Saturday, June 30, 2012

SRO on The Crazy Train

So far this year, was there even a one-day hiatus from mean-spirited attacks on our president? I mean, we're almost three-quarters through a year marked by one of the most vitriol-filled campaigns leveled against an American head of state in memory. The poor guy doesn't seem to be able to do anything right -- at least according to those paragons of rational thinking whose initials are Boehner, Issa, Cantor, and McConnell.

The subject of presidential trials and tribulations surfaced at a small dinner gathering I had for out-of-town friends a while back. One couple was here from New Orleans, the other from Columbia, Mo. They were in Austin for the annual fancy-schmancy Texas Observer fundraiser that has come to be known as the Molly Dinner. Named for Miz Ivins, the event usually features a bit of entertainment, a decent meal, a prominent speaker (this year it was Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman), an honoree or two, and journalism awards for writers who most reflect Molly's spirit and sense of social justice.

I mention all this because my little cornbread-and-chili supper on the evening preceding "The Molly," as it has come to be called, was almost a repeat of a dinner gathering my living room a few months earlier. As usual, we ended up talking politics during a momentary hiatus from our feeding frenzy. One of my guests was from Scotland, that Anglo-Saxon country we rarely think about unless there's a golfer in the family. Greg the Scotsman said his relatives across the pond couldn't make heads or tails of any reason to vote for any of the goofballs chasing the Republican nomination at the time.

(Remember now, Scotland is also home to a bunch of people named MacDonald. Greg regaled us with his recounting of a Scottish nobleman who rented rooms in his castle and had an in-house restaurant called MacDonald's. Our McDonald's threatened to sue. Their MacDonald threatened to sue our McDonald's -- despite the fact that their MacDonald had been around some 400 years. Check and mate.  Our McDonald's backed down. But I digress)

The free-flowing conversation that evening made me wonder anew how Molly might have responded to our Texas governor who thought Congress should only meet every other year, like the Texas legislature; or to Newt, the semi-aquatic amphibian who characterized President Obama as "the best food-stamp president ever," who probably never in a million years intending any racial innuendo.

And let's not forget Time magazine's Mark Halperin calling the president "a dick" on MSNBC -- not to mention that bizarre episode of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her bony finger in the president's face as though scolding a recalcitrant child. At least Newt is finally political toast, Halperin got suspended and Perry only emerges periodically from beneath his rock to make some goofy speech or other, as he did on a recent goofball appearance on "Face the Nation." As for Brewer, if there is karmic justice, hers will be ugly.

We lamented the loss of Molly's singular voice, recalling some of her more acerbic observations as aapplicable today as in years past.  "If his IQ dropped any lower we'd have to water him twice a week"; or "It's like, duh. Just when you thought there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Republicans go and prove you're wrong";  One of my personal favorites, and one perfect for our times is, "Any nation that can survive what we have lately in the way of government, is on the high road to permanent glory."

So, in a way, she is still with us. Anyway, halfway through the more recent 5th anniversary of Molly's death, we are once again reminded how few voices like hers remain. I wonder how she would react to the level of meanness to which congressional activity has risen. I suspect she would despair of how few voices fearlessly speak truth to power anymore -- although she owuld be delighted that Bill Moyers is still in fine form on PBS -- which continues to give congressional boos the heebie jeebies.. For the most part, though, reporters who once spoke for the voiceless now parrot a corporate line mandated by media moguls. We're left instead with the stunning new HBO series, "The Newsroom."

Just as the slightly overwrought opening episode addressed newsroom ego clashes, I'm hoping that at some point a story line will deal with the extraordinary bigotry reflected in the behavior of so-called law enforcement officers, especially in the wake of President Obama's executive order allowing children born in the U.S. to remain here with all the rights of other American-born citizens. Specifically in mind is that guy out in Arizona.

Somewhere in that treasure trove of wouldn't-it-be-nice-if-we-still-had-an-Edward R. Murrow-among-us scriptwriting there must be a character based on Joe Arpaio, Arizona's dreadful Maricopa County sheriff. He has got to be the sorriest excuse for a law enforcement officer since Bull Connor. The only satisfaction to be derived from his miserable presence on planet Earth is the knowledge that somewhere down the line karmic justice will bite him on the butt so thoroughly that he'll wish it was a pit bull instead.

Alas, reporters who covered every minute of the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers trial decades ago are long gone -- mainly because the spirited editors who put themselves out there are also all but gone. Important publications like The Texas Observer, The Nation, The Progressive, The Washington Spectator and Mother Jones struggle to survive. A handful of truly brave web sites track, collate and disseminate accurate information about a crazy Congress, loopy candidates and avaricious corporations, but they too operate on a shoestring. If anybody believes we still have mainstream media that consistently speak truth to power, also believes, like the song says, eggs ain't poultry,  grits ain't grocery, and Mona Lisa was a man.

So here we are, rocketing toward a national election with standing room only on the crazy train.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rage, Race and White Trash Cooking

My friend Bonnie and I are so much on the same wavelength much of the time it gets scary. Our biggest point of departure is the fact that she is not only a voracious reader who retains roughly 95 per cent of what she reads, but she formulates ways in which she can translate her information into action rather than rage.

When she does get exercised, it's because of this country's continued use of torture, the lies that are spread in defense of it, the people who perpetuate it and those who practice it. I'm angry about just about everything, from official abuse of authority, to pollution, to political lies to Texas heat, so I sign petitions, send certified letters and emails couched in the most temperate language I can summon to corporate bullies who are unworthy of temperate criticism.

When we get together over lunch or dinner, Bonnie and I come to earth long enough to talk about Molly and/or food. And so it came to pass that in a conversation more than a year ago we decided to have a party that would celebrate the culinary traditions of a group of people who have been long lost to our social consciousness.

The idea came about, as near as I can recall, because we were sitting in some fabulous Mexican dive of a restaurant that served the most exquisite ceviche and tacos, tamales and empanadas. Hardly anyone spoke English, and you waited while your food was prepared because everything was made to order. Nothing fancy, just good solid food as good for the soul as it was for the body.

Somehow, we detoured into favorite foods growing up and I told her about the onion sandwiches my father and I used to make -- a slice of Bermuda onion and a slice of Beefsteak tomato between two slices of Wonder bread slathered with Miracle Whip and finished with a generous sprinkling of black pepper. No, not mayonnaise. I mentioned that I had been surprised the find a recipe for the same sandwich in a 1986, spiral-bound volume of "White Trash Cooking." Turns out Bonnie had the same Ernest Matthew Mickler book (Ten Speed Press has since published a 25th anniversary edition). The Mickler family had the good sense to know their foodways were to be treasured, not ridiculed.

We then got into a conversation about how white trash cooking is not much different from what has come to be known as "soul food." Which then made us wonder why one iteration of the same foods should have one name and the other a different name. But before we could get too existential about it, our Mexican food came and we had decided to do what we often do when we eat: have a party.

An homage to white trash cooking.

It took a year to convert conversation to action. We scoured recipes from White Trash volumes I and II. We came up with far too many components, winnowed them down and sent invitations. As expected, some recipients were, at best, ambivalent; at worst, horrified. We decided that those who didn't get it, oh well. Others began to reminisce about their own roots in Texas, or Kentucky or West Virginia or Maryland or Missouri. They told of Jell-o molds with bananas and canned fruit cocktail and lime Jell-o with cottage cheese. Greens cooked with fatback. Okra and tomatoes. Black-eyed peas, pickled okra,  peas and smoked ham hocks. Buttermilk cornbread. Red soda. RC Cola and Moon Pies. Macaroni and cheese made with Velveeta. Fried chicken. Biscuits. Potato salad. Cole slaw. Corn Pudding. Hamburger Gravy.

OK, so even though we found a place to buy dressed possum, squirrel, alligator and raccoon, we bypassed the opportunity in deference to our budget and the fact that nobody would eat raccoon stew even if we did make it with locally sourced, organically grown herbs and vegetables. Willie's Swamp Cabbage Stew didn't make the cut, nor did Jail-House Chili, Esther's Five-Can Casserole, Lady Divine's Chicken-Asparagus Pie, or Mama Leila's Hand-Me-Down Oven-Baked Possum.. It might be The People's Republic of Austin, but, well...

Anyway, this dinner party would be a tribute to the resilience of a group of people who had to make do all their lives with foods that generate upturned noses among the well-heeled, especially those lacking the empathy gene. Again, we figured folks would either get it or they wouldn't. As it turned out, about 60 people did get it. They realized you didn't have to be from Hot Coffee, Mississippi or Dime Box Texas to relate. They came, they ate, they talked politics they talked food. They were young, old, Democrats, Republicans, black, white and Asian. Some allowed as how they also came with Tums and Alla-Selzter. Eri Weinstein made peach cobbler in a cast-iron skillet with peaches picked from the tree where he is co-owner of a massage therapy school and spa.

Yes, there were Moon Pies and fruit pie and red velvet cake.

A year or so ago, when Bonnie and Gary, my brother Fred, his wife Denise and I were in New Orleans with a group of friends, we sprung our white-trash dinner plan. Bonnie asked Fred and Denise, "Will you come?" To which they replied, "Sure; we'll come as friends of white trash." They too grasped the concept.

In the best white trash/soul food tradition, we had too much food. We still have leftover Orange and Grape Crush. Some guests entered so thoroughly into the spirit of the occasion that they brought not Cotes du Rhone and Pinot Grigio, but cheap beer and Boone's Farm Strawberry wine. The first guests arrived right at 6, and the last left at about 11. By then we had already decided to do it again next year. We haven't exactly decided on a theme, but two of the guests, a couple displaced by Katrina, brought shrimp and white beans. It set us to thinking...other than Native Americans and Afro-Americans, what group's culinary traditions survived to become among the trendiest of recent food trends?

Stay tuned. We'll be stirring it up.