Friday, June 12, 2015

Keeping Wild Foods in Our Culinary Culture

[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.]

Is cooking with wild foods out of place in today’s modern society? Because it’s so old-fashioned, I was surprised by how many kids had entered the Wild Food Cooking Contest in RichmondCounty.  It’s the event of the spring in Ellerbe, NC, when youth and adults show off their skills for cooking deer, moose, rabbit, beaver, squirrel, and other wild game. After the judges have scored each entry, everything is served buffet-style as a tasting party for the participants, their families and friends, and others like myself who attend to see how wild our food once was and still can be.

Rabbit pot pie was one of the many
tasty entries in the Richmond County
Dishes prepared by kids age 16 and younger were the most interesting. They included teriyaki rabbit, beaver pot roast, rabbit pot pie, duck and dumplings, Eastern wild bear and wild hog sausage, and catfish stew. When I had the opportunity to sample them, each was so good that I could have made a complete meal of it.

My first surprise was not so much that young people had prepared tasty food; it was that the game, fowl, or fish could not have been purchased. It had to be hunted, trapped, or caught legally or received as a gift. The actual step of cooking is only the final stage in the process and only the visible one at the contest.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Shaggin' in Carolina

Shagging is the official popular
dance in North Carolina.
Does shag music evoke beach scenes and coastal memories for you? Although sandy beaches may be several miles away and some old dance pavilions no longer exist, the music is known to transport many fans to a different place and time.

The Baby Boomers of today are the teenagers of yesterday who escaped to beach towns for a weekend, a full week, or the entire summer (if they could get permission). After Baby Boomers matured sufficiently to win political office, they nurtured a bill through the N.C. General Assembly to recognize the importance of shag music in our culture. In 2005 the legislators established shagging as the official popular dance of the state. The rationale for this recognition: shag brings entertainment value to “participants and spectators in the State.”

Not only is shag the official popular dance, but shaggers now enjoy their own personalized license tag that was recently approved when the minimum 300 applications were submitted. The “shag tag” conveys the logo of “I’d Rather Be Shaggin’.” Part of the license fee supports the Hall of Fame Foundation, begun in 1991 by shaggers to help friends in need.

Modern shag dancing gained in popularity along the Carolina coast in the 1940s and early 1950s. According to the General Assembly, shagging “evolved from the jitterbug and jump blues of the big band era.” A better source on its roots, however, is the Fayetteville Area Shag Association, which dates the shag to the 1930s and proclaims that the standard tempo is 110-135 beats per minute. This club describes the shag as smooth and graceful and emphasizes footwork rather than turns.

Harry Driver in the early
1950s at Myrtle Beach, SC
One of the charismatic and best-known dancers in the late 1940s was Harry Driver from Dunn, just minutes from Raleigh and about two hours via U.S. 421 from Carolina Beach, where the term “Carolina shag” was coined. Considered the Father of Shag, Driver was renowned for his moves. In a 1982 interview, he said, “If you were going to the beach in the summer, you had better know how to dance.”

The shag dancers of today recognize the contributions of Driver and his generation in creating a culture they enjoy. Driver, who served as a shag contest judge in the 1980s, said that part of the reason for the dance is that guys wanted a way to impress girls. The classic tune “Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” explains:
          Even guys with two left feet 
          Come out alright if the chick is sweet. 

The website of the Society of Stranders, a group that perpetuates “the dance, music, and culture that make up the shag,” opens with the Fantastic Shakers singing the song to also let us know:
           The best things happen while you’re dancing. 
           Things that you would not do at home 
           Come nat’rally on the floor. 

According to Driver, the dance wasn’t called the shag until the ‘60s. After the music survived through the ‘60s and ‘70s, it enjoyed a renaissance in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then groups, such as the Society of Stranders formed in 1984, were created as Baby Boomers reached middle age to preserve and expand the music that shaggers love. Also established in 1984 were the Association of Beach and Shag Club DeeJays, formed Chapel Hill, and the Association of Carolina Shag Clubs, formed in Columbia, SC.

As shaggers were brought together by these associations, Baby Boomers organized local clubs as they settled in the Triangle, Sandhills, and other areas distant from the coast, proving that proximity to the beach is not a factor for organizing a club – only an interest in preserving shag music. In fact, North Carolina has more shag clubs that any other state.

In 1984, the same year that regional shag associations were formed, the Fayetteville Area Shag Association was founded as a local club. In central North Carolina, soon other clubs were encouraged to capitalize on the growing interest in shag music and dancing. The Burlington club has been active since 1985. Raleigh shaggers waited until 1993 to form their club. Clubs now cover the state from Boone to Wilmington, with a club in Fuquay-Varina established as late as 2006.

As shag historian Bo Bryan writes in his poem on shag dancing, “If you are a Baby Boomer, / you won’t be alone / in The Land of Shag.” Nurtured by the Association of Carolina Shag Clubs, local clubs bring people together to preserve the shag dance and its music while they enjoy fellowship and develop friendships. The club in Pittsboro says, “It’s not just a dance; it’s a lifestyle.”

A new Guinness Book record
was set with 744 dancers.
With such dedicated organizations promoting shag culture, shaggers are listed in The Guinness Book of World Records, of course. However, it didn’t happen until last year. By dancing in synchronized steps for five minutes, 744 dancers – three times the number needed – established the record for “Largest Carolina Shag Dance.”

Note: This post appeared originally as a longer article in the June 2015 issue of OutreachNC, a monthly magazine distributed in 10 counties of central North Carolina. Click here to see the article as it appeared in print.