Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fruitcakes and Santa Claus

      My friend Sharon couldn’t restrain herself as we approached Claxton, Georgia on a road trip last December. “I bought some fruitcake once,” Sharon quipped. “I sent it overseas to guys in the army.”
      “How nice of you,” I said.
      “They dropped them instead of bombs,” she giggled. “They’re also good to use to balance a wobbly table leg, or as sand bags during hurricanes, or as speed bumps.” Fruitcakes are the most maligned of treats. But our preconceived notions of what some call “the worst gift ever” was dispelled when we got to the Claxton Bakery where employees were bustling to ship 90,000 pounds of cakes a day to places all over the world. Obviously, there are plenty of people who crave them. Claxton Bakery also the biggest industry in this central Georgia agricultural town.
      It began in 1910 when Savino Tos, an Italian immigrant and pastry chef, visited the town and was struck by the friendly people and lack of a bakery. He opened a small storefront where the aroma of fresh baked goods and his excellent ice cream earned him a loyal clientele. During the holidays he made his family’s fruitcake. One day an 11 year old boy wandered in looking for work and Savino gave him some chores to do. Albert Parker hustled to the bakery before school to light the ovens and prepare the dough and returned to work until dark. He did it for years. So when Savino wanted to retire in 1945, he sold the business to Albert who ran for 50 years. Today, his four children run the business which has prospered due to the company’s innovative strategies. Civic Clubs throughout North America use the cakes for fundraisers. They are featured in elaborate floats in televised parades.                                                                                                             

      “I feel obliged to buy some,” I whispered to Sharon. “At least for journalistic research.” So bought a few and we carried on to our next stop. Side trips are essential to long road trips, I believe. Our final destination was the outsider art sight Pasaquan near Columbus but I’d checked my favorite website and come up with a few ideas en route. The Vidalia Onion Museum was intriguing. “See a hand-painted 3-D mural of the onion in culinary action, marvel at the World’s Smallest Onion Field…Best of all, you’ll get to see the Vidalia “Yumion”, one of the more terrifying mascots ever created,” it touted. “A terrifying mascot?! I’m in!” I goaded. But somehow it didn’t make the cut. Neither did the “U.S. National Tick Collection” in Statesboro which hosts the world’s largest collection of ticks and a machine that freeze dries them and coats them with gold, a suggestion to which Sharon simply responded “EEW!”
    But up the road was a must-see destination for Christmastime: Santa Claus, Geora. I was surprised to learn that there are many towns in the U.S. named for Christmas. There are North Poles in New York, Colorado and Alaska; a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and another Santa Claus in Indiana. This one is tiny, only a fifth of a square mile. It looks more like the gussied-up entrance to a fancy subdivision then a town. The tinseled-bedecked visitor’s center was locked but Sue Grisham walked across the courtyard from Town Hall when she saw us and unlocked the door. She said that they call themselves “The Town that Loves Children”. Decorations are up all year and the 200 residents live on streets like Candy Cane Lane and Reindeer Way. When the town was incorporated from a pecan grove in 1941, State representative Tom Fuller declared it to have “Ten people, 40 dogs and no reindeer.” Back then tons of north-south traffic passed nearby and it seemed like a good way to lure tourists. That all changed when I-95 was built. Today, the town attracts thousands of postal customers instead who want their Christmas cards stamped in Santa Claus. As we chatted with Sue, she was busy stamping 200 envelopes she’d received from Austria.

      Back in the car I wondered what to do with the fruitcakes I’d bought. One appealing possibility was to take it to Manitou Springs’ Great Fruitcake Toss in Colorado Springs where we could join enthusiasts from around the world in contests that “launch the hapless dessert into space with a variety of mechanical and pneumatic devises”. That sounded like the makings of another great road trip to us. But in the end, I slipped them under trees at holiday parties, put one in the mailbox for the postman and gave them as hostess presents. I’m worried though. I might receive the same cakes back in gifts to me this year. I guess I could just wrap them up again and wait for next Christmas.

If You Go

Claxton Fruit Cake:

Santa Claus, Georgia:

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A.K.A. Culigangy

            On a peaceful bike ride on Jekyll Island the other day, a plaque on a soaring beach memorial intrigued me: “Please help me.  In 1859 I was brought to this country when I was a child…One year ago it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa…And now I beg every one who will please help me…I am an Old African.”  It was a plea written to neighbors in 1904 by “Ward Lee”, known as Cilucangy in West Africa.  He’d survived the Middle Passage on The Wanderer, the last ship to bring slaves to this country.  Slave importing had been outlawed for over 40 years by then but Charles Lamar disguised his ship as a pleasure craft and brought about 500 captured Africans to the Georgia coast.  Over a third died along the way.  Cilucangy was bought by an Edgefield, S.C. landowner where his ability to speak several dialects made him a valuable interpreter.  He was also a master sweetgrass basket weaver.  All of the plantation’s cotton was gathered in his baskets.  Throughout his life, he yearned to see his homeland again.  “…it was revealed to me to go home back to Africa and I have been praying to know if it was God’s will and the more I pray the more it presses on me to go… I am trying to get ready if God be with me…”  The memorial is beautiful and the story is poignant but what struck me the most was that it reminded me of my friend Nakia Wigfall’s story. 

            She too is a master sweetgrass basket weaver, the fifth generation in her Mt. Pleasant family, as well as a tireless advocate for the history of her craft. Her ancestors were also brought here as slaves from West Africa and like Cilucangy she too had a compelling desire to go there.  “I began to think more about my ancestors and the land in which they lived.  In my early 30’s I became more and more obsessed and dreamed of what African would be like,” she remembers.  Like Cilucangy, Nakia sought support to realize her vision.  But she used a Go Fund Me page.  In short order she raised over $3,000.  Then during one of her frequent educational talks “I shared that I longed to go to West Africa to see the land and descendants of my people.  A woman was there with her mother.  The mother came to me afterwards and told me about her daughter who is an airline attendant. ‘You have a ticket!’” Nakia was told.  She was astonished. So in May, 2016 she joined a group of professors and traveled to Senegal.  It was a revelation.  “The tour guide looked like one of my nephews and his cousin looked like another one.”  She saw living conditions and culture “very similar to mine as a child and through my adulthood.” Her basket making wove cultural connections.  One day when her group went sight seeing she stayed behind where some Senegalese women were selling fruits and nuts in the marketplace.  “The baskets they had were used to display their merchandise. They were not basket makers.  Just like here, not all African Americans from Charleston are sweetgrass basket makers.  So I got out my materials…and started telling the women about my baskets.  She didn’t speak English but she was excited to see that my basket looked similar to the ones the basket makers make there.  We now share a special bond because I gave her a sweetgrass bracelet to remember out time together.” 

            After the Civil War Cilucangy became a farmer, married and had four children. He continued to weave his masterful baskets and pass down the skill.   Three of his sons still own land in the area and recently hosted their extended family’s 9th biannual reunion which always begin by reciting the names of those who have passed and introducing the new children and spouses who’ve joined the family.  “We have a wonderful family, said Mrs. Mitchell, who is one of Ward Lee’s three surviving grandchildren. “ The children are our tomorrow.  We want them to understand.” 

            Cilucangy’s great-great grandson Michael Higgins celebrated the family legacy when he carried a photo of him into the voting booth in 2008.  “I carried it with me as I cast a vote for a son of Africa, who will be this country’s first African-American president.”  It was around the time of Obama’s first inauguration that the family convened on Jekyll Island to dedicate the memorial.  Cilucangy’s yearning for his homeland was never realized.  He died in 1914.  But Darrel Higgins added an uplifting addendum to his great-great grandfather’s life story:  “Here we are, 150 years after Lee comes ashore in cuffs and Obama is going to the White House.  It says so much about where the nation is and was.  It’s profound.” 
For more about Nakia Wigfall:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Meeting the Culture Keepers in the Costa Rican Rain Forest

                      “That’s my uncle!” Luis Quetzal exclaimed me in Spanish as we watched a scratchy vintage video at the Gold Museum in San Jose.  Luis, a 12th generation shaman, had come from his remote village to help lead our group of “LEAF Ambassadors”.  He’d never visited the museum before.   Luis was surprised to see his uncle on film chanting and ceremoniously divining a cure.  “He taught me those same songs,” Luis excitedly said. Around us lay the artifacts of Costa Rica’s indigenous cultures.  Beside us walked a man who still practiced those traditions. It was a poignant introduction to why we had come. 
            The LEAF Festival is held twice-a-year in Black Mt., North Carolina. Sold out crowds revel in the atmosphere of positivity set to stellar world and regional music. But LEAF’s mission of connecting cultures through the arts at the weekend festivals and in their numerous outreach programs to Asheville schools extends much farther. In partnership with programs in Bequia, Guatemala, Panama, Rwanda, Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti and Tanzania LEAF International helps support indigenous culture keepers.  Luis explained, “If you take a tree that only has roots from two years, it’s very easy to uproot the tree but if the tree has roots from 10 years, it’s very hard to uproot that tree.”  Deeper roots teach the children that their culture didn’t start 200 years ago.  It’s ancient. Seeing the ideas in action as we did was a transformative experience.  
            I’d been to Costa Rica a few other times including some relatively remote locations but nothing like this.  From Puerto Viejo, we travelled by public bus, hired van and (when that broke down) pick up truck until we reached the Urén River where long dug-out canoes were being loaded with everything from furniture to bunches of bananas.  We gingerly tossed in our backpacks and headed into the Talamanca.  Up the river, down a dirt road and through a grove of giant   bamboo, we came to the Amubri village of Koswak. Its huge conical huts, made entirely from bamboo and palm, are truly marvels of engineering.  There is a dining hut where our hosts cooked delicious meals on a wood fire, a two story sleeping hut with private, mosquito-netted beds, a gathering hut large enough for dozens of folks and running water and toilets nearby.  
Our days were spent on “intercambio”:  cultural exchange.  We whipped up a rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” to sing in classrooms.  Until a few years ago, the only songs taught in their schools were the ones the evangelists had allowed.  During those years, the indigenous language was banned.  Now the Bri Bris control their own schools so the children sang their traditional songs in their original language.  That night we danced in a circle with local drummers to depict the world’s creation.  We hiked to visit Jairo, a drum maker.  Beside his family’s smoky conical hut, his father and he showed us the s’bok drums they were making by meticulously carving out the core of logs and covering them with snake skin.  Before
LEAF’s support, Jairo was making trinkets for tourists.  Now his students learn fables set to music.  At every opportunity Luis sang: for our safe arrival, before our long journeys home, to welcome the sunrise...  Every occasion is elevated by music he told us. He conducted healing sessions for those who were willing. The chants and potions left fellow-traveler Steve with a mysterious bolt of energy coursing through his body and cured Isaiah of “FOMO”, the fear of missing out that our culture promulgates.

            “LEAF makes us feel that…our cultures are important,” said Alexis Rodriguez, the culture keeper who worked with LEAF International to unite indigenous tribal members from Costa Rica and Panama. In their sacred mountains they saw their musical traditions performed for the first time as art.  The power of music is evident in the Rwandan program which helped turn homeless orphans into touring drummers.  “To watch these teen street boys become young men living in a home, and each being a world-class performer has been a series of miracles and a testament to the human potential,” LEAF’s founder Jennifer Pickering says.  Musical horizons are expanded when the festival brings international students and culture keepers in to proudly share their traditions with American audiences and Asheville students.  Luis came last year after consulting his spirit ancestors.  “I was very nervous to go to Asheville…but I found it was part of my journey.  I’m happy to share with you because we’re only one family.” 
             “Music is the great bridge that can bring diverse communities together in a manner that transcends conversations and divisive ideologies…Politics and religion fade while friendship and understanding start to erase “isms”,” Jennifer says. Luis puts it this way: “the only way to talk to God is music.” 

LEAF Community Arts:
Koswak Bri Bri village:
For more on this subject:

Monday, August 29, 2016

In Two Centuries at Once on Jekyll Island

            When Vance Hughes and Larry Evans climbed through an unlocked window of the dilapidated Jekyll Island Club in 1983 they were probably looking more for mischief than a life calling but the seedy grandeur of the hotel captivated them. The neglected hotel estate on a barrier island near Brunswick, Georgia was in ruins.  With no financing and a budget of $20 million, resuscitating the hotel seemed impossible.  Miraculously they accomplished it in style; recreating the opulence envisioned by the founders. From our small but luxurious room in the main lodge, history was right outside the window.
      I easily imagined myself as one of the country’s elite industrialist wives like Alma Rockefeller who vacationed here in the 1880’s.  She disembarked from her namesake yacht at the dock right there, followed by a parade of servants toting dozens of steamer trunks containing the ten changes of clothes required daily of Victorian women. Today’s hotel dress code is decidedly casual although at dinner men are asked to wear jackets.  Across the lawn I could see players dressed all in white practicing for the next crochet tournament.  Horse drawn carriages were touring guests among the quaint cottages that line the hotel’s historic grounds.  It was like being in two centuries at once. 
            The island was purchased as a hunting retreat in 1886 and began attracting members like J.P Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, Marshall Field and Singer Sewing Machine’s Gilbert Bourne.  Membership required a unanimous vote and a huge yearly fee.  The founders built the main lodge first which was described by a reporter as an “English castle with its square-shaped windows and its lofty tower.” It was their “Winter Newport”, an escape from the North’s brutal winters and a place to recreate and strengthen business alliances.  They hunted, played poker and built some of the best bicycling trails on the east coast.  The wives were relegated to the parlor while the men gathered in cigar smoke filled rooms planning the country’s future, shoving pushpins into maps mounted on the silk wallpaper.  The Federal Reserve was famously planned during a weekend retreat in a room just below ours. 

            I’d probably have joined forces with the suffragists.  Some were members by virtue of their husbands but they wanted leadership roles. J.P. Morgan finally agreed to allow that despite his opinion that “woman suffrage would only help to complete the ruin of the country already hurt by universal manhood suffrage.” Some of the women were crack shots, good golfers and avid bicyclists.  They competed against men in races and events, upsetting the social order by sometimes winning. In 1893 Helen Bullitt Furness bagged one of the island’s dangerous boar who had eluded even the professional hunters. Their Ladies Rough Riding Obstacle Bicycle Society spurred the development of the island’s 20 miles of excellent trails.  Clearly times were changing. 
     But in its heyday, the Jekyll Island Club thrived.  Members built ornate “cottages” (one had 22 bedrooms) boasting indoor plumbing, Tiffany glass, handcrafted furniture, original art and electric lights.  They built a large swimming pool and laid a golf course beside the ocean. Many amenities have been preserved including two of the elegantly renovated cottages with rooms for larger parties as well as several smaller ones that have been turned into shops and galleries.  Today it’s an award winning National Landmark and attracts not only the country’s business and political leaders but movie makers and stars.
            The aristocratic hold on the island started to crack with the stock market crash in 1929.  As World War II began, German submarines were trolling off the coast and yachts were being commandeered by the Navy.  Children didn’t value their inherited club membership as much and wouldn’t pay dues.  Several schemes to save the hotel failed and it closed for good in 1971; until that fateful night when the two high-school buddies got wild and dared to go inside the haunting building. 

            Today, 80% of Jekyll Island’s 5,700 acres is owned by the State of Georgia and remains an undeveloped maritime forest.  There are a few high rise hotels on the beach where the hotel has a pavilion and is constructing seaside cottages. The hotel emerges like an elegant lady from behind a green curtain.  Wildlife is abundant.  Hughes and Evans struggled to find financing before partnering with David Curtis and Leon Weiner.  After hearing an enthusiastic pitch, they came from Connecticut and “We did one of those things you’re not supposed to do,” Curtis said, “which is to fall in love with real estate.”  Jekyll Island has a way of doing that:  enchanting with its history, natural beauty and the graciousness that has been carefully preserved for centuries. 
Jekyll Island Club Hotel:


Monday, July 25, 2016

Climbing the Blue Mountain Peak

Carlton awoke us from dreams of duppies in the attic at 3 A.M. Time to begin what turned out to be a 9-hour hike from the decrepit inn to the top of the Blue Mountain peak.  It was all "I-tal mon".  We had music to share, songs to sing, Rastafarianism to explain and a sunrise to witness.  Read the full story here:  Gonomad

To Sleep in a Tree

Paddle down the Edisto River to a secluded tree house in the forest.  It's secluded, playful, unique and set up for a close-by adventure.  Read about it here:  Gonomad

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Into the Land of Pasaquan

            Eddie Owens Martin was deathly sick.  His days being a young hustler in 1930’s New York were catching up with him.  “I was just coughin’ and heavin’…like I was cleansin’ myself of my past.  And durin’ the worst night of all, when I thought I had died, my spirit seemed to leave my body and I encountered this vision of a great big man sittin’ there like some kinda god, with arms big around as watermelons...  And he said to me, ‘If you … follow my spirit, then you can go…,’” he told biographer Tom Patterson.   Visions instructed him to start a new religion, “Pasaquoyanism”, to change his name to St. EOM.  “You’re an artist,” voices said.  “I really didn’t ever know what I wanted to be in life until I began to dabble in the arts and learned to depend on that inner voice…” Soon paintings of Mayan temples, bizarre landscapes and ancient civilizations filled his squalid apartment.  His image changed from slick to mystic, a guru without followers.  His tribal robes and coiled long, spindly locks added to his allure as he became a popular fortune teller.   

            He’d run away from the family farm outside of tiny Buena Vista, Georgia when he was just 14 years old.  “I threw myself on the mercy of the world,” he’d said about leaving an abusive father and a community that labeled him as different.  Then, at age 49, the spirits told him to move back to the now-vacant family farm and begin building his legacy: the Land of Pasaquan.  “I never had any overall plan.  All I knew was that I could see these designs in my mind… I hadn’t ever built nothin’ before.  I was experimentin.’” Peaking through the woods, townspeople were astonished and mystified as Eddie created 900 feet of  masonry fences emblazoned with weird and risqué images, psychedelic totems, decorative walkways, sculptures, a dance platform, murals and fanciful copulas. Hammered tin embellishments turned the modest farmhouse into a temple.  He toiled relentlessly, mostly alone, for 30 years.  He funded the construction with income from fortune telling. One of his regular customers was Plains resident “Miss Lillian” Carter.
   Rumors of trained rattlesnakes kept out interlopers. Teenagers dared each other to go in. One of them, Fred Fussell, took the dare.  He came to get his fortune read and left with a fascination that lasted 30 years. Fred was among the first to recognize the value of St. EOM’s creation and the possibilities it brought to the region.  When Eddie died by suicide in 1986, Fred and his neighbors founded the Pasaquan Preservation Society.  Years of struggling to find funding finally attracted the Kohler Foundation.  It has spent three years and millions of dollars to restore it: everything from stabilizing foundations to bringing the vibrant artwork back to life, the largest and most complex project the Foundation ever undertook.  “It’s beyond our wildest dreams.  We’d tried every avenue we could think of,” Fred says.

            Michael McFalls led Columbus State University’s collaboration during the restoration work and will direct the project as the college takes responsibility for its future preservation. The vision is to “to give visitors a unique insight into the intuitive artistic process… through diverse programming, interdisciplinary workshops, lectures, seminars, retreats, and performances, which challenge established ideas about the arts. We envision Pasaquan becoming a culturally enriching leader…while assisting in economic development.”

            Buena Vista, population 2,000, could use some economic development.  There are hardly any restaurants.  The one B&B is looking for a buyer.  Michael says that the town is “coming around to the idea of Pasaquan being an opportunity. They recognize the genius in their backyard.”   It’s a slow process. When I visited in Nov. there weren’t even any signs directing visitors to the remote art environment.  In nearby Richland though, entrepreneurs have been quick to sense opportunity and raise economic development money.  A shiny rum distillery dominates the still-shabby downtown. The sugar cane’s provenance is just up the road making them the only U.S. rum manufacturer with their own farm. The high quality sipping rum is distributed as far away as Europe.  Amy Stankus moved her artisanal Chocolate South from Atlanta and is gearing up to make gourmet rum balls. Regional artists are being enticed by the low cost of living and progressive ideas.  It’s an ironic outcome for St. EOM who bragged of being “too bold and brazen for them people that run the art world”.  None the less, he created one of the most significant intuitive arts environments in the country. On October 22, 2016, Pasaquan will reopen to the public with great fanfare.  St. EOM’s spirit will certainly be in attendance.  


Kohler Foundation:

Pasaquan tour information and links to digital images:

Where to stay: a small B&B in Buena Vista

In Americus, 25 miles away:

Richland Rum:

Chocolate South:

Thursday, May 12, 2016


            Jonathan Green says that costume designer Annie Simon understands his vision for Porgy and Bess “in a glorifying way.”  But it took awhile.  After all, he’s using the opera to change a paradigm that has plagued the African American community incessantly.  When Spoleto Festival director Nigel Redden approached Jonathan about creating the opera’s visual design and costumes, he agreed only if he could do it from the perspective of free Africans.  In the rural Gullah community of Garden’s Corner, S.C. where he grew up, extended families live close to the land.  Colorful traditions, crafts, and stories are passed down.  Fishing and farming provide a shared prosperity.  Contrarily, the image of African Americans in the wider culture is much less flattering.  He points to our general population’s impression of Africa: wild animals and abject poverty.  An entire continent summed up bleakly, simplistically, ignorantly.  The image of “enslaved derelicts, I don’t know anything about that culture and I never saw it.  I know my culture.”  So Jonathan insisted that his design concept would be Africans coming to the United States not as slaves, but as immigrants like anyone else.  He wanted to “shift the paradigm to a modern day people, to give them back their culture, not built on slavery.”
            Annie Simon is a Brooklyn based costume designer who received her MFA in Design for Film and Theater in 2010 from NYU.  She’s designed for dozens of feature films, music videos, commercials, theater productions and dance performances.  The opera’s director David Herskovits, with whom she’d worked previously, brought her to the project.  Jonathan, she says with the utmost admiration, was “hired to bless us with his image and creativity.” Her goal was to realize his vision of combining traditional African clothing and 1930’s dress. It required “a ton of research” but blending genres was not new to her. She won the Kennedy Center’s Outstanding Costume Design Award for Bartholomew Fair which melded 1600’s English clothing styles with punk rock. 
She began sketches for each of the 72 costumes, head wraps and accessories months ago.  Jonathan’s paintings inspired her:  women standing in the wind with billowing patterned dresses, puffy shoulders and high waists.  She worked until she could “really feel his paintings,” and then sent the sketches to Jonathan for approval.  When he gave positive feedback, she “felt fantastic”. 
          Next she supervised turning the costumes from sketches to clothing for the 55 actors and singers in the show.  “I never buy fabric on-line because you can’t touch it and the colors are different,” she says.  So she shops inHarlem where African fabrics are plentiful and there’s “a little man with a sewing machine,” who can whip up prototypes.  Three shops in Harlem worked non-stop to complete the job.  Once the costumes were sewn they were shipped to Charleston and fitted by the expert seamstresses in the Spoleto costume shop.  Finally she met with the actors to personalize the head wraps, wigs and accessories for each role.  It’s a labor intensive process that lasts until the opera’s premier on May 27. 
            Pushing the envelope this way is not new to the opera.  It has been an agent for social change throughout its history.  Musically, Gershwin had to defend this “folk opera” that brought “the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits” of African Americans to the operatic stage.  “I have created a new form…quite naturally out of the material.”  Outraged critics called Gershwin a Tin-Pan Alley hack and an affront to Wagner and Mozart. Socially, turmoil and controversy have surrounded it too.  Gershwin didn’t debut it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1930 because they insisted on actors in black-face. Instead, it premiered five years later where an integrated audience was the first of many it prompted.  Despite 124 Broadway performances and a national tour it was a financial and critical failure.  It has endured a love/hate relationship with Black critics. Journalist William Warfield wrote “In 1952 the black community wasn’t listening to anything about plenty of nothing being good enough for me.”  But overseas it’s been a sensation. La Scala had never hosted a cast of African Americans before 1955 when Maya Angelou played Ruby: “Time and again, the audience came to their feet, yelling and applauding.  We had performedPorgy and Bess as never before …”   In Charleston’s own Dock Street Theater, a plan to integrate the audience for the first time in 1954 was met with such backlash that the performances were cancelled.  It wasn’t until 1970 that it was performed to an integrated audience in Charleston.  Critic Rodney Milnes wrote, “If ever a twentieth century opera aspires to make the world a better place…it is Porgy and Bess.”  So in the hands of Jonathan Green and Annie Simon it is again doing what the arts do so well:  entertain, inform and create change.

If You Go:
Spoleto general information:  Tickets to the live performances of Porgy and Bess are sold out but free simulcasts will be broadcast On Mon. May 30 at 7:30 p.m., in Marion Square and Tues. May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at West Ashley High School.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Searching for the Food of the Gods

            Our driver came back to the van to tell us that he’d been given “Costa Rican directions”. In other words we were still lost.  We’d driven four hours from San Jose towards the Caribbean coast. The twelve of us were weary and looking forward to a pit stop but this sparsely populated jungle did not look promising. 
            I felt like I was heading to the beginning of a story that I had started in the middle.  Two years ago I visited the Chocolate Lounge in Asheville and toured their French Broad Chocolate factory  where the long lines, delicious treats and the story of the founders had impressed me tremendously. 
In Jael Rattigan’s blog, she recounted her literal “follow your bliss” experience that occurred as she toyed with making truffles during a dark point in her life.  “My hands were covered in melted chocolate (up to my elbows, Dan remembers) as I rolled the truffles into the dark, molten liquid. Suddenly, I distinctly felt my hands tingle; I moved my gaze to them, held them outstretched in front of my face, and stared. I felt the gut-twisting, dizzying feeling of pure inspiration. With clarity, I said to my hands:chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.”  She credits Dan with holding her accountable for this revelation which she might otherwise have dismissed as frivolous.  Instead her notion became a hugely successful business which processes 4 ½ tons of chocolate a year and ships to over 100 retailers throughout the country as well as serving over 300 retail customers daily.  Now we were searching for the provenance of their chocolate.
            The van continued bouncing down the rutted road.  A man on a bicycle emerged from a field and signaled us to follow him.  He walked ahead of the van very slowly and turned into a small path between the banana trees.  Soon the bus couldn’t go any further so we got out to walk up the steep hill.  At the top there were sheds, platforms, machinery and long buildings covered with tarps.  We’d found the once abandoned cacao farm the Rattigans had purchased and restored.   It provides French Broad Chocolate with some of the beans to make truffles, confections and pastries, making them one of a handful of chocolatiers in the world to be bean-to-bar-to-truffle confectioners.      

     We were met by Mauricio, a farm worker, who explained the methodical process required to grow and prepare the product.  “At first we plant the tree.  We get fruit in two to three years.”  He plucked a cacao fruit off a tree and broke it open. It’s the size and shape of a papaya.  We sucked white pulp from the large seeds.  It tasted vaguely like lemon yogurt.  Hard to believe that this is related in any way to chocolate truffles, I thought.  It was also a revelation to learn from Mauricio how much work is involved to turn this sticky mess into the candy confection we love.  The pulpy seeds are fermented in the sun for six days, growing hot as they sit and are stirred.  Then they’re dried on racks 10 to 15 days, moving them each day.  Some processors use a shortcut by cooking the seeds “but I think it’s not the same taste,” Mauricio says. “It’s forced.”  We noticed that the equipment to accomplish all of this looked homemade: ingenious assemblies of gears, convertible platforms, covers moving on runners and jerry-rigged arrangements.  They were reminiscent of the Willy Wonka-esque equipment at the factory in Asheville that Dan built from cast-off parts, saving them tons in start up costs.
            The farm ships the beans to Asheville for roasting but for our visit they were roasted in a cast iron kettle over a fire.  The chaff was blown into the wind similar to rice in a fanner basket.  The roasted beans were ground into a coarse powder in a hand cranked grinder.  For our benefit, our hosts had made some brownies.  Coconuts were picked, cracked open with machetes and equipped with straws.  What a treat!  No wonder the Aztecs called chocolate the “food of the Gods.”  Mauricio had his own commentary.  “Chocolate keeps you young and strong.”  
      Our familiarity with chocolate’s folklore was just beginning. Later in the week we were going to stay with the indigenous Bri Bri people.  There chocolate is practically a sacrament and has a deeply spiritual importance.    Babies are bathed in it when they’re born.  Deceased people are embalmed with it. But that’s another story. 
            As we left the cacao farm a fellow traveler Jennifer remarked about the investment of time, energy, money and attention that’s required to grow our craved confections and the new found respect we’d gained for the process.  “This will make you feel better about paying $7 for a chocolate bar,” she quipped.     

If You Go
French Broad Chocolates

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Things We Do For Love

        When unrequited love turns into craziness spurned lovers might binge on reality TV and Ben and Jerry’s, turn into stalkers or post revealing photos on the internet. Bonfires of discarded clothes and curse words scratched into cars can result. As passion turns to obsession, pets have even been poisoned. But Edward Leedskalnin took crazy love to a whole new level.
       When he was 26, he was engaged to Agnes Scuffs, his “Sweet Sixteen”. It wasn’t just because of her age that he called her that. He had strong opinions about love and lust and wrote, “When a girl is sixteen or seventeen years old, she is as good as she ever will be but when a boy is sixteen years old, he is then fresher than in all his stages of development.” He valued Agnes purity. He wanted to dedicate his life to protecting her. Somehow, she saw red flags and broke the engagement one day before the wedding. For Edward it was a tragedy beyond measure. He would win her back or spend his entire life trying, which he did.

    He left his homeland of Latvia in 1913.  After wandering for a few years, suffering from tuberculosis, he went to Florida City where he hoped the climate would agree with him.  A grand gesture to bring his Sweet Sixteen running back, that’s what he needed.  So he began digging the rocky ground with hand tools, working alone by lantern light.  Ed was only 5 feet tall and weighed only 100 pounds but he fashioned block and tackle wenches and chipped away at the coral that was sometimes 4,000 feet thick.  Bit by bit he painstakingly began a monolith to his unrequited love. 
        Meanwhile, Florida was being developed and a subdivision was being planned nearby. Ed felt his privacy eroding so he decided to move the gargantuan blocks of coral rock he’d harvested ten miles up the road to Homestead. He laid two rails upon a chassis from an old Republic truck. A friend pulled the loaded trailer along slowly. Moving all of the huge blocks of rock took three years and attracted on-lookers who began to ask questions about this reclusive, obsessed man. Curiosity followed him to his new home where people dared each other to approach the site.
        He bought ten acres in Homestead where he worked fifteen more years on his Coral Castle. First he built walls with look-outs to watch for interlopers. Then he carved a place for his future life with Agnes: a coral desk, a coral table shaped like the state of Florida, a coral sundial, his and hers coral beds, a cradle, a wishing well. His masterpiece is a nine ton gate that’s 180 inches wide, 92 inches tall and 21 inches thick that can be turned like a revolving door with just one finger. Throughout it all he lived simply in a make-shift bedroom without electricity or running water. He rode his bike into town for supplies and began to allow paying visitors who asked the same questions people ask today: “How did a 5 foot tall, 100 pound man, with only a fourth grade education move tons of limestone rocks by himself?” Edward always explained that he used the same principles that were employed in the building of the pyramids. But Egypt had thousands of slaves. Maybe aliens had helped Edward, some suggested. Maybe he had supernatural powers. Did anybody actually see him working? Theories and questions continue to feed the mystery today.
  Agnes never saw Coral Castle or even came to the United States. She probably didn’t even know it existed and may even have forgotten Edward. But he never gave up on her joining him in Florida. In 1951, Edward left a sign on the Coral Castle entrance “going to the hospital”. He took a bus to Jackson Memorial and died three days later.
        In Ed’s time there was a sign “Ring Bell” outside a locked gate. Another said “Ring Twice”. If the directions were followed precisely and if Ed wasn’t busy, he’d come give a tour for 10 cents. Now tourists pay about $15 to hear the story, see the incredible structures and peak into Edward’s humble living quarters consisting of a plank bed wrapped in burlap and repurposed junk turned into shelves and rudimentary benches. Outside there’s a 5,000 pound rocking stone throne for Ed, the king of the castle and smaller ones for Sweet Sixteen and an imagined child. There’s also a purposely uncomfortable one for his would-be mother-in-law. To complete the homey tableau there’s Ed’s heart shaped Feast of Love Table with his original flowering ixora plants growing in the center. It’s an inspiring place to sit and contemplate passion, obsession and the mysteries of love.

If You Go:

Coral Castle is in Homestead, Florida near Miami: