage of the Upper Cape Fear and Pee Dee regions of the Carolinas. Even though events extend over three days, the primary day is Saturday (the second day), when the field opens to the general public at 8 a.m. The opening ceremonies feature pipe bands and a parade of tartans. The morning activities typically include Scottish athletic events, sheep dog demonstrations, piping and drumming competitions, and other entertainment. In the afternoon, more music and athletic competitions are held, including children games. The games continue a tradition of Scottish games in the area (that began in 1976 with the Flora MacDonald Highland Games, which had been held annually in nearby Red Springs but were discontinued in 2007).

Athletic Competitions
The athletic events seem particularly archaic when compared to today’s popular sports, such as football that emphasizes throw, punt, and run skills or basketball with a focus on dribble, pass, and shoot proficiency. However, the Scottish contests demonstrate skills needed in arduous conditions for taming both native and foreign lands. For example, one event – turning of the caber – involves throwing a caber (a tree that can range from 17 to 21 feet and weigh up to 160 pounds) so that it turns end over end with the large end striking the ground before the small end follows through and then strikes the ground. The champion wins by landing a caber in a perfect 12 o’clock position (on an imaginary clock). In contrast, competitors in other events are judged by the height or distance that they can throw a cumbersome object. The highest toss wins for these two events:

  • Sheaf toss. A sheaf (bundle of twine wrapped in a burlap bag), which weighs up to 16 pounds, is tossed with a pitchfork over a horizontal bar.
  • Weight over bar. Using only one hand, competitors toss a weight (up to 56 pounds) with an attached handle over a horizontal bar.
The longest throw wins for other events.
  • Open stone. A stone weighing up to 22 pounds for men (12 pounds for women) is thrown (or “put”) from the shoulder with only one hand.
  • Heavy weight toss. A competitor throws an implement weighing up to 56 pounds with one hand.
  • Light weight toss. Similar to the heavy weight toss, this event also uses an implement but a lighter one (28 pounds for men and 14 pounds for women).
  • Scottish hammer throw. A hammer (with a shaft of 50 inches or less), weighing up to 22 pounds, is thrown over the shoulders using both hands.
Can children participate? At the games in Scotland County, children from 4 to 16 can compete in several basic activities, including Scottish competitions, such as the stone throw; caber toss; clachneart, an event resembling the shot put; and hammer throw. In addition, running events (not exceeding one-fourth of a mile) and a tug of war offer other competitive contests for young participants.

Music seems to be playing continually during the Highland Games of Scotland County. Although a central entertainment stage has continual performances and demonstrations of music and dance, the main music attraction is the piping and drumming competitions. Because the sweet and melodious tunes of the bagpipe have been heard in the Carolinas since the 1730s when the first Highland Scots arrived in the region, the music competition for pipes and drums bands is intense.
The music competition honors the Argyll Colony that arrived in 1739 in the Upper Cape Fear region and was the first group of a large emigration of Highland Scots that continued for about 100 years. As they arrived, music was an indispensable component of social life and prominent in several historical settings. For example, pipers during the American Revolutionary War were known for creating a ruse to confuse Patriot forces as to the location of Loyalist forces. Because suspicions arose about the “alien British” community in the region during the War of 1812 and they were pressured to assimilate into American ways, piping became less prominent.

As a result, piping was replaced by fiddling in providing music for dance, even though the local conservative Presbyterian clergy typically viewed music and dance as irreconcilable with spiritual life. Recovering slowly from this decline, pipe bands began to appear in the Carolinas by the mid-20th century. An early example is the Blue Ribbon Caledonian Pipe Band, established around 1947 in the N.C. Triad area, that played for the inauguration of Governor Scott in 1947. A few years later in 1955, The Citadel in Charleston began a pipe band that is still part of the cadet music program.

However, even with these early encouraging examples, piping and pipe bands were not part of this region of traditional Highland settlements until recently. Typical competitors at the Highland Games include the oldest continually organized pipe band in North Carolina. Wearing the Carolina tartan (the state tartan of North Carolina), the band, organized in 1968 by graduate students, is from N.C. State University. Formed in 1991 (earlier than most other bands) is the pipe band from St. Andrews Presbyterian College, which regularly competes throughout the U.S. South. Other bands in the Carolinas, formed mostly after the mid-1990s, from Raleigh, Columbia, Huntersville, and Jamestown also vie for music awards.

Food is another way to connect culturally to previous generations. During the Highland Games, many Scottish foods are available. For example, Scottish meat pies, sausage rolls, haggis puffs, and Forfar bridies (a meat pastry) made by Cameron’s of Kearny from Sumter, SC, were tempting. Drinks included Irn-Bru (a popular Scottish carbonated beverage) and ginger beer. (The meat pie was an excellent mid-afternoon snack.)

Scott’s Keltic Kitchen & Bakery of Murrells Inlet, SC, delighted spectators with Scottish desserts. Scottish meat pieI was particularly impressed with the clootie dumpling with devon custard that I had never tasted before. The bakery was also offering scones with strawberries and cream (very popular) as well as sticky toffee pudding, cream meringue, and chocolate bread pudding (with chocolate sauce).

Family Bonds and Other Heritage Connections
Although the food selections are popular, the vendors detain the attendees only briefly from the main gathering area of the clans. The primary game field is encircled by more than 40 clan tents where families, societies, and other groups mix and mingle. On display are histories, migration patterns, insignia, and tartans (the symbol of the family association or home district). Each clan, a gathering of families for economic and political protection as well as social support (who are not necessarily related by blood), in Scotland had its own tartan.

Several vendors from throughout the Carolinas set up tents for the Highland Games to display and sell Scottish merchandise – metalworks, fine arts, clothing and fabrics, utensils, and souvenirs. The booths were quite popular and attracted serious as well as casual shoppers.

Although some competitors and vendors seem to request divine intervention throughout the weekend, the primary religious event occurs on Sunday morning when worshipers at the nearby Old Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church (founded in 1797 by Highlanders) conduct a “kirkin’ of the tartans” service. According to Scottish legend, the ceremony can be traced to the Parliamentary Act of 1846 in England. The act banned the kilt, plaid, or other tartan garment to destroy Highland clan identity. In defiance of the British Crown, the Scots ignored the ban when they went to church and carried remnants of their tartans in their pockets, and the minister added a blessing into the service for the clans represented by the tartans. The first kirkin’ was held in Washington, D.C, in 1947 by the Saint Andrew’s Society (whose members are all Scottish descendents). A growing number of Presbyterian churches in the Southeast celebrate this service annually to recognize the transfer of faith to America by clans whose families arrived almost 300 years ago.

The Highland Games of Scotland County are an excellent way to learn more about the cultural history of the American South and traditions of previous generations. The skill contests — athletic as well as music — celebrate a heritage shared by many families. Because many Southerners live near venues that host Highland games (such as Grandfather Mountain, NC; Stone Mountain Park, GA, The Plains, VA; Tallahassee, FL; Greenville, SC; Maryville, TN; and San Antonio, TX), these games will continue to increase in popularity. Attend one soon and observe the past in the present.