Soundscapes – Croakers Croaking

Croakers destined for the table.

First, a bit of introduction. Elizabeth Ritson’s 1816 poetical description of Norfolk, Virginia, its people, customs, manners, buildings, and foodstuffs stands out as one of the most remarkable renderings of an early American seaport town ever penned. Among my favorite passages are the enumerations of provisions for sale in the city markets.  Reading Ritson’s couplets my fascination begins with the diversity of what shoppers could procure for their tables and then drfits to speculation about the elusive sensorium she invokes. Her’s is a vivid world of curiosity experienced through sound , texture, and flavor. Take, for example, Ritson’s catalog of fish harvested from the mouth and lower tributaries of the Chesapeake, some familiar delicacies, others forgotten or shunned by evolving tastes. All poetically memorable:

Of fish they’re many sorts, it’s true,

H.M. Arnold on Nassawadox Creek

But none that’s very fine to view;

The firmest sort that can be found,

Are rocks, from seven to forty pound;

They are a white and solid fish,

Making a truly valued dish;

In shape like cod, from head to tail,

And cover’d with a shining scale.

But all fish lovers most admire,

And more than any sort desire,

Their fine sheep’s-head, which all declare,

Surpasses any turbot here.

[155] Fine mummychog are too be had,

With tailors, alewives, drum, and shad,

Sword-fish, sun-fish, dog-fish, skip-jack,

Cat-fish, black-fish, and tickleback.

 Descendents of Ritson’s finned horde still swim the waters of southeastern Virginia as do others she doesn’t name: spots, fatbacks, menhaden – all once constituent in local diets, now distressingly diminished in their numbers. But, Ritson reserves her longest passage for the humble croaker:

Another fish, much priz’d, they seek,

H.M. Arnold fishing for croaker

Bringing to town from Tanner’s creek;

A horn proclaims the hog-fish near,

Quickly the light horsemen appear;

Upon a shabby nag they ride,

A pannier loaded on each side,

With fish so fresh that people hunt

Their coming in, to hear them grunt;

Declaring if fresh they’re found,

You certainly may hear the sound!

Perhaps, being us’d the pigs to hear,

The sound’s for ever in their ear.

The vision of fishmongers astride tottering nags slung with baskets of  gasping fish destined for city tables is made more compelling by the sonic imagination. Horse hooves clop, the wet wood of the panniers creaks, hucksters sing out, a trumpet herald news of the catch…and croakers croak. For Ritson, an Englishwoman recently arrived in Norfolk, the cacophony of croakers resonated the exotic. For local gourmands, the grunt vocalized summer plenty. Croakers Croaking

Purchasing fish in the Bayford Oyster House

It’s early on a fine warm August morning when I join H.M. Arnold at the dock of the Bayford oysters house and we push out onto Nassawadox Creek in search of fatbacks (jumping mullet or striped mullet). Before we pursue the mullet, though, H.M. checks his regular nets for croakers, blues, and spots. We motor through lifting mist up to one end of the net set near the far shore and H.M. starts the process of hauling in the mesh with its entangled unfortunates. “Andrew,” he notes, “says they were here yesterday.” Most of what he catches is menhaden (known locally by the dismissive nickname of Carolina spot) he shakes loose and sets free.

But there are croakers! And, they grunt indignantly as they are pulled from the still night darkened water, unwound from ensnaring mesh, and tossed into a basket for market. Splash, rasp, thud, croak. The last the distinctive grunt that captivated Ritson, a sound I remember from my childhood, a sound that reminds me that the world should be heard and smelled and tasted and touched. It is a sound forever in my ear.

Savoring Hannah Mary’s Pone

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah in 1936, Lewes, Delaware.

Wistfulness infuses Sarah’s words smilingly spoken:

Hannah Mary was her name. She was a lovely lady. She always came into town on Saturday morning, pulling a little wagon and one horse, and she always had made a few pies. And once or twice I tasted her pies, but we really couldn’t afford them because we always made those at home. But Hannah Mary made what she called a “corn pone,” and it was huge. I’m trying to think, it was certainly more than a foot round about six, seven inches deep. I don’t know exactly how she made it, but I know it took cornmeal and molasses and water. I don’t know what else she put in it, but I know she baked it. She had an old cookstove range that was wood burning or coal burning, but she would bake it probably for about six hours. And she used to make just one and she would sell it in chunks. You could buy a quarter of a one or an eighth of a pone, I guess. We didn’t get it every week, but when we bought it we would always get a quarter of it and, boy, was it good! You cut in slices and then either steamed it and then with lots of butter or you cut it in slices and kind of sautéed it on each side and had it with eggs and bacon. That was good!”

Corn pone, as regional fare and culinary concept, covers a good deal of territory, but Hannah Mary’s pone offers a glimpse into a dish well-seasoned with Southern associations that inflect so much of Eastern Shore life. Hannah Mary’s pone is not to be confused with cornbread or its cornpone variations. Hers bore only the most distant relation to the familiar miniature cornbread loaves baked in cast iron pans, each pone embossed with the impression of a shucked ear of corn. These cornpones, typically chokingly bone dry beyond the redemption of all liquid, offer something of a dim caricature of their origins as ashcakes baked in hot coals at fire’s edge. But, these baked asphyxiations happily are not the only pones out in the world nor are those other pones without their own extraordinary histories.  Pone (from the Algonquin “apan”), as encountered and adapted by Africans and Europeans in the early 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay country, designated breads baked by American Indians and subsequently acquired more specific reference to the cornbreads of the American South.

Hannah Mary’s pone has its parallels and precedents. Mrs. Bertie Powell, resident in the Eastern Shore of Virginia waterside town of Onancock, shared a recipe for “Maryland Yellow Pone” with her friend and neighbor Bessie Gunter, who published it in her 1889 cookbook, Housekeeper’s Companion:

“Maryland Yellow Pone: Scald three quarts or one gallon of meal. Let it stand until cool, then add half teacupful of flour. Stir with cold water until the ordinary consistency of corn-meal batter, and salt to taste. The art in this bread is entirely in the lightening and baking. It is necessary to have a small [Dutch] oven, which you can set inside the stove as it bakes too quickly in flat tins. Make up after [midday] dinner and pour it in the oven which must be slightly greased. Set the oven with the lid on, on the back part of the stove (mine is a range) where the bread will lighten gradually, but not bake, until tea is over. Then take the lid off the oven, set the oven inside the stove and have a good coal fire, and let the oven remain till morning. A thick crust forms on top which you remove as you cut the bread, only a plate full at a time. You will find the bread as yellow and almost as sweet as pound-cake. Remove the crust only as you cut the bread, as that keeps it moist. You can set the oven in the stove and warm the bread as you like. This is the genuine ‘Old Yellow Pone of Maryland.’ It is so ‘fussy.’ [I] don’t know how it will sound in receipt book, but the bread is excellent.—Mrs. B.P.”

Like Hannah Mary’s pone of Sarah’s reminiscence, Powell’s pone is slow baked in a cast iron Dutch oven on a coal or wood fired range. Powell’s recipe is also notable for cooking the cornmeal twice: first scalding the meal and letting it cool before baking. Powell’s recipe offers directions couched in the rhetorical authenticity, of time and place. The “genuine” pone derives from an “old” recipe from Maryland. She marks time through meals, situating dinner at midday and a light “tea” or supper in the evening. Properly concocted, the pone will be excellent, but, in its making, the pone is “fussy,” requiring a patient, practiced hand. And, then, there is the problem of translation. Powell implicitly locates the pone in oral tradition and hand-in-hand learning, wondering in conclusion how the dish will “sound” in print. Sarah, more than a century after the publication of Powell’s recipe, similarly recognized the fussiness and the inability of print to capture the art of making Hannah Mary’s pone.

Recollecting her childhood in the town of Lewes at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Sarah Jastak (born Sarah Ellen Rickards) recounted the weekly appearance in the 1930s of an African-American huckster, Hannah Mary. “She had a wagon pulled by one horse, and you could hear that horse clip clopping down the street, Sarah begins and then continues, “it was just an open old wooden wagon. It just looked creaky and very, very rustic, and I don’t even remember how she had her baked goods stored. Maybe boxes or something, but nothing fancy.” Sarah adds, “she came around every Saturday morning with her produce. She would have made maybe three or four pies. She made just the one big corn pone and she sold it by the quarter, a quarter of a corn pone. I forget what else she sold, but I remember her pies were delicious and her corn pone – you just can’t get it now.” Hannah Mary’s route carried her from her modest clapboard home in the black community literally located on the other side of the railroad tracks, past the high school, and into McFee Street where she sold pone, pies, and a bit of garden produce to a white clientele.

Hannah Mary’s bona fides offer something more of a mystery. Sarah in consultation with her younger sister Ruth remembered Hannah Mary’s surname Burton, adding that her wooden house faced the old Savannah Road just across the railroad tracks.  The 1930 census enumerates the household of William Stockley and his wife Hannah, both in their early 50s. Living with them, listed as mother-in-law, is Hannah Burton, 83 years of age. But, murkiness confounds the details. William Stockley appears to be the elder Hannah’s son, who for reasons unstated has changed his surname from Burton to Stockley. More to the point of pone, William found employment as a cook in a white residence. Hannah, his wife, works as a housekeeper similarly employed.  In 1920, ten years earlier, William is Burton, not Stockley, working as a cook as does his mother Hannah. The younger Hannah is not on the scene. Weighing Sarah’s recollections of Hannah Mary, a neatly dressed woman in her 50s, with the census takers incisive notations, we get a sense of an aging, childless African-American household where the two Hannahs and William augment the family income with baked goods and garden produce. Younger Hannah carts those small commodities through the streets of Lewes where eager white customers purchase the pone on offer.

In the genealogy of Hannah Mary’s pone, one thought lingers. The elder Hannah Burton, born in 1855, grew up in a place where slavery, although increasingly rare, was legal and in a state exempted for political expedience from the immediate implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. The pone Sarah remembers with such affection, a great cake of cornmeal sweetened with molasses, is consonant with the deep histories of laboring foods – notable for qualities of being low-cost, filling, and sustaining in a world of arduous rural work and limited means. Baked goods also offered poorer households, in particular African American families, a means to supplement income. In some instances, home-baked goods made a big difference. An 1889 obituary for “Aunt Maria” Bivens, one of Bessie Gunter’s Onancock contemporaries, praised her industry, “it is estimated that she made over 3,000,000 cakes, the entire number being consumed in this country. ‘Aunt Maria’ redeemed herself from slavery with proceeds obtained from the sale of her cakes. Sometime ago she purchased a valuable farm. She never did any other work except the making of her cakes. She supported her husband and a large family of children, and left considerable property.”  Not nearly as successful, Hannah Mary participated in deeply established economic strategy. Nostalgia drives the pone’s apotheosis from a dietary artifact marking hard times to a lovingly remembered treat.

When we write about food we all too often forget core considerations about flavor and texture and smell. Interest in food as object tends to privilege appearance over flavor, process over aroma, ingredients over consistency. Sarah’s recollections remind us that food history engages a wider array of sensory evocations: “It’s very hard to describe what that pone tasted like, except it was delicious. It was not really sweet, but not unsweet. It was dark brown in color. It was not light and feathery; it was of a heavier, denser consistency. It’s very difficult to tell you, except it was absolutely delicious, but it was not feathery like light bread.” “It was just delicious,” Sarah concludes with palpable longing. Molasses imparted sweetness; the long baking time produced the smoothly dense pound cake-like texture remarked by Mrs. Powell.

In the time of Hannah Mary’s pone. Sarah’s mother with a favorite chicken.

Sarah locates Hannah Mary’s pone in the intimate temporality of a huckster’s rounds and a family’s meals, “We knew she was coming on Saturday morning and it was always about the same time. And you could hear her horse clop, clop, clop, clopping down the street… It was an old horse and it looked like it was on its [last legs]…It was not a young horse. It was an old nag, kind of, and she pulled this two wheeled cart…She kept everything covered with a kind of sheet or something, and she would stop on the street and get down from the bench in the wagon and then go around [to get] whatever it was that she had for sale, and whatever we could afford, we’d get some of it.” “Life in those days was very much a kind of routine,” Sarah observes, “You knew what time to expect the iceman to come around, what time you expected the milkman. There were just times you expected certain things.” Hannah Mary curtailed her rounds in the winter months, requiring Sarah’s mother to visit her at home on the northern edge of Lewes,  “It seems to me that my mother would sometimes go out in the wintertime and get a pone. I don’t think she’d come around in that little open cart [in winter] because it would be cold.”

Sarah sets the table, “Basically, we had it for breakfast. It was something we served in the mornings, on Sunday mornings. We’d get this on Saturday morning when she came around and we couldn’t afford to get it every Saturday. We would have it on Sunday morning for breakfast and with either bacon or sausage or something like that and eggs…It was superb.” Sarah laughs, “It would keep for a week without any refrigeration. Of course it didn’t last long.”

More than once, Sarah, an accomplished cook, confided that Hannah Mary’s pone was a dish she could not replicate: “It was just basically cornmeal, molasses, I think hot water – but she baked it in a huge iron skillet. But, of course, the size of it alone would take a long time to bake, not that I would ever make one that size.” Then, Sarah adds, “Nobody nowadays knows what I’m even talking about when I’m talking about that kind of pone.” As proof, Sarah cites her continuing search for a recipe that replicates Hannah Mary’s giant pone. Recounting her failures, Sarah places two notions in play: the limits of historical knowledge and the reproducibility of past sensation.  As an object, Hannah Mary’s pone survives only as narrative, a thing that exists in the present only as story, a sensory world reprised exclusively through words.

The connections between Sarah’s childhood pone purchased from the back of Hannah Mary’s wain and the Mrs. Powell’s earlier recipe for a Maryland Yellow Pone triangulate this pone’s historic place in the culinary landscapes of extreme southern Delaware, the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and adjacent Virginia. The dish, already deemed old in the 1880s, even then recuperated memory and authenticity. Mrs. Powell lards her narrative with asides on the art and antiquity of pone. Sarah does the same, extending those associations to race and class. Sarah and Mrs. Powell together voice uncertainty about the translation of memory into action. Theirs is a pone best consumed through listening and savored in the imagination.

Aberrant Things

Peelers in the Bayford Oyster House

Aberration possesses the noteworthy quality of rendering the unremarked norm visible. So it is with the current state of blue crabs in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Striding past the old concrete oyster shucking tables in the Bayford Oyster House, Jonathan Bunce extends his hand, not in greeting, but to display a three-inch blue crab. The sight is disturbing not because the crab is small but because of what it is and where it stands in regimes of understanding. The tiny crab he holds, its claws folded inward in repose, is a mature egg-bearing sook. “That,” H. M. states, “just isn’t right.”

She crabs go by a variety of names that designate their state of maturation. Sally crabs are immature females, sooks are sexually mature, busted sooks or sponge crabs are egg bearing. A fully adult busted sook carries millions of eggs. The diminutive busted sook in Jonathan’s palm might hold thousands – and not many thousands at that. Those are big numbers to be sure, but in a watery world where everything is on everything else’s menu only a few of those eggs will hatch and grow into crabs. It takes millions of fertilized eggs to hatch out as larvae destined to grow into a handful of adults. The tiny busted sook is bad news for the crab world and the universe of creatures that depend on them –  including the human realm of watermen, fishmongers, crab pickers, and gourmands.

Speculation ensues. Jonathan notes that the crab he holds is the norm this year – and so the aberrant becomes a new commonplace. H. M. wonders at what might be in the water, citing a recent study that found measurable trace amounts of Prozac and other pharmaceuticals in the marine biostream. What about the ag-industrial use of hormones – say, estrogen – we offer. Or, has the population in terms of gender become so imbalanced that a natural accommodation to redress a dearth of females is underway. We own only hypotheses.

The petite busted sook Jonathan displays raises questions about the work that objects perform in our understanding of the world and our place in it. In a “normal” year, the conversation turns to numbers caught, dockside prices, and the range of topics that govern crab economics. This crab-as-object is different from the one at hand and in its difference describes the ways in which the things we understand the least force questions that reveal the unarticulated expectations and ideologies that govern everyday life. The biology of the crab that indicates an imbalance in nature simultaneously reveals a parallel imbalance in culture. Where the physiology of the crab addresses distortions in its reproductive population, interpretive process reconciles the aberrant thing to the world of sense. In essence, the strangeness of the tiny busted sook demands sense making.  The challenge rests not only on the worrisome state of the natural world but also on equally worrisome ecologies of understanding. It’s not just what the crab illuminates about itself but what it reveals about us. What we learn from the busted sook is the ways in which we substitute sense for solution. When we posit believable explanations, we act as if we have resolved the stubborn thing, and at the heart of that action we discover the deepest work of words crafted as narrative into explanations that may not matter.

Oyster Shucking Blocks

H.M. Arnold shucking oysters, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia (Winter, 2009)

When Francis Ponge poetically reprised the oyster in 1942, observing on its interior a “firmament of nacre,” he considered too briefly the cruel instruments of destruction that invaded the oyster’s heavens: “hold it in an open cloth and use a cheap chipped knife.” His vision originates from the gastronome’s perspective, whether lodged in kitchen or bistro or wartime longing, where the oyster shucked to the perfection of a laboratory specimen purveys aesthetic delight. But what of shucking blocks scarred by the shells of thousands in their final immobile moment, pinned to oak by practiced hands, bills nicked on an upright iron spud to create the opening that admits the stabber’s severing knife? To one side the stainless steel pail where hundreds measured out in gallons passed from this world into another of stews and fritters. The shucker’s block bruises the elegance of Ponge’s rhapsodic revelations evoking constellations composed of ocean flavor, hidden worlds, and sometimes a pearl. The worn and checked contours of the shucker’s block record invasions and violence stained deep in a patina of wood and liquid, the physical trace of remorseless determination and futile resistance.

Oyster Shucking Block, Bayford Oyster House, Virginia. Materials: oak, iron, and (after years of use) oyster essence.

The shucking block, like most effective lethal “old school” artifacts, is a simple thing. The oak block, much stained with the oyster’s viscous seawater effluvia, measures nine inches long by six wide by 3 ½ deep. There is no science to the dimensions of the block beyond vagaries of personal preference (the comfort of hand and wrist, the ergonomics of reach and bench) and so approximation informs understanding more richly than exactitude. A wrought iron spud driven into the block offers the blunt edge that sheers the oyster’s bill with an authoritative tap from oyster knife or culling hammer. That’s it. An oak block furnished with a single dull blade hammered from an old file or iron scrap. Within those narrow specifications there is room for innovation. Spuds driven into opposite corners distinguish right-handed versus left-handed adepts. The deep grooves hollowed out by abrasive shells pressed against unsympathetic wood in the last instant of life write epitaphs without words. The small variations of spud and bolt, the evidence of relentless hands, the stained trace of countless oysters etches humanity into the shucker’s block.

The oyster block at rest.

Asked to define material culture

Asked to define material culture, I respond, the histories and philosophy of objects – all of them, tangible and imagined.

Fig bushes bearing breva figs.

Thunderstorms rolled up the Bay last night, broke ashore, sheeting lightening, sheering wind, sweeping rain. The morning, blindingly crystalline blue, tide surges through deep salt grasses setting railbirds chuckling madly, unseen.  In the fig orchard, a freshened breeze bellies the broad leaves, their spatulate, fingered profiles turned underside up to the sun. This day promises a fine year for figs.

Breva figs ripen; new buds appear.

Figs – plant, flower, and fruit – are curious things. The lightest of winters spared last autumn’s buds, now grown large and swelling. These are breva figs, the early ones ready for table mid June, ripening even as the tiny buds of a new season emerge in the crotch of new extended branch and leaf. The pregnant, leather-textured green skins radiate the brightest green, a hue deep and delicately translucent. Memory imagines the transition in coming months through the miserable dog days of summer when brightest green darkens to blackest purple, toast brown, and variegated lemon yellow. Figs, unpicked in August will blossom, crack open in the revelation that they are flowers not fruit.  Great humming black-and-mustard banded wasps, crowds of copper-edged, emerald-shielded June bugs, ants in their disciplined millions will feast. This brilliant morning, though, the breva figs and the new figs are objects of memory and futurity – or, more to the point, nostalgia and desire. These figs are the tangible artifacts of imagined realities; in the materiality of encounter they offer an arrested moment in the continuous flow of things in the world.

Butterflies and June bugs feast.

Figs speak to histories deeper than language – after all they are among the first trees named in Genesis, proof that they predate knowledge and were well-suited for the embarrassment of its arrival. And, fig, not cereal, culture stands now as the archaeologist’s index to the birth of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Europeans imported figs to the Americas as exotica in the age of exploration and empire and as a contraband taste of home in the era of industry and flight. In the warm climates of the South and Caribbean, figs flourish without attention; where frost heaves earth, they must be pruned, cocooned in burlap, and buried against bark-rivening cold. Often a fig survives as the lingering remnant of an abandoned home site encountered in the woods on the margin of a field. Memorials of a sort that faithfully flower for families long departed, forgetful of its plenty, ignorant of its histories. Thus, the fig epitomizes nostalgia, the “longing for an imagined past.” And, the fecundity of figs nurtures desire, the longing for an imagined future. The jars of fig preserves, stored in our kitchen cupboard and remembered in recipes shared by home cooks, require copious measures of sugar, the overwhelming sweetness that flavors nostalgia and desire.

Considering breva figs in the orchard, I am captured in a moment of reflection about the florescent nature of things. In August I will see figs differently, bend their heavy branches to my hand, savoring the sensations of late summer flavors with pleasure.

A fig rescued from Hog Island after the Hurricane of 1933 thrives at the edge of salt marsh.

Grumpy Snakes

Bored with conversation, a snake seeks more inspired companions.

Grumpy snakes encountered on breezy hot May afternoons offer surprises. At marsh’s edge, I discovered a svelte three-footer, an eastern black racer, wedged in eel cage mesh where it slithered to shed its old skin in too tight a compass. Exhausted from the exertions of sloughing two skins, eel pot and dermis, in one go, it hung slack while I worked its soft body, frayed with bits of its old self, through the wire until with listless hiss it dropped into the wrack of dried reeds and shatters. A second – this an irritable banded king snake – confronted me hauling the offending cage back to the barn. Stand-off. Encoiled, encurled, feigning aggression for the easily fooled, it relinquished no ground nor would it strike. Detour. On dockward return, no grumpy snakes appeared, the light trace of their passing invisible – only the track of the meditation they occasion remains. I like snakes well enough, but then I always wash my hands after a liberating moment.

Another seeks supper.

A Metaphor Pinned By A Rock

A metaphor pinned under a rock

A single sheet of ruled notebook paper wrenched from its spiral binding, dewy wet and rock weighted, sags pinned atop a fieldstone wall. Each of three columns, arrayed side by side, begins with a key word – and underneath a register of single word associations. On the left “heart” superintends love, brave, empathy, conscience.  “Broken” elicits bones and pain and stress and anger. The anchoring stone, shedding dirt and finest shreds of composted leaves, occludes the organizing word that heads the rightmost column. I cannot move the one-rock avalanche that walls these words; I can only guess at the congruity of sleepy paired with energetic or the abstraction of positive in a triangle with healthy and complete. This hidden word under its moraine of recent making poses a seductive mystery. Better to leave it alone and wonder than lift the weight to dulling light.

The lower registers of the buckled page are numbered out of sequence. “3. Because in the definition of metaphor it says something is not literally applicable.” “2. Our hearts are broken and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.” “7. The speaker is attempting to say our hearts are broken by this sudden tragedy…” What tragedy? “4.?” “6? Heart.” Is this a test, a manifestation of the Conet Project gleaning random numbers counted out by well-spoken spies in late night shortwave radio transmissions?

What else is there to say about an artifact rescued from the pavement? More soiled by its present perch than pedestrians’ feet. The words readily legible in what experience suggests is the craft of a looping feminine hand. Rounded letters as if the swell and bounce of O, the bulbous nose of P, or Q’s bubble of a derriere were all that mattered. No jaggedness here, no haste – just a sense of unfinished reflection and missing information. The evident care in its salvation draws a distinction between loss and discard with pointed ambiguity. Stopping to read this scrap of paper I wonder how it came to be in this place. Some instinct transformed a passerby into a Samaritan who thought the page lost, imagining the returning steps of another, head down, eyes to the undulant brick walk scanning for this lost bit of memory, this bit of unsettled and unsettling business.

Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater

Crafting Vietnamese Pork Buns in Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater

Sweet pork and taro root and red bean buns nestle prettily in their condensation slick bamboo steaming baskets arrayed in orderly progression along the cash-only take-out line at Li Ming’s Global Mart. The pillowy white dough swells magically around an anticipated sweet and savory interior. These buns are the edible essence of temptation, seduction, desire. And, they are the stars in what I now think of as Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.

Phase 1: When Li Ming’s opened its doors in the barely converted cavern of a failed Circuit City store in a largely empty Durham, North Carolina, strip mall, jubilation filled my very being.  Like so many things of merit in my world, it was Becky who discovered the global mart and carried me there as a surprise. Ecstasy! Walking through the door the very first time, my eye turned to the iconic glassed Peking duck  cabinet – and to the side a stand of double-tiered commercial kitchen steamers, each aluminum tray packed with fresh buns and dumplings. Standing behind his wares, the dumpling counterman smiled, answered questions on the relative merits of each variety, and then plucked the chosen few from their steam-wreathed incubators.

Phase 2: Not too many weeks later, dumplings were on my mind (somewhere between musings on Eastern Shore of Virginia Shooting Point oysters and Cane Creek Ossabaw pig chorizo). Entering Li Ming’s, my first realization was of changes instituted at the dumpling counter. Bamboo steamers replaced the first aluminum containers; neatly typed placards identified buns and dumplings by type and ingredients. New buns had debuted, most notably a Vietnamese pork bun with a hard boiled egg inside. The familiar face of the counterman smiled; the buns met every expectation of delectation. What I failed to recognize, though, was that a grander transformation was in progress and those bamboo steamers were the harbingers of the emergence of Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater.

Phase 3: Less than a year after I first stepped through the doors of Li Ming’s Global Mart, the bun and dumpling counter evolved into theater. The walls painted bright orange provided a backdrop that threw every object, person, and action into vividly staggering high relief. This was an orange so aggressive that every detail of every gesture and thing in front of that background appeared digitally etched to the point of special effects. A black plastic rimmed flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall rotated images of artfully posed, tastefully modeled selections available in the bamboo steamers. Between the bank of steamers and the orange wall, the counterman, now clearly remade as dumpling master, presided over a steel table covered with trays of ingredients.

This was stage and cast, theater came next. The dumpling master in his red shirt reached to his right, and peeled up a four-inch round of risen bun dough. Evidence that the dough was mixed and risen on the stage was clearly evident in the stainless steel mixer and glass-doored rising chambers off to the left. Cradling the bun round in one surgically-gloved hand, the dumpling master (creating the Vietnamese buns that debuted only weeks earlier), scooped fresh pork sausage into the center. Then he added the hardboiled egg and a bit of cured Chinese sausage. Gently twirling the bun in his left hand, the dumpling master brought the sides to a teardrop point, delicately pinching the gathering closed in a flourish of balletic grace. I was stunned! There was no mystery here! This was a dramatic and clinical moment when the dumpling master formed the heart of the bun. These buns were the real deal, the authentic thing – not because they were any different or better, but because the dumpling theater invited witness. These were buns of legend and spectacle.

And, that is the problem, bearing witness to the forensics of authenticity. The dumpling master’s buns remain a triumph in my culinary imagination, and yet it seemed in that moment as if too much had been revealed, as if I could make claims to a different kind of ownership premised not on delight but information. Li Ming’s Dumpling Theater in its orange splendor and culinary performance overwhelmed the imagination with spectacle. Still, I purchased my dumplings, and standing discretely in the frozen food aisle took one out of its Styrofoam box and chomped down, happily. A single tear wet my cheek. That’s the problem with authenticity.

Retro Animal Aesthetics Return

Neese’s Country Sausage

Retro animal aesthetics return; the dirigible pig is back. Bricks of Neese’s Extra Sage, Hot, and Country Pork Sausage, packed in the supermarket cooler trumpet the family brand in a large red banner above the legend “Southern Style.” The pig engraved on the label balances on impossibly short legs – legs so dainty that they drive thoughts of ham from the imagination. The Neese’s pig  is a pig that is all about body – a mountain of culinary possibilities – with no regard for porcine intellect or mobility. The Neese’s pig portrait hearkens back to the rural fairs and agricultural competitions of the 1800s when the ideal hog on the trotter challenged the limits of even the most extreme Reubenesque body beautiful. These were pigs that couldn’t be and never were – and yet they persist, visualized standing stiff legged, proud snouted, anticipating the butcher’s knife and culinary resurrection.  These are sturdy, thoughtful pigs, corn-fed to the brink of corporeal fantasy. The question: “Why this pig now?” Desire (perhaps lust) of a certain sort I suspect as I reach for a brick of Extra Sage.

Black Dorset Pigs, American Agriculturist (1878)

Agricultural newspapers circulated with tornadic ferocity throughout the rural America of the 1800s. Correspondents submitted passionate meditations on rutabagas, manure, hay rakes, and horses. Recipes for ink made from figs appeared alongside columns on the judging standards for sweet potatoes. Engravings of seasonal cornucopia marked the months; plans for houses promised efficiency and convenience. Swine were a favored subject, depicted with an erotic yet tasteful fascination for fat and flesh. These were a lover’s pigs, round and roly-poly, zaftig and seductive. “There are two purposes for which pigs may be fattened,” wrote one farmer in 1845, “The one is to yield pork, which may be used either fresh, salted, or pickled, and the other is to produce bacon, which is prepared by salting and drying the flesh.” What of sausage? Or, liver mush or scrapple (labeled by one contemporary as “the apotheosis of the pig.”

Unattractive Swine, The Farmer’s Book (1846)

The Neese’s pig descends from a long pictorial genealogy that seeks to visualize the “tender, juicy, and lean” through images of the happy, portly, and docile. There was, of course, the bad pig! Wretched, wracked, and malevolent, the primitive “other”  threatened, a rangy, mean-spirited swine dangerous, defiant, beyond the reach farmyard civility. Ill bred creatures named Alligator and Landpike with “long peaked snouts, coarse heads, thin chests and narrow shoulders, sharp backs, slab sides, steep rumps, and meager diminutive hams, big legs, clumped feet, with the hide of a rhinoceros, and the hair and bristles of a porcupine, and as thick and shaggy as a bear’s.” These were not the pigs of the kitchen-as-boudoir, but creatures of arguably wild and satanic disposition – and not particularly tasty. And, their tails were not curly!

Berkshire Schwein, Amerikanische Agriculturist (1868)

The German-language edition of the American Agriculturalistestimated in 1868 that there were at least thirty-four million pigs in the United States – a number just about equal to the human population. The most prized and coveted of the porcine nation look pretty much the same as the Neese’s “Southern Style” Country Sausage mascot. These were pigs content with their lot or perhaps just oblivious to fate or maybe simply resigned to an entrée afterlife. In their graphic stillness they pose puffed and plump, emblems of gastronomic erotica – some seemingly smile come hither; others sneer with disdain. Contemplating the Neese’s sausage brick, frost misted deep in its refrigerated display, I hunger for the greater truths in advertising – longing for the beautiful, impossible pig rendered on the label, sizzling, mottled pink and white in an iron skillet, then browned and crispy and gone.

Suffolk Schwein, Amerikanische Agriculturist (1868)

Thornton Dial’s Recent Works

Thornton Dial, Tuscaloosa (2011)

Now in his 84th year Thornton Dial has created since 2011 some of his most astonishing, wrenching, and affecting works. Colin Rhodes, Becky Herman, and I made the trek from Chapel Hill to Bessemer, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, to see Mr. Dial’s recent art. The Disasterseries seen at the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta contains major constructions devoted to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Texas drought, and the Alabama tornado outbreak of 2011.

Thornton Dial, Ninth Ward (2011)

In Tuscaloosa Dial evokes lashing cyclonic winds through objects whipped into flight; in Ninth Ward he captures the drifts of floating debris that constitute all that remains of flooded, relocated lives.

Thornton Dial, The Cows of Japan (201




In The Cows of Japan, Dial presents a wave flattened fence line against a background scoured clean of animals, buildings, people. The cows, he notes, have all been swept away. Their absence renders the presence of loss, tangible and silent.







Thornton Dial, In the Times of Struggle and Blood (2012)

Mr. Dial’s 2012 work speaks to the mule, the most venerable and iconic of Southern draft animals. Dial makes the mule and its larger meanings present in his art, including works like In the Times of Struggle and Blood and To the Credit of the Mule, by implication: knotted rope, torn and paint-stiffened rag, found wood and metal. The mule, Dial remarks, turns the earth revealing buried histories and tramples the earth burying and reburying those same histories. The cycle of life and its narratives are plowed up and plowed under through labor without end. But, the mule as hard as it works, even to the point of death, holds the power of resistance – and no lash, no uttered endearment, no goad, no curse can drive it forward. Endurance and resistance, Dial would have us know, writes a human history that defines and limits all power. And, in this equation, history bends to rhetorical ambition, its truths revealed at best as partial, as fleeting. Only the churning of memory and the mule’s plodding exertions endure. Dial speaks to themes of the mule, history, and art.