Happy birthday, West Virginia!

Wheeling Constitutional Convention, June 1863, as  illustrated in Harper's Weekly

Wheeling Constitutional Convention, June 1863, as illustrated in Harper’s Weekly

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the day West Virginia officially became a state. In my book Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story, I imagine how my great-great-grandparents Caroline and Frank and their children Adam and Lucy celebrated on June 20, 1863, the day they got the official word from the Wheeling Constitutional Convention that statehood was approved.

Caroline, June 20, 1863: An early summer rain washed the dusty streets of Summersville clean just in time. Crowds of people from all around the county came to celebrate our victory. Mountain voters spoke loud and clear at the ballot box, and the new state of West Virginia was born, baptized by President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress.

Hundreds of people gathered in town : ladies in bounteous hoop skirts, men in top hats, boys in knee pants and girls in calico dresses, hair tied with ribbons. The sharp lines of soldiers’ uniforms, mostly blue, cut fine figures around the perimeter of the crowd. Red, white and blue flags and buntings were everywhere – waving on sticks, adorning brick buildings and buggies.  A brass band provided music from the town square gazebo.

Pat Mullaney burst out of the telegraph office on Main Street waving a telegram high in the air. He ran to the courthouse steps, pushed his wire glasses up on his nose, adjusted his visor and cleared his throat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the news from Wheeling,” he announced and began to read the telegram.

“Wheeling, West Virginia. June twentieth, 1863.

This day ushers into being the new State of West Virginia and adds the thirty fifth star to the constellation of the American Union. STOP.

The old Government goes out and the new one comes in. STOP. Today Governor Pierpont bids us a formal farewell and Gov. Boreman will be inaugurated as his successor. STOP. Today the Legislature of the new State meets for organization.”

The crowd burst into shouts. “Hurrah!” “Long Live West Virginia!” “God bless the United States of America!” “God bless President Lincoln!” Hats of all types flew into the air above Main Street.

Then other shouts came;

“Boo!” “We will not give up the fight!” “Down with West Virginia!” “God bless President Jefferson Davis!”

A group of men wearing work shirts and dungarees broke into song:

“Our Dixie forever!

She’s never at a loss!

Down with the eagle

And up with the cross!”

The chorus was drowned out by booing and shushing onlookers. Mayor John Jones and Pastor Murphy joined Pat on the courthouse steps as most people applauded.

My heart swelled as I looked around.  We had snatched our mountain home back from secession. I only wished that I could have cast a ballot for statehood. Maybe someday, I thought, when Lucy is grown she will have the right to vote just like men.

Suzanne came to stand next to me and we hugged. “The day we have waited for!” she said with a smile. “Now please God, let the war be over soon.”


Shelter from the Storm: How a Union Soldier Sought Refuge at My Great-Grandparents’ House

Martin Andrews’ sophomore year at Oberlin College was abruptly upended in the spring of 1861. On April 12, his 22nd birthday, Confederate forces attacked a federal fort in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

The attack marked the beginning of the Civil War and sparked a flame among Oberlin’s students and faculty. This is the story of how Private Martin Andrews came to my great-great-great-grandparents’ home in Virginia after an early Civil War battle.

Soldiers for Social Justice

Martin M. Andrews of Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Martin M. Andrews of Company C, 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

As a student at Oberlin, Andrews learned in an academic atmosphere founded upon social justice and Christian principles. Some of the college’s first graduates were women and African-Americans. One student wrote that “Patriotism and the doctrine of Anti-Slavery very naturally found a place in the category of their principles.”

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Andrews and many of his classmates left school and signed up with the Union army. The young men traveled to nearby Cleveland and were mustered into service of the United States as members of Company ‘C’ of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI). A majority of the soldiers in that company were Oberlin students.

Company C’s first taste of battle came in western Virginia. Confederate troops commanded by Generals John Floyd and Henry Wise had pushed into the area around the Gauley River in Nicholas County, where pro-Union sentiment ran high. Among the area’s residents were some staunchly anti-slavery Methodist families, including my ancestors.

The People of Panther Mountain

Days before the battle, the company ended a long day of marching through mud by camping at the foot of Panther Mountain, where many members of my family lived. I imagine when the women found out about the nearby camp they brought food to the troops.

Battle of Kessler's Cross Lanes map, courtesy of Oberlin College

Battle of Kessler’s Cross Lanes map, courtesy of Oberlin College

Andrews and his company were eating breakfast on the morning of August 26th, 1861, when Rebel forces attacked them at Kessler’s Cross Lanes. The Battle of Cross Lanes is also referred to as “The Battle of Knives and Forks” because of the outbreak of mealtime gunfire. The Yankees did not fare well that day and as night drew near, soldiers and officers who survived fled to the nearby woods and mountains, including Panther Mountain.

According to “A History of Panther Mountain Community,” Andrews and 17 other men wandered to the home of William and Susan Grose, my great-great-great-grandparents. The Groses fed the Yankee men and gave them a place to rest before they went on to their next assignment. Elsewhere on the mountain, my great-great-grand aunt Margaret Grose Renick took in a group of three other 7th OVI soldiers, fed them and helped them hide first in her home and then, as Confederate troops set up pickets on her farm, in a cave on her property. Years later Sgt. Edgar Condit wrote an account of their stay with the Renicks.

I am duly amazed that my family members met and cared for these young students-turned-soldiers in the face of great danger. I have learned so much about my family by researching the Oberlin infantrymen, also known as the Monroe Rifles. I included Martin and his Union comrades in my recently published book, Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story,  and will share with you here the recipe for hardtack, a type of super-hard bread (cracker-like) that the troops carried in their haversacks during the war.

Painting by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

Painting by Bernie Rosage, Jr.

According to the American Civil War website, hardtack was so hard that soldiers called it “tooth duller” or “sheet iron crackers.” Time and travel sometimes led to the hardtack supply being infested with bugs. To test it, the troops would dunk the crackers into hot coffee. The weevils, who were not swimmers, would float to the top. Um…yummy! Bon apetit!

Union Hardtack

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon of Crisco or vegetable fat
  • 6 pinches of salt

Mix the ingredients together into a stiff batter, knead several times, and spread the dough out flat to a thickness of 1/2 inch on a non-greased cookie sheet. Bake for one-half an hour at 400 degrees. Remove from oven, cut dough into 3-inch squares, and punch four rows of holes, four holes per row into the dough. Turn dough over, return to the oven and bake another one-half hour. Turn oven off and leave the door closed. Leave the hardtack in the oven until cool. Remove and enjoy!

Look Away, Dixie – No, Really, Look Away

In 2011, the United States entered into a sesquicentennial period. That long word represents a long time by a young country’s standards: 150 years. 2011 marked 150 years since the United States of America was sliced in two by the secession of the southern states, who thought it would be better to start their own country where slavery would be allowed. Yet in some patches of the now reattached American South there are still folks hanging on for dear life, all these years later, to that tattered Confederate flag.

Case in point: Students at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) are protesting the hiring of a new president at their school. The new president is the Lieutenant Governor of the Palmetto State Glenn McConnell.

If McConnell signs on the dotted line of his new employment contract , he will become president of a college whose minority enrollment–black students in particular–is lower than that of any other South Carolina higher education institution.

Dixie for Sale

What makes this especially tricky and possibly bad for the school’s diversity are the following factoids about McConnell. Quoting here from an article posted on Inside Higher Ed by reporter Ry Rivard, McConnell

So Carolina Lt Gov Glenn McConnell Confederate gift shop

“…used to own a shop that sold memorabilia of the South’s rebellion; he appears in a widely circulated picture dressed as a Confederate general; and he is a longtime supporter of flying the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds.”

Um, okay, well then… Anyone see a conflict there?

I understand that there are people interested in Civil War history. I am, too. In fact, a major part of my book Panther Mountain: Caroline’s Story involves early Civil War battles in Virginia. [Full disclosure here: my ancestors in antebellum and Civil War Virginia were pro-Union. They were opposed to slavery on religious grounds].

So history buffs buying gifts at McConnell’s Confederate-themed shop might simply have been trying to learn more about the South’s rebellion. Nothing illegal or immoral about that. But let’s get to the flag flying part. It’s well-documented that displaying the flag of the failed fugitive Southern republic (which in the end flew the white flag of surrender) is offensive to many people. It reminds us of a time when human beings were unjustly treated and mistreated as property.

Ironically, private individuals have a constitutional right to fly that flag if they so choose, thanks to the constitution of the United States which many a Southern soldier shed blood to get away from. But a state-sponsored display of that flag is a different matter. Government buildings that operate sporting a symbol of a pro-slavery government can hardly be taken seriously as a government for all people.

McConnell Confederate general“McConnell has been unapologetic in his support of the flag. He argued in the late 1990s that eradicating symbols of the Old South could lead to ‘cultural genocide.’ (Post and Courier, 12.22.13)

Hm, like the cultural genocide that slave owners carried out on generations of Africans? I see….

So what’s to stop McConnell from dressing in Johnny Reb gray at his inauguration?

A Reminder of Gray Days

Might the new college president make prospective students of color unlikely to choose his school for their education, seeing as how he openly participates in Civil War battle re-enactments as a Confederate soldier?  That’s what many students and faculty are concerned about. They are also none too happy that the school’s board of trustees has, in their opinion. fast-tracked McConnell as their choice over other, more academically qualified candidates.

Clearly there are many who support McConnell. Otherwise he would not have been voted into office in the state of South Carolina. And the college’s board of trustees certainly has his back. Nine of those trustees are up for re-election by the South Carolina State Assembly this week. All are running unopposed.

McConnell ally and former state Senator Robert Ford spoke with a reporter from Charleston’s Post and Courier and said that in a recent meeting he attended, students said they have no confidence in the process by which McConnell was hired.  Ford said. “I can live with that.”

Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland…

Update, 6.22.2015: Glenn McConnell is indeed the president of the College of Charleston and the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and white supremacy, still flies at full mast over the State Capitol in Columbia, even after the tragic slaughter of nine Charleston church members at the hands of a racist white terrorist. #TakeDownTheFlag

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.

Soup du Jour: Chard

iStockphoto/Suzannah Skelton

iStockphoto/Suzannah Skelton

My experience with chard began in 1998, when our family joined a community supported agriculture pod in our neighborhood. Yes, that’s right. A pod. We were pod people, although not body snatchers.

To say that our neighborhood was inhabited by organic militants would not be misrepresenting history. You may feel that it’s harsh of me to call my neighbors organic militants. But have you ever had anyone stand in your very own kitchen in your very own house and criticize you in front of children for serving said children Kool Aid containing Red Dye #5? I’m still smarting. So forgive my snarkiness, but really….

Back to chard. One week I picked up our box of organic produce from our podmaster’s house and saw that instead of the lettuce I ordered, a bunch of Swiss chard had been delivered. I am not a greens person like my grandparents who grew their own kale and drowned it in vinegar. But over the years I have grown fond of raw spinach and am absolutely in love with Utica greens as prepared by the wondrous North Syracuse restaurant Nesticos.

Seeing as how I couldn’t return the unwanted chard and had no idea what to do with it, and because I hate to waste food (child of people who lived through The Great Depression), I went online in search of chard recipes.  This was back when Yahoo was Altavista and our computer had dial up, so it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I found a lovely recipe for chard soup which I think is quite tasty.

Chard is a mellow green, not like its bitter cousins arugula and mustard greens, that easily melds with other flavors like onion and garlic. It comes in different varieties, Swiss and rainbow to name just two. And as a bonus, this soup recipe includes sound effects. You begin the process by heating mustard seeds in olive oil and as they warm up, they pop around the bottom of the pot like Mexican jumping beans only much smaller. So here is my chard soup recipe, ripped from the phone lines of slow internet connections.

Chard Soup

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 medium potatoes, sliced (you can leave the skin on if you like)
  • 1 bunch chard, shredded and stems removed
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
  • salt & pepper
  • optional: sour cream or yogurt, chives

Heat oil and mustard seed until seeds begin to pop. Sauté garlic and onion in oil until softened. Add celery, potatoes and chard. Add stock, boil and cook uncovered until potatoes are very tender, about 25 or 30 minutes. Mash potatoes in the pot until coarsely broken up. Add vinegar and cook uncovered for another 10 minutes to concentrate flavors. Salt and pepper to taste. You may serve with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt topped with a sprinkle of chives.

By the way, chard is a “super food,” as they’re called. You can count all the vitamins here.

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.