Christmas with Elvis

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Christmas in the Deep South is colder than I once promised a certain someone, to lure him into moving here. Much colder. And without the charm of a light dusting of snow to get you in the spirit. For a secular humanist, I do try. But even with a tree dancing with ornaments in the front room, our house is lacking in Christmas tradition.

This Christmaslessness has a history. Byrne and Duncan, both Jewish, lived here since 1969. When I lived with her, after Duncan died, the most Yuletide-y it got around here was the Nutcracker ballet. Which, frankly, we both hated and suffered through simply to keep the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre in the black.

So heading deeper south to ring in the season made as much sense as sitting around Beaufort waiting for it to snow. Winter is a great road trip season, if you don’t mind plenty of parking (and free) in every town. In 2,000 miles we didn’t run into any other tourists, except for a young couple from Vienna. So we had Elvis to ourselves.

His birthplace, that is. Worlds away from the tourist-mecca of Graceland is the two room wood house in Tupelo that started it all. A mile up the main drag is the hardware store (still a hardware store) where his mother talked him out of a rifle and bought him his first guitar instead.

The house is surrounded by a museum now, and a fancy park. But it’s the stark reality of seeing the humble beginnings of a star that made this visit the best way to get into the spirit.

I think I’ll go put on my Elvis sings Christmas CD – glad to be home by Christmas afterall.

The fish that got away

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My family is still stunned. I caught a fish.  A huge fish. A Redfish so big I had to put it back. For those of you who read  my blog  on “Why fishing is nothing like dancing” earlier this year,  brace yourself.

My friend Terry Stone did not do the work for me this time. He did drive the boat. Loaned me a real reel and hinted that I’d have better luck casting in the lee of a nearby oyster bank than in the middle of Station Creek. But that’s it, I swear. I baited the hook myself, casted without impaling anyone else on the boat and all by myself, wrestled it from the waters of the Port Royal Sound.

Well, I did have a little help. From Martha Graham. Years of modern dance training finally paid off. When a fish that size hits your bait, it feels like your wrists will snap. Whiplash is not out of the question. Girly girliness is.  Luckily I had strong enough thighs to grip the freeboard and not fall overboard. I instinctively pulled into a Martha Graham contraction – back rounded, stomach clenched, thighs engaged, neck taut – and got me a fish!

It’s hard to believe I was once a vegetarian. The teen-me would have cheered for the fish to win the fight we had in Station Creek. But the adult-me had no such qualms. That Redfish and I were absolute equals, despite me weighing six times as much. She, and I’m sure it was a she, knew the waters better, had more to lose than I did and probably better instincts. Well, except for the part where she bit down on a half-dead minnow impaled on a sharp hook.  I like to think I wouldn’t have done that.

The adrenaline rush was as powerful as I’ve felt after any dance class. I’m sure that’s the only reason I let Terry talk me into sticking my hand through her gills to pose for his cell-phone photograph. Our battle wasn’t over. She clamped down on my hand like a vice, bone on bone. She defecated on my other hand, holding her up for the victory pose. And when we lowered her over the side of the boat to let her go, she didn’t stick around to thank me. In a silvery flash she left me – hooked.

My First Ice Hockey Game

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Hat trick Caps hats thrown on the ice, and yes, I know what a hat trick is - now

I am plagiarizing my own guest blog today – it’s all my friend Audrey’s fault. She treated me and Gary to an NHL game in DC Friday, and was so amused at my sports naiveté that she asked me to write about it – for all of her sports fan followers (

I must admit, I had my reservations about professional ice hockey. Audrey’s the sports geek in our kindred spirit-ship; I ask embarrassing questions like what sport do the Caps play? The last time I watched ice hockey, okay the only time, was the Miracle on Ice on Wide World of Sports. I won’t say how old I was, but let’s just say I wasn’t living in the South at the time. Now I am, and not a soul I know plays or watches ice hockey – for obvious climate-related reasons. People here value ice only for its ability to keep oysters, freshly-caught shrimp and cheap beer cold.

I realized this wasn’t reason enough to turn down Audrey’s invitation when we visited over Thanksgiving. Besides, I’m only a transplanted Southerner and so have no cultural immunity. Truthfully, it was the blood factor. On the continuum of imagined barbarity, ice-hockey is somewhere between vampire orgies and giving birth. All of which makes me queasy just writing about it. It’s not really my fault. I’ve fainted at the sight of blood ever since I had my ears pierced. It’s genetic. I passed out and so did my mother, right there at the jewelers counter. When I came too, she was bleeding, from a gash on the forehead where she collided with said jewelry counter on the way to the floor. I fainted again.

It doesn’t help that the Caps’ color is blood red, and entering the stadium/rink/arena (I really know nothing about sports) is like diving into a red-tide. My husband and I, dressed head-to-toe in black, must have looked like characters out of a Southern Goth novel. Half-frozen creatures out of our natural element, down to the gloves we wore for the entire game.

Which was nothing like what I imagined. Firstly, there was no blood. Not even when a Caps player mixed it up with a Tampa Bay bruiser for some infraction that happened far too quickly to justify. These guys pummeled each other, helmets off and spit flying, much to the delight of the crowd. The jumbo-tron provided a closer look – instant replay of anger mismanagement. If there had been blood, I couldn’t have avoided it. Instead, I got a glimpse of plumber crack disguised by tattoos. Maybe I should rethink my blood aversion.

The game itself was insanely fast and blissfully quiet. No annoying play-by-play to interfere with the occasionally creative curse hurled at the visiting team’s bench. It brought back memories of my childhood. I was so much smaller than my classmates that in grade school, boys humiliated me with taunts of “Bruce-flea” and “You’re too short to be a jockey!” I got to re-live these insults again, thanks to a height-challenged Tampa player named St. Louis. Now I realize that they’re funny.

So is the fact that half of the players don’t speak English and cede their post-game victory interviews to lesser, native-speaking players. Pronouncing their names requires a concentrated diplomacy of effort on behalf of their fans – something rarely conceded to ordinary immigrants. It isn’t easy. Even a transplanted Southern woman finds herself blushing when screaming the name of the hat-trick hero of the night. Semin! Semin! Semin! Audrey kept reminding me, “think semi-colon,” but that only made it worse.

In the end, I found myself enjoying the spectacle and abandon of the game. Even in politically correct DC, there was cussing and insulting and booing. In real life, it isn’t nice to gloat over the misfortunes of others, but in ice hockey it’s expected. The Caps didn’t just win, they shut out the sorry Southern team 6-0 with a hat trick to boot. And even though there was not a drop of blood in sight, I was giddy with it.

The minefields of meal memories

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I’ve been thinking about the tenderness and tact required in discussing food that mothers made. As in years ago – when their children were growing up – the dishes we now remember with varying degrees of fondness. My mother admits she hates to cook. Which made her, in my estimation while growing up, the world’s worst cook and the reason I became a vegetarian for 20 years. Later I learned that she cooks with resentment – angry at the husband who won’t boil water and kids who absorbed the message that cooking was her responsibility and we didn’t have to help either. Eeesh – I’d slap myself  if it would change things.

I’ve now discovered that my mother inherited this  from her own mother. I’ve had the chance to spend more time with my grandmother than my mother lately, and food is not one of the high points. She was a career woman and fighting for labor rights was more important than making dinner for three kids. It was the fifties and that’s what TV dinners and a compliant daughters were for. I’m sure I would have agreed – back then. Now she gets insulted when I don’t eat the snacks she lays in for my visits (fig newtons, canned ham, ice cream, frosted Oreos) or the things she brings back as leftovers from her retirement home’s dining hall (half-eaten grilled cheese, for example. The dog is much more appreciative. And fatter.)

It’s not necessarily easier to maneuver through meal memories in homes with good cooks. My mother-in-law served three different veggies from her garden with every meal and made apple strudel her boys still wax rhapsodic about. But as she closes in on ninety, she doesn’t have that energy anymore. Or the necessity. It makes more sense to buy processed foods that come in sizes better adapted to reduced appetites. She too, feels slighted when her visiting kids ask for soy milk, non-fat yoghurt instead of sour cream, or less oil in the bean salad. “What’s wrong with what we always ate?” is the unspoken question. She just set the bar too high and now her boys are all amazing chefs with very particular palettes. It’s easy to solve, though. Her sons and daughters-in-law just make a big show of “treating” her to a home-cooked meal, in her own home. It’s the Wisconsin way to avoid conflicts.

Just when I get to shaking my head about all those old-timey, unhealthy recipes, I get a reminder that puts me in my place. When I was researching my last blog, about Byrne Miller’s famous soup, I ran across an article in “The Litchfield Hills Sampler” of Torrington Connecticut. That’s where Byrne was living, and teaching dance, in the summer of 1971 (to escape Beaufort’s heat three months a year.) It was titled, “Cooking with Love” and told the story of Byrne’s soup. The writer clearly wanted to include a recipe, but Byrne’s soup never had one. It changed with whatever was left in her fridge. So she printed another recipe from Byrne.

Glen Cove Bake

1 lb boiled ham, very thinly sliced/6 medium potatoes, boiled, sliced very thinly/8 hard cooked eggs, thinly sliced/1 1/2 pints sour cream/ salt, pepper, paprika.

The article went on to describe how you cube the ham and layer the ingredients in a buttered casserole dish. I was horrified. Byrne, what were you thinking? You were a dancer. Your body was your temple. And then I read on. “The last time the price of boiled ham was at a premium was during the depression in 1933, when the Millers were first married and living in Glen Cove, New York. ” Ouch. Okay. I get it. But I still don’t want to eat it.

Luckily I have no children of my own. So there will be no disgusted progeny to react, years later, to the papaya salad I served at our progression dinner this past weekend. And it comes with its own provenance. On our first trip to Laos, in 2001, Gary and I ordered the green papaya salad at a restaurant in Vientiane. The waiter made a face, told us it was very spicy, and we were as insulted as our mothers probably are with us. So when a small crowd gathered on the balcony above the dining courtyard, waiters and cook staff, we couldn’t back down. The papaya salad was ruthless. Fluids flowed from every facial orifice. Not enough water in the world would help. My face was crimson; Gary’s a curious salmon color. But we ate it. Defiantly. Needless to say, the recipe we served Saturday is quite toned down. But still only eaten by half our guests. See what you think.

Papaya salad, as photographed by Mark Shaffer

Laotian Green Papaya Salad

1 green papaya – julienned

4 carrots – julienned

10 green long beans – julienned

1 garlic, 1 Thai chili, and 1 tablespoon each of  shrimp paste, sugar, chicken bullion, fish sauce, lime juice and dried shrimp – all mortered and mixed into a thick drizzle that you toss with the papaya and carrots. Top with cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Hand out handkerchiefs.

Remembering Soup

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By the time I lived with Byrne, she had long-since parted ways with cooking.  She re-heated. Unwrapped. Combined. Added Water. There was a phone call once, after I had moved to DC, comparing what we’d each had for dinner. Me, pizza from scratch by Gary. Byrne, oatmeal with sardines. But it wasn’t always so. In my research for the Byrne Miller Project, I ran across an article in a small Connecticut weekly extolling the dancer’s famous soup. It turns out it was rather famous. (In the blog about her birthday, Benjamin Barney left a comment you should read.) Basically, she started a huge pot of soup whenever a deadline loomed  – a performance, or publication of a school magazine –  and added something to it every time she walked past the stove. She said it was ready when a fork would stand up in it. It stewed for hours, even days, and everyone working on the deadline partook of the pot for sustenance.

I was thinking of this collective soup when I volunteered for the soup-and-salad portion of a progression dinner planned by my friend Jon. The guests/cooks were eight rather foodie types – not starving dancers or students – so I decided to try something a little less random. Okay a lot less random. Instead of chucking whatever was in my fridge into a pot, I made trips to five different stores. Terribly un-green, but there’s no choice when you live in Beaufort, SC and decide to make a green papaya salad and chilled coconut curried squash soup. At least the squash were local – from the farmer’s market Saturday morning. I’m not sure where the owner of Beaufort’s newest Asian food store (called Spout) gets his green papayas and nuclear Thai chili peppers. I’m guessing not from around here.

I’ll never know if the soup would have held up for days – our second course stop lasted only ninety minutes. But it was great the next day for lunch. I only wish Byrne could have tried a taste. 

Thai soup and papaya salad - photos by Mark Shaffer

So now the recipe:

Chilled Thai Squash Soup for eight
2 Vidalia onions, sautéed in 2 tbl canola oil
4 jumbo garlic cloves, added to the translucent onions
2 tsp Thai red curry paste (from Beaufort’s Sprout!)
2 tsp sweet curry powder (from Milwaukee’s Spice House)
2 pounds yellow crookneck squash (from St. Helena Island)
2 cans coconut milk
Bring the lot to a boil for 20 minutes or until the squash is soft. Then gingerly transfer to
a blender and puree in small batches or the whole thing explodes over your kitchen counter. Chill and serve with dollop of plain non-fat yoghurt and chopped cilantro.
My writing desk, as progression dinner table

On patience

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November seems to be one of those wait and see months.  The kind where emails languish, entries dangle and decisions loom larger than life. As a kid I hated surprises, so it’s not surprising that waiting to find out if an editor likes a manuscript, or if a producer likes a screenplay is driving me crazy. I want to get in there and convince them, play an active role in my future. I’m type A — this leaving it up to fate is for the birds.

I should have more patience. Byrne did. At least with the literary world. She waited patiently for the publishing world to discover Duncan all of their married life, almost sixty years. In their early years of marriage, one would work a pay-the-bills job while the other followed their artistic dream. It’s romantic, but not particularly encouraging since Duncan died unpublished. Gary and I burned his rejection letters in our firepit to avoid bad ju-ju in the house where I now slave over the written word, but even that doesn’t seem to help when the economy is tanking and the publishing/movie world wants only the sure thing.

What I do find hope in is this photo.  Byrne and Duncan’s love lasted longer than any external validation. The grins on their faces are proof of the simple joy they found in each other and something I am incredibly lucky to have in common with Byrne. A man who is my champion. My believer. And one who makes me laugh when I would otherwise sulk.

A birthday toast for Byrne

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Today would have been Byrne Miller’s 101st birthday, and I’m celebrating by sharing a photograph from a birthday party long ago in Mexico.  My thanks to another sister-by-Byrne, Pam Susen, who found this image in a box of slides.  Byrne’s own handwriting is on the label – but all it says is Chihuahua, November 3rd.  Dates never did matter to Byrne – she lived to be almost 92 and had no qualms about getting older.  She never called it “aging,” but “advancing.”  As in – the day I met her, she helped me carry my heavy television lights onto her porch to interview Duncan.  In the book I quote her as telling me, “I am not as feeble as my advanced age implies.”

She appreciated every year she got to spend on earth – even the tough ones, after Duncan was gone.  I love this photograph for the exuberance it catches – she’s thrilled that friends went to the effort, on the road, to surprise her.

So tonight, on the porch where we shared many a slice of cake and glass of wine, I invite my brothers and sisters-by-Byrne to raise a glass again at sunset.  To the woman who still makes us beam.  Happy Birthday Byrne!