I’m still going through business cards gathered at April’s International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, catching up with what I scribbled on the back of each, reminders of promises made (probably foolishly, but with the best of intentions). If you look at the May 1 post, you’ll see that April was a whole month of bebopping above and beyond IACP…which means, a whole lot of cards / promises-to-keep, and the word "Please excuse my taking so long to get back to you" written, in various ways, many times.
One of the emails I finally did tonight was to a woman who arranges judging and special promotions for state fairs around the country. She had wanted to discuss my possible involvement or services (cornbread judge? spokesperson? I’ve done/been both. The spokespersonship was for the California Almond Board, back in 1992. More than a few friends saw fit to remind me, "Your first product endorsement is … a nut!?" One, the herbalist Jim Long, even gave me a homemade certificate to the effect that, appearances to the contrary, "Crescent Dragonwagon A.I.N.T. N.U.T.S." Jim, by the way, does a weekly blog, Jim Long’s Garden Talk. Few are more qualified to so do, for many reasons, including the fact that he’s been "gardening since age 3, " as he says, and there’s an adorable photo on his blog to prove it).
Sorry. I never met a digression I didn’t like.
Anyway, midway through following up with the state fair lady, I suddenly remembered something. One of those memories which flash up, fleshy, funny, full-blown, almost as amusing in the reliving as it was actually living it.
Back in my former life, I lived in Arkansas. I was an innkeeper, I was married to Ned (now deceased, 7 1/2 years) and I was and did, oh, many other things. It all seems, at times, almost dreamlike to me.
But not entirely dreamlike, mostly thanks to friends, and , strangely, former inn guests. When I was on the recent tour for The Cornbread Gospels, at virtually every stop someone would come up to me and say, "You may not remember me, but my husband and I
stayed at Dairy Hollow House with you many, many times, and we always just loved it." And I get emails from former guests periodically: "Brett, the son we conceived at Dairy Hollow House, just turned 21. We live in Montana now, but just had to write you. When we looked for you on the Internet, we discovered that Dairy Hollow House had closed, and were shocked to learn that Ned had lost his life. Even though we haven’t seen you for more than 15 years and he passed away years ago, we were so saddened, and send our deepest condolences.
Some of the best moments of our lives took place at Dairy Hollow, with you two." Such communications amaze and touch me, because, as I say, otherwise that past is so wholly vanished except in memory. When I hear someone’s Dairy Hollow House story, as I listen something like the following goes on my own internal narrative: "See? You weren’t making it up, it really was as good as you remember!" Above top, at a December 2007 book-signing, Barnes and Noble, Tulsa, Oklahoma, the audience was full of former DHH guests, among them Norma Banks (light blue blazer) with her husband, Dick. They stayed with us many times. Dick brought me a ziplock of hand-shelled and picked pecans — shelled that day, so ultra-fresh — and yes, there were some tears as we hugged and exchanged necessarily brief catch-ups. In the second photo, from the same event, I’m holding up a copy of the original, hard-cover Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, published in 1986: a former guest bought it, an "I was there" souvenir. You can buy it online, in hardcover, used, for fairly big bucks, or in paperback, for $14.95 + S & H, through link above. Pictures were taking by David Koff, the filmmaker who is very much a part of my present-day life.
But, back to blue ribbon silliness.
Well, in my innkeeper days I always meant to enter some of my jams and jellies in the Carroll County Fair. But somehow every year I would get too busy. Getting over to Berryville would just slip past me. Bizarrely, Berryville is one of two county seats in Carroll County — the other is Eureka Springs — but Berryville is the one with the fairground.
Finally, one year — if I had to guess I’d say ’89, ’90? — I remembered at the appropriate time. Darling Hattie Mae, who worked for us then, was going over to Berryville, to Wal-Mart, and offered to drop the jams off at the fair and do the entry forms on my behalf.
Now, in my view, Hattie Mae, a hilariously funny and irreverent woman with quite a few years on me, is an angel of tolerance, intelligence, and organization, disguised in a Southern Baptist polyester package. She was one of the great gifts of my time in Arkansas (she moved there from Jackson, Mississippi). Hattie Mae showed me indelibly the utter folly of typecasting people by appearance and most other common markers. She was and is one of my favorite people. I visited her in Tennessee last fall when I was there on book-tour. We spent a drizzly afternoon walking around the Cheekwood Gardens in Nashville on a chilly, overcast day, sitting on various benches and walking through, touching, and examining various large installation sculptures, mostly just talking. But
you know what? Despite the chill, we were warm. She and David got to meet each other, too. It’s always a relief when people you love, people from different phases of your life, turn out to like each other, and they did.
Two pictures from that lovely gray afternoon: Hattie Mae and me, above, and one of one of Cheekwood’s more formal areas, a reflecting pool at a somber time of year. Both taken by David.
Anyway, back in the blue ribbon year, Hattie Mae got the jams and jellies entered, and then the weekend rolled around and the fair started in earnest. I hadn’t still had a chance to get over there yet and see how my jams had done, but Hattie Mae was in Berryville again and checked.
"You better get over there," she told me.
"Why?" I said, "Did I win a ribbon?"
She said, "I don’t want to give away the surprise, you just get over there."
I was in the kitchen of the restaurant when she told me this, as I remember. I looked up at her, a neat gray-haired lady, in her trademark polyester. We were on opposite sides of the stainless steel serving counter, a restaurant-pan of 24 roast cornish game hens (I remember because 24 hens was what those pans held) between us. Their drumsticks were neatly tied (Ned once referred to them as a chorus line of "can’t-can’t girls"), and they were attractively glazed with one of those same jams Hattie had entered on my behalf. It was a typically insane Saturday night. I’m sure I was dripping with sweat and my chef’s jacket no doubt had smears of chocolate and plum and blood (yes, though I’m a vegetarian, I cooked meat for many years) and other culinary detritus on it.
We looked at each other over the hens. We twinkled, because that’s what Hattie Mae and I always did, and do.
"Come on, Hattie, what if I don’t make it over there? Just tell me. Please? "
"All right," she said, making her mouth pretend-stern. "But you really do need to go for yourself." She paused. "Crescent, every one of your jams won a blue ribbon! Every one!"
Oh BOY I was one and surprised happy girl that night! And Sunday morning, after we got breakfasts out to the inn guests, Ned and I finally found time to go off to Berryville and check it out for ourselves.
Now, unbeknownst to me, there was some ridiculous county-wide political snafu concerning the new fairground and where it was going to be built. I don’t remember the particulars, if I ever knew them. But, the Carroll County Fair, that particular year, was not being held at the old fairgrounds. And the new fairgrounds had not yet been constructed.
So, that year’s Carroll County Fair was held way out on someone’s farm, out in a pasture.
As Ned and I drove to Berryville, then north, then further north, almost to the Missouri border, then took a left on a dirt road that turned into a cow path and finally slowly bumped our way across cattle-guards and through little dried-up wet-weather washes, I grew more and more dubious. But Hattie Mae had given us the directions. And finally, sure enough, the tents of the temporary fair ground, and the ferris wheel and other midway rides, came into view.
There weren’t a whole whole lot of people there. We found our way to the home ec tent, and sure enough, there were my jams, each with a blue ribbon around its neck. I ought to have been pleased as punch, and I was. Sort of. But… yet… presumably because of the mix-up with the fairgrounds … not only weren’t there a whole whole lot of people there, there weren’t all that many entries.
Like, there were maybe only 3 or 4 other entries for each of the kinds of jam I had made and won a blue ribbon for.
As Ned and I walked away from the tent and out into the pasture I said to him, "You know, there being so few entries kinda takes some of the thrill out of winning."
"Well," said Ned thoughtfully, in a helpful tone, "You could say you came in first in a very large field."
(I probably don’t need to add, but will anyway, that smart-ass remarks like this are part of what made me love Ned so much and so long, and make me love him still.)
CODA # 1 to the above:
I was talking with an old friend tonight, Michael Avenoso, a fellow part Yankee-part Arkansawyer who is now to all intents and purposes house-bound with advanced Lyme Disease, with which he lives in courage, pissed-off-ness, and wisdom… in short, grace. As well as with an extremely wonderful wife, my friend Jae, a brilliant artist in several media (fabric, acrylic, watercolor) who didn’t fully ‘own’ her gift until later in life, an ardent gardener, an active Unitarian, a terrific cook, home canner, organizer and… Anyway, even were he not on the long arduous road of illness, Michael has reached the stage in life where he and Jae are getting rid of and selling lots of stuff: a woodstove, he told me, and twenty acres of woods he used to ramble when he was younger and healthier, and a lot more, things both large and small. We talked about all that some.
Michael said at first it was hard getting rid of stuff and letting go.
"But then I realized, " he told me, "that there was the stuff, and then there were my stories about the stuff. And that I could give away or sell the stuff, but still keep the stories. The stories were mine whether or not I kept the stuff. That was a big revelation to me."
Perhaps it is correct to say not just that nothing is wasted on the writer, but nothing is wasted on the person who takes note of, and keeps, his or her stories and life-narrative. That these stories, not the artifacts, are what contain the value. Moreover, as you tell yourself stories about your life and what it means, the stories change, unlike artifacts, because they are alive and dynamic. As you grow you develop new perspectives on what happened and the place it holds in making us who we are now. The stories, not the stuff, contain the value. It’s not quite what Jesus meant (as far as I, or any of us, can presume to know what Jesus meant) when he said, "Lay not up your treasures where moth and rust doth corrupt." But it’s related. Stuff is just stuff, matter.
(Although: a woodstove? A woodstove’s value is clear, not metaphorical, or symbolic, or show-offy: it keeps you warm. Can’t get yourself toasty sitting around a narrative, no matter how good, and that’s a fact. Though, I guess in a sense you can. Maybe the best for warmth would be a stoked-up woodstove, sitting around it with friends, everyone telling their stories, everyone listening.)
I held the Mother of All Yard Sales when I left Arkansas, in particular the small town in Arkansas I’d lived in for so long (how small was it? 1200 people, none of whom agreed with each other on anything for more than a few minutes at a time). My friend KJ graciously let me hold it in a room at her restaurant, Caribe (pictured: a corner of gorgeous Caribe, now sadly — but not sadly for KJ, she’s liberated! — no more; this picture is from when I was there on book tour, in December 2007, and the restaurant was still extant, and David was wholly enchanted with its colors and art work and playfulness). The Mother of All Yard Sales was
creepy in a way, like coming to the estate sale of your goods, except you were still alive. I had been part of that town for 33 years and somehow, that day it became evident to me, mostly through what other people said and the feeding frenzy over the possessions I was selling (some of which, I must admit, were pretty cool), that my leaving was viewed by many as "the end of an era." Tears were shed: some by me, some by others; some, in both cases, were part of grieving Ned’s loss and the changes it had necessitated. Those members of the community who were presumably happy to see me go, and there were a few, stayed away.
How much did I sell at the Mother of All Yard Sales? $6000 worth of stuff in one day. (Much needed by me at that point, I’ll add). And I miss only a few of the things I released: a couple of teapots, a square of patchwork I used to keep on my bureau.
But here’s a fact. I did save those blue ribbons. They hang in the closet in what’s now my writing room (which was my bedroom when I was a teenager visiting Aunt Dot here; I once got in BIG trouble with my aunt for writing, in this very same closet, in large letters, in green paint, "The Beatles 4-Ever!" when I was about 14; long since painted over.) Some of the ribbons have faded to purple, a few maintain their original blue. They have a pinked bottom edge, a folded-over triangular top in which the hang-tag is inserted in a little brass eye. Next comes a round gold something-or-other with visuals that are utterly illegible, but claims itself, in gold, as "THE SEAL OF THE STATE OF ARKANSAS." It’s followed, all in caps, traveling down the ribbon, with these words:
Where I once came in first in a very large field.
CODA # TWO to the above:
And here, in Vermont, today, I planted an asparagus bed, in my own very large field, during a light intermittent rain.
I thought about investment, time, money, friendship, of course asparagus… but all that’s material for another post.