One kind word

Author’s Note: West Virginia Writers, Inc. is a non-profit that has supported and celebrated Mountain State writers and their words since 1977. That was the year I gathered the courage, with my mom’s support, to attend the inaugural West Virginia Writers Conference in Charleston, WV and share some of my poems. I am so grateful that this group exists. Here’s a short memory of that terrifying yet exhilarating day at the poetry workshop, which I  recently shared with the current members on the WVW Facebook page. 

I owe West Virginia Writers a debt of gratitude. Back in 1977, which would have been the organization’s founding year and maybe the first WVW Conference, I stood onstage at The Cultural Center in Charleston, all of 18 years old, and read aloud in front of an audience for the first time several of my poems. I was terrified but my mother, who accompanied me to the conference, encouraged me to get my words “out there.”

Me at 18

Me at 18

One poem in particular received both criticism and a compliment. It was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams,” written about saying goodbye to a dear friend. It was short and sweet:

“Without you to share with,
my days will only fly
on half a wing.”

One audience member (or maybe two) quickly pointed out that my metaphor didn’t make sense. How can there be just half a wing?

And then a fellow West Virginia writer, sitting right up in front of the stage in her wheelchair, spoke up and said she completely understood the imagery. I have never forgotten her support that day. Sometimes just one kind word can inspire us to carry on with our writing. And I have.



Minnie’s 116th Birthday and Her Corn Pone Recipe

Minnie Velma Backus, 1898-1993

Minnie Velma Backus, 1898-1993

Yesterday was my Grandma’s birthday. Minnie Velma Backus was born on March 2, 1898. If Heaven is the type of place from where our dear, departed loved ones look down and check out what we’re doing here on Earth, I hope she can see that I am doing my best to fulfill the promise I made to her. I promised her I would keep our family history alive. And in the process, I am writing a book.

Grandma was a sweet, sentimental woman and a saver of keepsakes. She kept little mementoes tucked away in envelopes in shoe boxes, in plastic cases in her chest of drawers, even in her sewing box. She saved letters from her son who served overseas during World War II. She saved  every card a grandchild ever sent her, and even kept five pennies that my little cousin gave her as a present. She put them in an envelope and wrote “From Jennifer” on it in pencil.

A Keeper—In More Ways Than One

Some of Minnie's many keepsakes

Some of Minnie’s many keepsakes

Most importantly to me, Grandma kept a letter that serves as the most important clue to our 19th Century family history. She carefully saved a letter written to my great-great-grandmother Caroline Grose in 1854 Virginia by a man who professed his love for her. The letter lasted through the Civil War—two battles of which were fought within 10 miles of Caroline’s family farm—and it even traveled without leaving home, surrounded by the freshly drawn border of the new state of West Virginia in 1863. It survived Caroline’s marriage to another man, my great-great-grandfather Frank, and was safely passed to her son Adam, his daughter Minnie and finally to me.

And now my historical novel “Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story” is in the works, taking shape every day at my desk as I type and look out at a perpetually snowy back yard. I could not realize my writing dream if it were not for Minnie Backus’ care and preservation of a true treasure. And so I celebrate her 116th birthday (she lived to be 95). In keeping with my promise to pass on our Backus family history, I will also share her corn pone recipe with you. Grandma was a great cook and her many specialties included this corn pone, a type of corn bread, which she oven baked in an iron skillet.

Indian Head Old Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Corn Meal

Indian Head Old Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Corn Meal, sitting next to some of Grandma’s vintage Fiestaware plates

My cousin Kitty deserves full credit for saving what she calls “Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone” recipe. She is an outstanding keeper of family traditions. Before you begin to bake this, here’s an important note. It calls for “natural not degerminated” corn meal. So don’t buy the regular corn meal with the Quaker Oats guy smiling at you from the box. Natural corn meal, I have found out, is corn meal in which the heart or “germ” of the corn is ground into the meal rather than removed. I found this brand at my local super-duper-market.

Aunt Minnie’s Sweetened Corn Pone

  • 4 cups corn meal (natural, not degerminated)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Mix the above with hot water (not boiling) to a stiff mixture. Pat down with a spoon and leave on the stove near a pilot or warm place all night. In the morning, if it cracks when it’s stirred, it’s okay.

When ready to bake, add:

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup white flour
  • 1 teaspoon (scant) soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons sorghum molasses
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar

Mix and bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. When you take it out of the oven, pour 1/2 cup water over the pone and cover it. The water over it while hot with the lid on makes it moist (a must).

A Chicken in Every Plot

Snowed in!

Snowed in!

Three feet of snow on the ground has me longing for comfort food. Also, this week began with President’s Day and although that holiday honors Washington and Lincoln, it got me thinking about Herbert Hoover (go figure). Add to that odd mix the challenges of writing about 19th century Virginia down to the last detail, including what they ate and how they caught, cooked, stored and traveled with it. Voila! A blog post title.

So first, Hoover. His famous campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot,” actually originated in a 1928 Republican National Committee ad. The slogan was designed to show that a vote for Hoover was a vote for continued prosperity already set in motion by the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge. But that prosperity was cut short, seven months into Hoover’s presidency, by the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression.

Chickening out

Editorial cartoon by Tulley, 1932

Editorial cartoon by Tulley, 1932

Was it Hoover’s fault that the banks failed in the first place? Doubtful. Was it his refusal to dip into the federal pot to help economically devastated families that prolonged the Depression? We’ll leave that for historians to decide. I got this information from The History Channel, cablecaster of such historically accurate programs as “Swamp People” and “Pawn Stars,” so believe it at your own risk.

So the voters chickened out, so to speak, and Hoover got the electoral boot in 1932. A chicken in every pot turned out more like a soup line in every neighborhood. And then it all became FDR’s problem.

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul

Now we jump back almost a century and tackle the question of how my ancestors got their chickens from coop to stove. Writing this historical fiction novel requires me to spend many hours Googling questions about Victorian food, transportation, clothing, social mores and such.

I certainly can assume that my great-great-grandmother’s family raised their own chickens. They lived on a farm, for Pete’s sake. So from visions of their gathering eggs to chopping off the poor birds’ heads, I can draw a picture of 1850s Western Virginia chicken cooking.

Whereas today I throw meaty chicken pieces into my crock pot and walk away to work at my writing desk, preparing poultry for dinner was a much more complex task for my GG Grands. Plucking, gutting, chopping, etc. And then one wonders what type of cook stove they had. For this info, I turn to YouTube and the Historic Cooking Channel.

Chicken in a Writer’s Crock Pot

So whether Great-Great-Grandmother Caroline fried, boiled or baked her chickens, she had by the mid-1800s probably graduated from the large, open, colonial-era fireplace to the iron stove, which was much more convenient and modern. Thanks to electricity and big-box superstores, I can buy crockpots and pre-chopped peppers, onions and celery and cut my cooking time to a fraction. Hence, I will share with you my adaptation of Chicken in a Pot, a recipe found in the Fix It and Forget It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker.

Note: As inspired by penny-wise survivors of the Great Depression (aka my parents), I have used three pounds of chicken legs (very meaty) in this one-pot meal (4 pounds of chicken legs cost me $3.00 – such a bargain).

Chicken in a Pot

  • 2 carrots, sliced (or equivalent amount of pre-cut baby carrots, cleaned and scraped)
  • 2 medium onions, sliced (or store-bought diced, about a cup)
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced (or ” , about 1/2 – 3/4 cup)
  • 3 pounds of chicken legs
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 cup water, chicken broth or white cooking wine (I use chicken broth, made with 1 cup of hot water and a boullion cube
  1. Place vegetables in bottom of cooking sprayed slow cooker. Place chicken pieces on top of vegetables. Add seasonings and water or broth.
  2. Cover. Cook on low 8-10 hours (my crockpot runs hotter than this, so it takes me about 6 hours on low; use your own judgment) or high 3 1/2 hours (use 1 cup of extra liquid if cooking on high)

This is a great way to prepare cooked chicken for other recipes — soups, stews, casseroles, etc.

You can read more about Caroline’s life on Facebook/ Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story  or follow along 140 characters at a time on Twitter @panthermtnichol

The Courtship Conundrum

Godey's tableaux of life

Godey’s Lady’s Book, Winter 1854 issue

Here’s what I know: in 1854, my great-great grandmother received a letter from a man who expressed his “ardent love” and “an anxious desire to form an acquaintance” with her. I have the letter, written in fancy calligraphic hand, adhered to acid-free paper in a closely guarded scrapbook.

My great-great grandmother, whose name was Caroline Grose, lived in Nicholas County, Virginia. I am currently writing a historical novel about her life before and during the Civil War. This letter creates for me an antebellum romantic mystery. Did she agree to grant the letter writer a visit? Did they fall in love? How did they go about “courting,” as they call it?

Well, unfortunately there is no follow-up letter from her to explain any of this, nor have I found any of her writings at all. I have gleaned what I do know about Caroline and her family from libraries in Virginia and West Virginia. Thankfully her family history was documented by a grand-nephew early in the 20th century. West Virginia Archives and History holds a copy of one of his accounts, “A History of Panther Mountain Community,” which is where she grew up and lived for much of her life.

Gentleman Caller

But back to this courtship conundrum. How do I write about this Victorian courtship without more details? Well, a writer needs to do research and the Internet is a good place to start. I find from reading the Trail End State Historic Site that a proper gentleman looking to make an acquaintance with a proper lady would call on her for a brief visit–and by brief, I mean 15 minutes.

“According to etiquette, men were expected to “retain gloves upon the hand during the call” in honor of the fifteen-minute time limit. Also, a well-bred man would never put his hat down on a chair, but would hold it in his hands at all times. This was an indication of control and responsibility. After all, if a man could not tend to his own hat for fifteen minutes, how would he ever manage a wife for an entire lifetime?”

Well, how indeed? A guy who can’t keep track of his hat for a quarter of an hour has to be pretty irresponsible. We all know that.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand — But I Shan’t

So many rules for these young lovers back in the day! I wonder if it made them even more nervous than they already were? Proper gentleman callers were warned not to “touch an open piano, walk about the room examining pictures, nor handle any ornament in the room while waiting for a hostess.” One must presume that the chaperone, who was always to be present during the 15 minute call, was monitoring this. This seems like an early version of NSA spying without the electronics.

And forget about actual physical contact, even the least passionate form — holding hands. This was highly frowned upon at all times, not just during courtship visits in the home. However, those crafty Victorian lovers sometimes found ways around this rule:

“Physical contact was closely monitored in Victorian society. No taking a gentleman’s arm unless offered or the couple is engaged. A gentleman should never offer his arm in daylight.

Many courting couples, however, found ways to get around this: roller skating and ice skating gave young couples the chance to hold hands in public. Piano duets were also popular because the couple could not only share the piano bench, but could occasionally touch hands while reaching for the keys.”

So it seems that if you could skate or play piano, you were more likely to get to first base, which in this case means hand touching.

Country Calls

Because I am writing about a rural Virginia courtship, I think it’s important to compare what was acceptable in the country as opposed to the city when 19th century gentlemen callers were on the move.  I look to “Our Deportment,” an 1879 book subtitled The manners, conduct, and dress of the most refined American society, comprising rules of etiquette, social forms and ceremonies, forms of letters, invitations, etc., also suggestions on home culture and training.  Try fitting that into the New York Times bestsellers list column.  “Our Deportment” offers specifically regional tips for courtship, including these:

“It is not customary in cities to offer refreshments to callers. In the country, where the caller has come from some distance, it is exceedingly hospitable to do to. Calls in the country may be less ceremonious and of longer duration than those made in the city.”

I wonder what Caroline might have served her gentleman caller who traveled such a long way by wagon or horseback to court her? My theory is that she referred to a popular magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for recipes that would impress a guy she was sweet on. So here is a recipe for almond custard from an 1854 issue. Perhaps you’d like to try this on your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day.

Almond Custard

Boil in a pint of milk, or cream, two or three bitter almonds, a stick of cinnamon, and piece of lemon-peel pared thin, with eight or ten lumps of sugar; let it simmer to extract the flavor, then strain it and stir it till cold. Beat the yolks of six eggs, mix them with the milk, and stir the whole over a slow fire until of a proper thickness, adding one ounce of sweet almonds, beaten fine in rose-water.

The Cheese Stands Alone

For most of my life, I have assumed the line “The cheese stands alone” from the childhood circle song “The Farmer in the Dell” had to do with the type of cheese we were singing about. I have always taken for granted that the cheese in question must have been stinky, like limburger, and therefore had to stay outside the circle.

limburger cheeseIn case you’re wondering which other cheeses of the world are odiferous, here is a list of the Top Ten stinkiest cheeses, according to one travel blog.

One might also wonder whether chucking the cheese out of the handheld circle is some ancient German form of bullying by exclusion. If so, we need to stop that right now and say something nice to the poor child who has become the cheese, like, “Aw, we didn’t mean it, come on back into the circle, you crazy cheese.”

If you Google “the cheese stands alone meaning,” you will find all sorts of theories posited on sketchy wiki sites. One interpretation has the cheese representing the means of production which surely smells like Marxian economics. Another explains that “the cheese” is slang for “anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous.”

My favorite pop culture reference to this phrase comes from character Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory”:  “Because I am without friends. Like the proverbial cheese, I stand alone. Even while seated.”Sheldon Cooper

I’m reading a wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, and her words are inspiring and teaching me as I write my first book. Her take on the cheese is the following: “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” So being the cheese, I’ve decided, is about observing the world around me from outside the circle (a phrase I much prefer to the well-worn cliche “outside the box”).

I hope my blog posts here will include pithy observations and some cheesy recipes as well.