Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Every Town Has One

I grew up pre-Martha Stewart in a small town.  Our home cooks had a wonderful lady named Betty Feezor who hosted a daily cooking show on the local TV station in Charlotte.  Other than that, they relied on word of mouth - recipes and methods that had been time and taste-tested by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters-in-law and next-door-neighbors.

And we knew good food - still do.  And every small town had several ladies who took care of our special occasions with remarkable talent and ease.

You all know who I mean.  We all knew the cake lady in our towns.  No matter where you lived - she made the best wedding cakes in the world.  They were usually heavy, moist pound cakes delicately flavored with lemon or almond, and they were frosted with either homemade butter cream or an amazing seven-minute frosting that still takes me back to my childhood when I encounter it today.
 (photo courtesy of flours-sf.com)
Before the days of grocery-store deli counters, the cake lady was our only resource.  These days we seem to have two options on extreme ends of the spectrum - either go to the grocery store and risk buying something with icing that tastes a little like shaving cream or engage the services of one of those fondant artists for a beautiful cake that costs as much as a decent used car. That being the case, I'm still a fan of the cake lady - when you can find one.  Thankfully, in many small towns,you can still attend wedding receptions and watch the women exchange approving glances and nods as the cake is cut and passed around.  Those nods say "Ummm.  Mary Nell made this one...", or "Knew it!  Joan's lemon pound..."

(photo courtesy of charmandsalt.com)
But we don't stop there.  Every (Southern) small town also has a cheese straw lady.  This girl has perfected the art of the classic cheese straw or cheese ring (depending on the way it emerges from the pastry bag).  She is known for her ability to make a PROPER cheese straw - one which bears no trace of the flour that you know is in there, but instead presents itself as a delicious bite of buttery sharp cheese with the perfect kick of cayenne pepper that is miraculously and mysteriously crisp. They might just float away if you aren't watching.  In recent years, dozens of commercially prepared cheese straws have hit store shelves, some of them very good.  But I have yet to find one that truly compares to the local version. The cheese straw lady's talent is as much in demand as the cake lady's. 

By way of illustration, one of my favorite cheese straw stories happened at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration.  One of the guests, a woman who had been gone from our town for close to 30 years, came up to me at the event and said, "Honey, would you mind giving me the name of your cheese straw lady?  These are just delicious.  We don't have anyone in my town who can make them like this.  I have been making do ever since I moved away from here!

And then there is the butter mint lady. 
 (photo courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal)
Today's crowd and, sadly, even some of today's caterers, consider a butter mint to be one of two things - either a rock-hard piece of commercial candy overdosed with peppermint oil - or - something made with powdered sugar and food coloring and more peppermint oil that resembles a bit of stale cake icing pressed into a little candy mold.  Neither of these is an acceptable substitute for the real thing.  A homemade butter mint is made the old-fashioned way by pouring the boiling hot candy onto a marble slab and, at just the right instant, pulling it (with bare hands!) into the tender pieces of candy that melt in your mouth like no other.  The butter mint ladies are dying out (maybe from exhaustion and/or third-degree burns?) but growing up in my town, we had at least half a dozen of them.  Butter mints fell from the sky like rain on every special occasion in those days.  I'm told there is a man not far from here whose mother had the foresight to teach all of her children the craft of butter-mint-making before she died.  God bless her.

Now - did I mention chicken salad?  It should contain nothing but white meat and is never to be made with Miracle Whip. In a small town, there are only one or two highly trusted chicken salad ladies.  We're funny about the chicken salad.

  And we can't forget the lemon blossom practitioners. 
 (photo courtesy of food network)
 These little lemon cakes, baked in mini muffin tins and saturated with sugary lemon goodness aren't as easy to accomplish as one might think - at least not to our lofty small town standards. And just so you know, they predate Paula Deen by several decades.  She just had the good sense to inform the rest of the world about what we already knew.

Speaking of small towns, this may be the first of many posts about them by way of looking at mine. 
 (photo courtesy of hoghappenin.org)
 They are in themselves American treasures, too often looked down upon and seldom celebrated.  That is a shame, too, because small towns have nurtured and produced some of America's greatest talents, not the least of which are the cake ladies and their cheese straw-butter mint-chicken salad-lemon blossom sisters.

So stay tuned for future posts from Main Street.  In the meantime, if you run across a good butter mint, get the girl's name and give me a call.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Summer Camp

Little girls love their playhouses.  Turns out, big girls do, too.  Welcome to my morning commute.  And before you go hating me, at least listen to the story.

We built this little summerhouse (and at this point, Joe, who REALLY built it, looks at me and says "what's this WE business?") around a group of old windows we found lying on the side of the road - which was the subject of an earlier post.

Well, truthfully, it sat filled with junk for six years.  Every summer I would look at it with longing as I would pass by on my way to the garden to pick tomatoes.  Then, several weeks ago, I found myself faced with an important artwork deadline and no choice but to finish that deadline three states away from my studio here in our house.  I was not optimistic that anything good could come of that.  I have a hard enough time being productive when I'm actually IN the studio - much less three states away.  But as it turned out - I tripled my productivity during that week.  My wheels began turning.  I realized that being away from my cable TV, my internet, and my land-line telephone were actually BLESSINGS.  Who knew?

So I came straight home and did something radical.  I moved my studio into the summerhouse - away from my cable TV, my internet and my land-line phone.
With a view like this out my new "studio" window, why didn't I think of this years ago?
My new digs aren't anything fancy.  The old screen door came from the salvage yard for the whopping price of $5, and the window boxes aren't filled with pink and white impatiens - yet.
Just inside the screen door, you can see the storage wall that we built into the house all those years ago - long before I ever had the idea to use the place as a studio.  I had the MOST fun with cans of spray paint when we first built, and decided that the colors still suit my needs - so I left it alone.  The mirror is an old church window - also from the salvage yard.  We added the mirrored pieces ourselves.  The "countertop" is actually made of two long boards from the lumber yard.  We rounded the edges and put multiple coats of polyurethane on them to stain and seal.
My artboard is protected from the hot morning and afternoon sun by rattan window shades.  All of the windows are operational, so I can get cross breezes.  This being the South, however, cross breezes cease to be of any value between the end of April and Halloween - so I can see a portable air conditioning unit in my future.  And the mess "is what it is".
I didn't exactly clean the place up for your visit.

Little Jackie, the studio cat, doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.  The summerhouse was his corporate headquarters when we had it filled with junk.  He had his own secret side door for a quick entry during winter snows and summer thunderstorms.  Now that I have moved in, he has taken up residence on one of the top shelves beside the mirror, spending big chunks of his day sleeping and gazing out across the garden.  Every now and then he will voice an opinion on whatever I'm working on.
And speaking of studio cats, Little Jackie's mentor, my beautiful Tylenol (who left us last year) is buried - not by accident, it turns out - right at the edge of the path that leads up to my new studio.  He greets me in spirit every time I pass by, and I see his sweet face everywhere I turn.
And I do work.  This is the view directly in front of me.  The sunsets are especially sweet.
Peeping around the corner of the potting shed, you can see how close I am to the garden - my favorite source of inspiration and a place I can never get enough of.  Because of our great seasonal weather, I fully expect to be in residence up here from at least late February through Thanksgiving.  And depending on what kind of heating solution I can come up with, you may just find me here in winter, too.  (Can you hear Joe laughing in the background?)

Whatever the case, I'm now happily painting away in my own grown-up version of summer camp.  S'mores, anyone? 

Saturday, April 7, 2012