The Smug Alternative

Deena Boydd sipped a triple-cream latte and began her editorial for the next edition of The Jacktown Liberator. “The worst problem in the world today is a false sense of self-importance,” she typed, considering it a brilliant beginning for a piece designed to skewer her detractors, a legion of local journalists, politicians and businessmen, not to mention creditors. While the journalists and politicians had other ridiculous axes to grind, her creditors, she reasoned, simply did not understand that she was a woman on a mission and that their concerns over money betrayed their petty sense of the world while confirming her broader and certainly more legitimate world-view.

A knock on the door of her tastefully neutral and largely barren office interrupted her reverie. Before she could say “come in” the door was opened by a short, very stout young black woman with a scowl on her face.

“Hello, Arusha, how are you this morning?” Deena asked, beaming with false goodwill.

“I been trying to get that man on the phone you told me about, but he ain’t takin’ any calls now,” Arusha said. “They said he got your message and he workin’ on a response.”

Deena frowned. Not only did she hope that the man Arusha was referring to, who happened to be the chairman of the city council, would respond to her questions by 5 p.m., her deadline to the printer, but she was also frustrated at trying to encourage Arusha to adopt a more sophisticated approach when it came to contacting people. Deena needed to speak with others simply in order to give the patina of reliability to her otherwise fabricated news stories about the inner workings of the city’s administration, but she felt that at the very least she should put a good face on her trumpery.

Deena clinched her teeth, which Arusha interpreted as a smile. Smiling in turn, Arusha asked, “Do you still want to go to lunch with me and Syllis at that foreign restaurant? She said it’s expensive. You know it’s my birthday that day, don’t you?”

“I thought you were a Virgo,” Deena said.

“Oh, I ain’t a Virgo. I got two kids. Anyway, I gotta go. It’s my turn to clean the bathroom, and Mr. Tadd’s picky about that. I thought he was going to have to be put in the hospital that time he found that cricket on the window. He sure is jumpy.”

Arusha left, slamming the door. Deena gritted her teeth hard even harder. Her gaze wandered from the door to the mirror on the wall opposite her desk.

‘I still look good,’ she said to herself. Deena was 53, a bottle blond with rapidly graying roots. She had begrudgingly decided to approve of her expanding bulk, which she reassuringly found in keeping for a mature woman of what she considered significant social stature. For a decade, her publication had ridden the modest wave of a small southern city’s liberal sentiments. Deena knew that her vision of the city’s future was the only one with any reason or design; she alone had her finger on the true pulse of the city. She felt that she’d established herself as a distinctive voice in local politics, when in actuality most people only picked up her publication in order to find out what bands were playing in the local nightspots.

Another knock at the door signaled the arrival of her partner, Tadd Stuffer, a pale, untidy man who stooped, snuffled and continually dusted his shoulders with dandruff. “We have to talk,” he said, glancing nervously down the hall before he closed the door.

“What is it this time?” Deena asked.

“Payday is this week,” he said. “And we don’t have enough money to pay everybody.”

“How much do we have?” Deena asked. Tadd quoted a figure. “Well, that’s enough for you and me, and enough to put out two more issues before another payday. We’ll issue everyone else vouchers.”

“We did that last time,” Tadd pointed out.

“In that case, you know what you have to do,” Deena said. “Call your mother and tell her we simply need a few thousand to see us through this rough spot.”

“Deena, I’m beginning to think Mommie’s patience is wearing thin with our continual need for money,” Tadd said. “She’s well-off, sure, but she’s already spent over a half a million dollars keeping us afloat for the past eight years. I don’t think she’s willing to do it for too much longer. Of course, it might help if you were a bit nicer to her.”

“Why should I be?” Deena thundered, her normally pallid, flaccid features mottled with fury. “She’s the one who made life miserable for you all those years, putting you in that clinic with all those other pathetic losers when all that was wrong with you was the need for the love of a strong woman. Look at all the good I’ve done for you. She should be grateful for that alone!”

“Deena, listen to me . . . “

“No, you listen to me! You get on the phone to that gold-plated bitch of a mother of yours and tell her that if she doesn’t send us twenty thousand bucks today, I’m going to tell her exactly what went on with her husband and your step-brother when he stayed in the pool house last summer.

“Deena, you promised!”

“I’m sorry, Tadd, but this newspaper is more important than your ugly family history. We are here in this city to help bring about a change, to bring a people out of bondage, to make good the wrongs of a century, and you’re worried about a measly case of incest?”

Deena was red in the face, her disproportionate Rubenesque body heaving with emotion. “Call her. Now!”

Tadd stared dumbly at her tits, which she had begun to knead provocatively. She started to unbutton her blouse. “Close the door,” she said.

“Here?” Tadd asked nervously.

“Yes.”

Tadd closed the door and whimpered while Deena drew a big black latex phallus from a bottom drawer.

***

In an office down the hall, Parsley Horton-Hoopey was giving her husband a lesson in political correctness.

“Zeus, I thought we’d agreed to call it ganja,” she said. “Marijuana is just a vulgarity invented by drug lords who only sell this sacred herb for money. And while we’re at it, it’s ‘maize’, not ‘corn’, for Demeter’s sake.”

Parsley had only recently moved to Jacktown from the West Coast, where she had lived in the commune near San Francisco her mother had founded in the mid-Sixties. She had moved to Jacktown to live with her grandmother after a series of arrests for larceny, fraud and drug charges had made it clear that the State of California teetered on the state of barbarism. Parsley had charmed Deena with her tale of persecution and woe. Deena, always the champion of those she perceived as underdogs, took her to her breast (quite literally and quite often, usually when Tadd was bound in handcuffs) and made her a managing editor, which meant that Parsley was in charge of the contributing writers, who were one by one becoming more and more frustrated and alienated because of her incompetence when faced with a paragraph and her indifference in dealing with deadlines.

In addition to her job at The Jacktown Liberator, Parsley also worked for a successful online marketing firm from which she had been pilfering funds in steadily increasing amounts for over six months. She reassured herself that if she got caught, she’d just get Zeus, who owned a small restaurant in the city’s trendy Fondue district, to pay them off and everything would be fine, and of course Deena would fight tooth and nail to keep her managing editor out of prison and avoid a scandal, wouldn’t she?

“And Zeus, don’t forget we have to go to Amelia’s house blessing Saturday afternoon.” Parsley listened on the phone then exploded. “I don’t care if you have to open the restaurant at 5! We’re going to Amelia’s! I’m supposed to hold the Holy Laurel Wreath! Besides . . . (she cooed) I have a surprise for you . . . Remember that black teddy you liked? . . . I bought it, and I’m wearing it to the ceremony.”

She hung up the phone with a sigh. God, she got tired of pushing sex, especially her own.

***

Across town from the Liberator offices, in Jacktown City Hall, Mayor Henry Jackson was meeting with his public relations man, Moore Dimm.

“Well?” he asked.

Dimm fidgeted. “It looks like Boydd at the Liberator is sniffing around the Harris Street Project again, and this time she claims to have found the contractor files.”

“Impossible,” Jackson said.

“She’s been talking with Stevens,” Dimm said.

Jackson frowned. Ruben Stevens was a hotshot developer from Little Rock who had piloted several urban renewal projects such as the Harris Street Project in the past seven years. When Stevens first became involved in the project, he had recoiled in horror at the lack of progress as well as the copious evidence of waste, ineptitude and graft that had stretched to over twelve years. But he quickly realized that profit was to be made by playing ball with the Harris Street Revitalization Committee, which was steadily funneling fraudulently-acquired state and federal funds into dozens of outstretched palms, including those of the mayor and his top advisers.

Stevens himself justified this foray into graft by rationalizing that the project would be finished eventually, albeit at many times the cost of the original estimate, on a much lower scale and in a much greater amount of time. Once he had assessed the lay of the land, Stevens settled into a lap of luxury, cushioned by a plush downtown office staffed with lots of giggling interns of both sexes and a top-floor apartment in the city’s Fondue district, one block from the offices of The Jacktown Liberator, where his latest inamorata, Parsley Horton-Hooey, gave him quite possibly the best hum jobs in the known universe on her lunch breaks at the insistence of her boss, Deena Boydd, who saw in uncovering the corruption behind the Harris Street Revitalization Project a way to lend some degree of credence to her fabricated forays into legitimate journalism.

Mayor Jackson was unaware of the Horton-Hooey connection with Stevens, but Dimm had heard about it from one of Stevens’ interns, a muscular young blond who also happened to be sodomizing Dimm (as well as Stevens) on a regular basis. Modesty, as well as the First Amendment, of course, forbade him to reveal his source. It was enough for the Mayor to know that there was a potential breach of security, and as the polished bureaucrat he was, he immediately began making plans to seal it.

“Can we get one of Huntson’s boys to take care of it?” he asked, meaning could a shooting be arranged.

“No,” Dimm said. “Too obvious, and Huntson would want a bigger cut.”

Jackson frowned again. When he frowned, Jackson’s face changed radically from the benign, plump, smiling figure he presented in most public images. It became a dark, sullen and demonic cloud. “Well,” he said. “It looks like it’s time to play ball with Miss Boydd. Let’s put her on the team, okay?”

Dimm smiled, looking for all the world like one of those simpering puttis in a Renaissance painting.

(All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

ANZAC Biscuits

In 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of an Allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula to open the way to the Black Sea for the Allied navies. The ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army, but the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915, the Allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships.

Though the Gallipoli campaign failed the actions of the Australian and New Zealand troops during the campaign bequeathed an intangible but powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as an “Anzac legend” became an important part of the national identity, and is often credited with securing the psychological independence of the nation. News of the landing at Gallipoli made a profound impact on Australians and New Zealanders at home and 25 April quickly became the day on which they remembered the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.

This recipe comes from my old friend and neighbor Tom Lestrade. He said they’re just wonderful, and if you don’t want to trouble with golden syrup (which I recommend you do) Karo dark is a good substitute.

ANZAC BISCUIT RECIPE

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup shredded or flaked sweetened or unsweetened coconut
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons golden syrup (recipe below)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons hot water

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Take half the coconut and half the oats and chop well. Stir together the oats, flour, sugar, salt, and coconut. Place the butter and syrup in a small saucepan or microwave-safe container, and cook or microwave (medium 3-4 min) until the butter has melted and the mixture is bubbling. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the baking soda and boiling water, then stir in the hot butter. Be prepared: the mixture will bubble up, foamy, energetically. This is why you’re using a medium (rather than small) bowl. Stir the butter mixture into the dry ingredients. Hand fold in bowl until everything is moist, no dry spots. Drop the dough, by teaspoonfuls, onto the prepared baking sheets. A teaspoon cookie scoop works well here. Leave at least 1 1/2″ between them; they’ll spread quite a bit. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, until they’re a deep mahogany brown; the cookies are meant to be crisp/crunchy and dark brown, not chewy/light brown. Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool them right on the pan. Store, well wrapped, for a week or so at room temperature; freeze for longer storage.

GOLDEN SYRUP

Golden syrup is a lightly caramelized simple syrup flavored with lemon. Dissolve two and a half cups cane sugar into one cup hot water. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a bare simmer, add a lemon slice and cook until a golden color.

Oatmeal Date Cookies

Coarsely chop about  eight ounces of pitted dates or another dried fleshy fruit, and add ¾ cup brown sugar mixed with one stick soft butter. Sift in a cup all-purpose flour, a teaspoon baking soda and about a teaspoon salt. Add a lightly beaten egg, a teaspoon vanilla, whatever spices fit your groove, and a cup and a half of quick-cooking oats. Mix well. Spoon golf ball-size globs onto lightly oiled baking sheets and place on the middle rack of a preheated 350 oven for about 20 minutes. This mixture–divine, sensuous, the very essence of destiny itself–can be baked in a pan and sliced into bars after cooling.

Cake Oil

In my old home town, certain ladies were known to have the best recipe for, say, a coconut or 9-layer butter cake, Lane, Sally Lund, or what have you. When having a big holiday dinner or entertaining guests from out-of-town, you’d call up these good souls, commission the cake and it would be ready for you on the day.

We also had June Ann Willoughby, who you’d call to make a Mickey Mouse cake for a children’s party or a groom’s cake in the shape of his favorite hunting dog. She also created naughty cakes for bachelors’ and bridesmaids’ parties. A friend of mine swore she had a cast of her breasts made for June Ann to bake a cake in. “We had to use an ice cube on the nips to get them to come out right,” she said.

June Ann’s crowning achievement was a cake that replicated a 1957 De Soto Fireflite Sportsman for Wayne and Alice Bryant’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was the very car that Wayne drove to pick Alice up in on their first date, and (according to Alice) the one in which Wayne, Jr.—who was mayor at the time and present at the party—was conceived , “Though not THAT night, of course!” she added. The cake was big enough to feed over fifty people and the icing she used was a glassy, high-gloss glaze.

The De Soto cake was of surpassing beauty, as well as a technical achievement.  She had Willie Duvall, who used to be a mechanic, to help her with the cardboard mold, but what amazed me is how she got each section of cake to separate so easily. The surface of the frosting was impeccable, which could only be achieved on a flawless surface.

“Honey, I use cake oil,” she said. “What you do is you mix one part shortening, one vegetable oil, and one plain flour into a paste and brush that on the sides of your cake mold. You don’t have to fuss with dusting or anything. I make a quart of it at a time and keep it in the refrigerator, but you can keep it in the cabinet just as good. Lasts forever.”

 

Scalloped Potatoes with Spam

My maternal grandfather and my father were both GIs, and they both served in the Pacific, where a staple ration for the troops was Hormel’s Spam. SPAM is an acronym for “spiced ham”, but it soon became known as “Special Army Meat” by soldiers. The meat product, consisting of pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, salt, and sodium nitrate, doesn’t require refrigeration, has a long shelf life, and is arguably toothsome. Between 1941 and 1945, Hormel shipped over fifteen million cans every week, over all in excess of one hundred million pounds of Spam overseas between 1941 and 1945.

Like so many boomers, I grew up with Spam. We’d have it fried with eggs for breakfast or between two slices of Wonder bread slathered with mayo for lunch, but for very special occasions we would have scalloped potatoes with Spam. While this dish likely just screams of trailer park cuisine to many, I’m certain that millions in my generation who grew up in small towns across the South, likely across the nation, remember Spam in scalloped potatoes as a familiar side on the dinner table and a standard of church potlucks and dinners-on-the-ground.

The bone of contention with scalloped potatoes is whether to add cheese or not. Purists will insist that any scalloped potato recipe with cheese a gratin, when actually a “gratin” is a technique referencing any recipe cooked with a crust, whether it be of cheese, breadcrumbs or some other ingredient, or a container, a gratin dish, which is a shallow oven-proof container. I rarely use cheese myself, opting instead to use a light butter roux, and a mixture of whole milk of milk and heavy cream in a somewhat thin sauce between layers of thinly-sliced starchy potatoes (peeled or unpeeled). This is baked in a medium-high oven (350 or so) until the potatoes are tender and the top somewhat browned. Spam, cubed or sliced (more often cubed), is first lightly fried with just enough oil to toss, and layered in. The Spam itself is quite salty, but you’re going to need to salt the sauce anyway, and I like black pepper. If I use cheese, I’ll use a dry cheese; Romano or Parmesan. Finely diced onions are always an option.

Roast Pork Loin

Remove sinews and most of the fat from a whole loin of pork, butterfly and brush with corn oil seasoned with black pepper, salt and freshly-minced garlic. For the stuffing, use day-old cornbread moistened with oil and a light stock of your choice (I recommend chicken), seasoned with fresh rosemary (not too much!), thyme and basil, salt and pepper along with finely-minced onions. You can also add other vegetables such as spinach, celery or sweet peppers. Stuff the loin, assemble, truss, brush again with seasoned oil and roast on medium heat (350) until done through (about an hour for a ten pound loin). Serve with Jezebel sauce.

About Sawmill Gravy

The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it turned south for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms in southern woodlands. It was an ecological calamity, but it kept a defeated people in food and clothing.

I grew up in the hills of north Mississippi, where sawmill gravy was a staple for the big breakfasts served in farming households. This recipe makes a gracious plenty. Many of the old folks I knew as a boy would keep a covered container of left-over gravy with whatever meats and biscuits weren’t eaten that morning.

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly.

Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat. Salt if needed, and I think it’s best with plenty of black pepper.

Carrot Salad

One of the more delightful elements of human nature is the always-surprising and often revealing insights we get from people who help us see those components of our lives we find mundane and trivial as exotic and interesting. In my experience, foodstuffs provide the most common examples. Take for instance the reaction of my friend Aileen, who is from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to carrot salad, a food I’ve always known and more often that not ignored.

Aileen is tall and slender, with thick, beautiful mahogany hair that cascades in waves down to the middle of her back. Even more striking, she is one of the few people I’ve ever known with green eyes, true green with the barest flecks of brown. For all that, she is not the sort of woman most people would describe as beautiful, since she has the sort of face the English deem “horsey” and is embarrassingly awkward, simply devoid of grace walking or sitting, somehow even managing to look uncomfortable lying down. Yet she is kind and gentle. Her husband is a short, blond fellow, handsome in a bunny-rabbitty short of way with the hairiest forearms you’ve ever seen in your life. He plays an accordion player in the oom-pah band at Gluckstadt. They moved here four years ago, which is about the time she first saw carrot salad, at a church social.

“It really stood out,” she said. “I mean, if you think about it, how often do you see things that are orange on a table in the first place? Or raisins? I had to take a couple of spoonfuls and went up to one of the older ladies there, showed her my plate and said how much I liked the slaw. I thought it was slaw; it had grated carrots and mayo, and I thought the raisins were really an original touch. Well, she looked at me like I was from Mars!”

“Aileen,” I said, “do you remember the time you called hushpuppies cornbread fritters?”

She looked at me with those emerald eyes and smiled.

Waters Walking

The other day my car was being repaired. I had it in the shop for an oil pump problem. I say it’s a car; maybe it’s a truck. I don’t know. It’s a twenty-two year old Jeep Cherokee with crank windows. Nothing fancy and that’s what I like about it. It was cold that morning so I put on my insulated boots with warm packs placed in each toe like hunters do, bundled up with my fingerless gloves, packed my painting kit, and set out walking around the block.

I saw a few people who might have thought I was indigent. I know the look. I’m loaded down like all I have is what I’m carrying. These things are my most valuable possessions. Walkers pass by not saying anything when, if I were dressed nicer and not for painting in the cold, they would probably say hi. I saw some people who recognized me and wandered why I was in the neighborhood. I explain I got married last March and we live around the corner. I’m out looking for something to paint. Things always look different on foot. Nothing is speaking to me yet. Then I come upon a painter friend of mine. We chat about the things going on in each of our lives and I reach down to pet her three legged dog. We say our goodbyes and as they are walking away I see a painting there.

I make a quick mental sketch of her and her companion. I begin setting up. I turn my AirPods on and begin listening to shuffling music. A car stops and a person is looking for some keys that may or may not have been dropped nearby. No luck. A young lady stops with a Polaroid camera and explains she is working on a series of photos depicting the neighborhood. Another car stops to drop off a meal on wheels to an older person. Then I get a call from my mechanic who says he’s going to need another day to finish the oil pump job. It’s okay. It’s all okay.

It’s been a little over two hours and I’m nearly through. It’s best not to get too through. I take a phone photo and post it like I always do. It feels good but I am not sure if it’s the painting or the process of seeing; but it does feel good. Then, I’m flooded with another feeling that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. All because an oil pump broke and a walk around the block.