Truth in fiction

Long ago, way before personal computers and the Internet, there was a young woman I knew who, from an early age, collected quotes from books on 3×5 index cards. Even though only in her very early 20s, she’d collected hundreds of these quotes. Almost all of them were from fiction. Although I’ve never had the persistence to accumulate such a storehouse of quotes, from time to time, I noted some passages in fiction that affected me deeply. They expressed a truth about life that resonated with me.

Here’s an example: “As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come…and he would have to meet it when it did.” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.

I just “Googled” that entire quote for the heck of it and discovered that it was listed on goodreads.com J.K. Rowling > Quotes > Quotable Quote page. Someone else had found it meaningful also.

The older I get, the more slowly I read, the more I return to re-read books I’ve read before, and the more I savor those bits of truth I find. I’ve certainly read my fair share of self-help and applied philosophy books, but I’ve never found as many helpful truths in those books as I have in fiction, for as Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Similarly, never have I found as many helpful truths in literary fiction as I have in genre fiction.

Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Awards acceptance speech is terrific. Not only does he talk about the truth in in the life (fiction), more importantly, he takes to task the academic (“literary”) fiction network and bias. I highly recommend his speech: Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, 2003 (http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html).

In an old blog I had, I once posted, “If I were able to write a novel, the kind of novel I’d hope to be able to write is the one I just finished reading, The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont.” The reason I felt that way was because of the underlying truth–a truth that is true for any human being–that was the premise of the story. It affected me deeply because events in my own life vibrated in sympathy with the tones struck in that story.

There are two other authors I’ve been reading recently I want to mention in this regard (meaningful truths in fiction). One is Stephen King and the other is Anne Rice.

Now, those two authors are such giants I hardly feel qualified in any way, other than as a reader, to speak to their books, but I think that’s part of what makes them so great: they write for the reader. They must have the capacity to experience their books as we do and that inner perception must inform what they write.

An aside: In the field of professional music the best musicians have a knack for hearing what and how they’re playing from the audience’s viewpoint, as part of the whole. They don’t just play their part from their own viewpoint. The best composers have a way of doing something similar: they are able to experiencing what they’re writing from within time–just as a listener experiences it–not just from their viewpoint outside of time as a composer looking at the whole. In both cases, the musician/composer is performs/creates for the listener, not for the informed critic. This has always been true. Most people forget that Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven were all writing for the masses, they weren’t writing for the intelligentsia.

I also believe that the best musicians, be they performer, conductor, or composer, write/perform what they do for the benefit of the audience, not to aggrandize themselves.

Another aside: this blog is just a personal blog about things I like. That’s it. I don’t even care if anyone reads it. I just write about what I like and I usually, completely ignore what I don’t like–there’s enough of that kind of negative stuff out there. So, all that said…

I recently finished reading Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. After reading it, I liked it so well, I bought a second copy so I’d have a copy I could mark up and study to try to learn something. A creative writing teacher could use this perfect little book as a complete textbook for a creative writing course. It is so pure, the arc so direct. I’ve seen seasoned pool players take shots like this–a seemingly effortless running of the table. And the truth in this little book is universal. I recognize that the effect of a truth is partially determined by the circumstances of the reader’s life at that particular moment. But, I can’t imagine that there’s any reader, of any age, who hasn’t felt themselves lost in the woods of life. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. (If, after reading it you’re in the mood for more of the same, King’s Duma Key: A Novel should be your next stop. Want some more? He’s also the best short-story writer I know. Try his Just After Sunset: Stories. Want some classic King? Pet Sematary is a book that is so scary, I had to stop reading it and wait until it was daytime and there were people around to finish reading it. There, too, is truth again. Every decision the protagonist makes in Pet Sematary is a decision we, too, would have made. Inexorably, the trail of those decisions leads exactly to where we, too, would finally arrive if we were in that initial circumstance. That’s truth.

(My apologies for getting so long-winded, but this is a topic I feel strongly about. Here’s a pretty a pretty pictures to break up the wall of text.)

I also just finished re-reading for the first time since their publication the first three novels of Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire (Vampire Chronicles), The Vampire Lestat (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) (The Vampire Chronicles, Book 2), and The Queen of the Damned (The Vampire Chronicles, No. 3)).

I loved them when they came out. Now, if there were a word stronger than “love”–adore?–I would use it. They are monumental. Part of it is the language itself. Her style is at once accurate and concise but also baroque (in the way Couperin is Baroque: highly ornamented; that Bach is Baroque: intricate, mathematical relationships that spin through time; that Handel is Baroque: stark, intense, dramatic passion; that Domenico Scarlatti is Baroque: surprising, startling, weird twists and justapositions–I love playing Scarlatti!).

But aside from that, the style, it is the fact that her books are really about spiritual truths that makes her so great. It’s what puts her above all the later-day vampire muck. It’s what puts her in the same league as the early authors of horror and the supernatural, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. I realize that’s high praise, but I mean it. There is a strong truth at the core of every book. Metaphors abound.

One trivial one (there are many more in her books that are much more profound) that’s always struck me–and it’s a battle I fight constantly–is whether to be a meat-eater or a vegetarian. My body’s thrifty gene and inability to properly metabolize carbohydrates demands I be a meat-eater, but my spirit constantly wishes I could be a vegetarian. I learned the hard way I must honor my incarnation as a carnivore. Mrs. Rice gets a lot deeper than that, of course, but that’s just one example of even small details in her books having relevant meaning. (I don’t want to give spoilers, so I won’t explain how that example relates to her books.)

She could easily write fiction that didn’t feature the supernatural, and she has! Currently, I’m re-reading Cry to Heaven, which is about an 18th Century Italian castrati. Sitting on my bookshelf right now is the book I will re-read next, her The Feast of All Saints, which is about les gens de couleur libres (the free people of color) in ante-bellum New Orleans. If you’ve never read any Anne Rice, but don’t think you’d enjoy “horror” genre books, then please read these two books. They are “about” castrati and free people of color, but only as a vehicle for deeper truths. It’s those deeper truths that the books are really about. It’s what keeps the reader coming back.

For genre writers it’s all too often as Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don’t get no respect!” I encourage you to read King and Rice as you would John Steinbeck or Thomas Mann or Henry James or André Gide. Hey…come to think of it, they “just” wrote damn good stories, too, didn’t they?

— Hilton Jones

Paired Comparison Analysis of what I should compose next

Kokopelli (Hopi trickster god and patron of musicians)
Kokopelli (Hopi trickster god and patron of musicians)

I’m spending some time looking at my personal and professional priorities. Those change as time passes. It’s time for me to look at mine again and see what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, what’s become more important or less important.

In doing so, I’m looking at a lot of resources to help myself with this. I came across something called Paired Comparison Analysis. I was familiar with bubble sort from my dabbling in computer coding long ago. This is similar but with a couple extra features. The site where I learned about it–which has a handy, free, downloadable worksheet–is www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_02.htm.

I’ll talk more about the issue of looking at priorities as a septuagenarian in another post. As you might suspect the results will be different than a 17 year old’s. But right now, I thought you might be interested in an application of this device in a creative person’s context.

To understand how this analysis works, read the article linked to above and watch its very short video. No point in me re-explaining it. They do it better anyway.

Below is my analysis of the items I couldn’t really decide among. The results conform to what I sort of suspected, but nice to know there’s some data to back up my suspicion. The list is what to write next since I feel an urge to do them all (anthems, piano solos, short concerti for piano a la Mozart scope, orchestral music of which several pieces are already started, 4-hands piano pieces which can be fun to bang through with friends, or some more purely electronic music).

The basic chart with choices and values
The basic chart with choices and values

 

Totalling up the values for each letter
Totalling up the values for each letter

 

Results as percentages and listed highest to lowest
Results as percentages and listed highest to lowest

Now…don’t be fooled! The creative mind will have its own way. It may cooperate and do what this analysis suggests or it might not. More often than not, Kokopelli has other plans. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Also, every time–and I’m pretty sure it’s EVERY DAMN TIME–I tell anyone what I’m going to write next…I never do. So, we’ll see. We’ll see.

Paired Comparison Analysis does seem like a useful tool as a helpful hint in decision making, though, even if it’s not an oracle.

PS: I think I’m going to also share this over on my career site, hiltonkeanjones.com, since it touches on music composition.

Who You Were Meant to Be

This book may be the most underlined and full of marginalia of any I own. Something about this subject and her approach to it touches my soul deeply. She could easily have made each chapter a separate full book…I wish she’d do that. I would buy them all. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who feels that one’s inner and outer life are not in sync. She helped me in many ways and some of her suggestions I remember to this day and use. It’s an old book, and I doubt you’ll find it for sale used, but if you do, snap it up. It’s the kind people don’t take to the thrift shop. I’m hanging on to mine…

Who You Were Meant to Be
A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose

Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D
New Horizon Press
Far Hills, NJ
Copyright @2000 Lindsay C. Gibson

Cuzn Don’s Hoe Cakes and Hush Puppies

Totem my Mississippi Artist, Johnny Knight
Totem my Mississippi Artist, Johnny Knight

Roots

A while back there was a post about my Mississippi Cuzn Don’s Mississippi Greens recipe. We’re going to hear from my late Cuzn Don again, with his recipes for Hoe Cakes and Hush Puppies. The recipes are related, but not exactly the same. Cuzn Don’s words will be in italics. My comments and explanations will be in normal type.

There are many cultural roots in every region of the United States. Traditionally, the three biggest in the South, have been the Native Americans, the European settlers, and the African-American slaves. The European culinary influences, especially in New Orleans, are French and Spanish. The African culinary traditions the slaves brought with them from their home countries became the backbone of what, today, we call “Southern Cooking.” I don’t think it exists any more, but at one time there was a restaurant in Atlanta that had entrees based on actual antebellum (before the war) slave recipes. One I remember well was a pork chop with a peanut butter and cayenne pepper sauce—an unexpected combination and delicious. As important as the European and African influences on Southern cuisine are, however, it’s important to not forget the culinary influences of the Native American cultures.

Far too many people are not aware of how thoroughly the Native Americans populated the South prior to the genocidal policies that drove them from their lands. Today, there is only one federally recognized Native-American nation in Mississippi; see Choctaw.org and Native American Nations. But there were once many more; see Native languages, Indian Tribes in MS and Native Mississippi.

With that background, let’s turn to Cuzn Don as he begins his discussion of Hoe Cakes–all text in italics are Don’s own; non-italic text is mine.

Hoe Cakes

Originally, Native Americans cooked these on hot rocks in an open fire. They were first called “Ash cakes.” Later settlers from Europe adopted the recipe but it was from the slaves returning from the fields that the “Hoe Cakes” got its name. They would sometimes take the handles out of their hoes, clean and use the flat top as a griddle or stand over the hot coals with their hoes straight up..Their hoes were larger than the ones we use today. This is one of oldest recipes handed down that I know of, also the cheapest to make.

Early Recipes

  • stone ground corn (Cornmeal)
  • dash of salt
  • add boiling water, stir into mush and make a patty
  • small amount of fat for frying

The following recipe, “Southern Mississippi Hoe Cakes,” is the one I made for photos for this post. I followed Cuzn Don’s directions closely, but substituted some, perhaps non-traditional, ingredients. Hopefully, though, my substitutions aren’t as great a heresy as when northerners make their rice with sugar.

For the milk, I used buttermilk; for the cheese, I used gorgonzola; for the crumbled meat, I used Tennessee Pride HOT sausage–reserving the grease in the pan for cooking the hoe cakes; for the cajun seasoning, I used plain ol’ Crystal hot sauce; for both types of flour, I used self rising flours; I left out the egg since I am a Mississippi Gulf Coast Jones (although I live a bit farther south).

The smell was overwhelmingly good. My pan is only large enough to cook three at a time. So, it took every bit of self-discipline (not my long suit anyway) to not eat “just one” before taking a picture of the total results on a plate. I’ve bought the peanut oil to make the deep fried kind, but I’ll wait a couple months before I attempt those.

Southern Mississippi Hoe Cakes

I believe this is an early recipe for today’s Southern “Hush Puppies”. Still cheaper to make and just as good or better. There may be others who may disagree but it has the same ingredients as today’s Southern “Hush Puppies”. I was told in my younger days that “Hush Puppies” got it name by giving the leftovers to the hunting dogs to keep them from barking. I am sure that they didn’t have a bag of “Ole Roy” or “Gravy Train” dog food from the store in the 1800’s.

My Jones kinfolks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast still use the term of “Hoe Cakes” with the recipe below but without an egg (family tradition).

(small portion my way)

  • 1 cup of yellow cornmeal
  • 1 egg beaten
  • dash of Cajun seasoning
  • milk
  • small amount of grated cheese (your favorite)
  • 1/3 cup of flour(optional)
  • small amount of oil for griddle or pan

Mix all the dry ingredients and beaten egg then add milk a little at a time while stirring to get to a stage similar to a pancake batter. I make them about 4″ diameter or smaller. Cook on medium heat without mashing them down. If you would like, add meat such as left over hamburger meat. Break up a small portion of the meat and make your batter a little thicker so that it will hold around the meat.

The taste is great and my grandchildren love them .

If Native American cuisine interests you, there are a large number of Native American Food blogs on the Internet. Here is one with an Algonquian recipe for hoe cakes.

Johnny Knight

Before we return to Cuzn Don’s recipes, just a quick break to talk a bit about Cuzn Don’s own background and one of his influences, Johnny Knight. Johnny Knight was an adult mentor to Don and Don’s late brother, Larry, when they were growing up. Johnny Knight was an artist of Native-American descent who was loved by his community of Mendenhall, Mississippi. The totem pictured at the top of this post is his creation. Another project, preserved to this day by members of the community is his Tree House. A quick look at that link will convince you that he was a real talent and very original. Imagine being youngsters brought up in the water-hole-swimming, river-fishing, back-country-hunting, skin-and-cook-your-own-food Mississippi culture of the 50s.

This was back when the brands of coke (the generic term used in the South for what we northerners called “soda”) were Red Rock, Mr. Cola and Grappette, RC Cola (that one can still be found), creme and strawberry sodas and Orange Crush. It was back when bottle caps had cork on the inside and you would poke holes in the cap with an ice pick and shake the bottle to make a fizzy drink that lasted longer. (For a nifty page about fruit sodas, check out The Soda Gallery.)

Anyway…back in those days, Johnny Knight would take Cuzn Don and Cuzn Larry out hunting with nothing but their shotguns and he’d only take a bow and arrows. He taught them not only survival skills, but also respect for the land and its wildlife, not letting them hunt anything they couldn’t prepare and eat themselves. Small wonder Cuzn Don has become so active in Mississippi conservation efforts…and in cooking his own food.

Southern Mississippi Hush Puppies

(Deep Fried)

Deep fried hush puppies are usually made when frying fish and potatoes and cooked outdoors. Most good cooks will use peanut oil. This has a higher smoke point and like olive oil, a lot healthier for you.

Hush puppies are cooked first and you want plenty because they will disappear quickly while you are cooking the fish . You also may have to slap a few hands. If cooked right, they will simply melt in your mouth. I use a paper bag lined with paper towels to absorb the oil.

  • 3 cups of yellow cornmeal
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1/4 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup of finely chopped bell pepper or hot pepper
  • salt
  • cajun seasoning (I use 4or 5 dashes here or more)
  • milk

Mix all dry ingredients and beaten eggs and add milk and stir. You want the the batter to be just thick enough to stick to a tablespoon holding it upside down. I always taste to make sure I have what I want at this point.

If you don’t have a deep fryer, you need a least one inch of oil in your pan so the hush puppies won’t hit the bottom and you can flip them over. They will float to the top.

When the oil is hot take the table spoon and dip about 1/2 of a spoonful of batter and gently push it until it drops into the hot oil. Keep spoon very close to oil so you don’t spatter. Cook until golden brown and flip over. Takes no more than a minute to cook. Over cook these and you will have to give it to your dog.”Hush Puppy” Enjoy!

Finished hoe cakes.
Finished hoe cakes.

READY TO EAT

Cuzn Don’s “puppy”

Cuzn Don’s “puppy” that every so often he needs to “hush” is a purebred bloodhound named Major T. Beauregard (or “Major” for short) after the Confederate military man, Major P. G. T. Beauregard. One of Major’s grandfathers is out of the line of Beauregard Jr. on Hee Haw; Major’s father was the tracking bloodhound of the Mississippi Simpson county Sheriff…so he’s definitely from good stock. Cuzn Don proclaims that “Major is a damn mess!” At first, the only thing he’d been able to track was himself: he sniffed all around the woods and came back to where he started. Don says he’d like to train him to be quiet on posted land and bark at the deer instead of the reverse which is the case now. But, the grandkids like to run around and hide and Major can track them, so that’s good.

One last thing: Cuzn Don stresses that when you cook fried hushpuppies, first cook the hushpuppies, then cook your fish in the same oil. Don’t cook any more hushpuppies in that same oil after you cook the fish unless you cook some french fries in it first. Cooking the french fries in the oil will clean the grease of burnt specks of cornmeal in the oil. What you don’t dip out, will stick to the french fries. After cooking the french fries, you can cook more hushpuppies in the same grease and/or save it for use later in a coffee can, although Cuzn Don allows he wouldn’t reuse it for frying chicken.

Try ‘em. They’re really not at all difficult to make. But you’ll have to be quick if you want to taste some yourself; the grandkids and the dog are assured to gobble them all up. One more warning: I’d told myself I’d only eat a couple and then freeze the rest for another time. Didn’t happen…yet. I’m now past a “couple” and still eating. I do hope I have some left to freeze.

Mississippi Greens

DSCN9934_portrait4183129704697688629Sadly, my Cuzn Don, whose recipe this post is about, passed away a few years ago. All who knew him miss him. He was a born and raised Mississippian and a fervent environmentalist. I hope you try his recipe.

Background

Every so often we glimpse a bit of the day-to-day life of real people living in a locale typically only seen superficially by tourists. But close to home, it’s no less exotic and wonderful, and we don’t even see important things because we’re looking for something “special.” I’m thinking of one such place in particular because my daddy’s family is there: southern Mississippi, with tiny places such as Bay St. Louis, Piney Woods, Star, Hurley, Florence, and D’lo, or bigger, more well known towns such as Hattiesburg, Biloxi, or Pascagoula (I just love saying that word…it rolls around in the mouth in a great way). Southern Mississippi is ever bit as exotic as Hawaii!

At Mississippi Believe It you can see a series of wonderfully droll public service advertisements that have been created to help dispel many of the myths that folks have about Mississippi. I laughed out loud, standing in a Interstate rest-stop, when I first read one that was posted there on a bulletin-board. The Believe It ads have titles such as Y’all May Think We Talk Funny, But The World Takes Our Music Seriously (some VERY good music, both classical and popular, gets made in Mississippi), Yes, we wear shoes. A few of us even wear cleats (some serious sports coming out of there, too), and–in addition to a number of others–my absolute favorite, Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write! Now, if you can’t name at least a dozen famous authors from Mississippi, then please go back and click on that link.

Most importantly, southern Mississippi has some fabulous food. A perfect example is Leatha’s, a restaurant write-up that’ll have to wait for another post. But, we don’t have to wait for my cousin Don’s recipe for Mississippi greens. I’m serving that up right now!

My cousin Don (pronounced cuzn Don) lives in Magee, Mississippi. Don, his late brother, Larry, and I—all of us approximately the same age–were companions during the frequent visits of my father to his sister, who was Don and Larry’s mom. Southern Mississippi is the ancestral home of my daddy’s side of the family.

Decades later, on a recent trip of mine to visit Don, Don and I went down to D’lo to see the house and yard in which we all used to play. (D’lo is pronounced “DEE-low.”) The road seemed so much farther from the yard way back then, and the yard so much bigger, the house much larger, too. Other than that not too much has changed. D’lo is the actual name of the little town. Occasional maps and signs leave out the apostrophe. Some people say it comes from contracting the words “down low,” because it floods so easily. Other folks say it comes from “damn low!”

The picture that heads this post is of the spot on the Strong River at the D’lo Water Park on the edge of town where a sequence was shot for the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” It’s the scene when the sirens emerge from the river with moonshine and turn Everett into a “horny toad.” It’s also the very spot where Cousin Don and Cousin Larry fished, camped out, and learned to swim as kids, long before it was open to the public, many decades before George Clooney was ever there. Which gets us back to the idea of learning to see the real people and their lives behind the packaged place, of seeing beyond the superficial to the exoticism and beauty that actually breathes there day-to-day.

When I visit Don, I know he gets a secret pleasure out of watching me make a fool of myself eating his cheese grits and venison sausage for breakfast or pigging out at the local restaurant on homemade meringue-topped banana-pudding over vanilla wafers with fried fresh farmed catfish and brewed iced tea. Occasionally, I can get him to part with a recipe. Here’s his recipe for Southern Mississippi Greens (Any Kind). I’ve added a few comments and possible variants of my own, bracketed.

Ingredients

  • “Get a MESS of greens. This southern term is not written anywhere. It is handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth but I will try. (It is about as much as you can grab with both hands!) Some people can be greedy and get a extra handful but it is still called a MESS.” [My favorite greens are mustard greens; nice and spicy. Also good, I think, to combine ½ collard greens with ½ mustard greens.]
  • “1 or 2 ham hocks or 4 or 5 slices of bacon (not 4 or 5 lbs).” [I usually use both, or, as I am this time, I’m using smoked ham bits and 2 ham hocks. If there’s not enough fat, then I add a little extra in the form of olive oil or sesame seed oil or a mix of both—what I’m doing this time.]
  • “Salt and pepper to taste.” [I add my hot sauce at this point. I use either Crystal or, increasingly, Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce. Adding your hot sauce at this stage better permeates the greens with the hotness, but you need to be very sure of how much to add because one can put in too much.]
  • “1 chopped up onion thrown in (That’s It).” [I use two if they’re small.]
  • [I also add some minced garlic; not a lot, just enough. Wait to add the garlic until the onions are translucent, just before you add the greens.]

Directions

  1. Cousin Don continues: “Wash greens at least 3 times; if you have roots wash and cut bottom tips and cube them. I roll up the tops and fine slice them into small pieces and fine chop the stems in middle. Sometimes, if I get too many stems I just throw most of them away.”
  2. “I would start out using bacon first. Ham hocks could take 2 to 3 hrs. to fall of the bone. First, I cook my bacon in the bottom of the pot. That way you can see how much fat you have in there.”
  3. “Break up bacon and add onion and greens.”
  4. “Add just enough water to cover.” [I often use, as I am here, chicken stock instead of water.]
  5. “Bring to boil and turn down to medium to simmer. They will cook down quickly. Some people cook them for 15 min or more. I will cook mine for at least an hour. With a ham hock you could let it simmer all day long.” [Upwards of 6 hours is not extreme and the smell of the house by that time is phenomenal!]
  6. “If they are a little bitter tasting you can use a small amount of sugar.” [I highly recommend the sugar, especially for collards.]
  7. “Serve with hot sauce or chow chow if you have it (or both).” […unless you’ve already added your hot sauce earlier.]

Time to Eat!

Cuzn Don tells me he’s having problems with Hillbilly Rabbits back in his ½ acre garden. Now, those are the small Hillbilly Rabbits also called Cottontails, not the bigger Swamp Rabbits (also called Cane Cutters) that attacked President Carter. Cuzn Don, a cook, conservationist, and genealogist—who I hope someday starts his own blog so I can read it—has got me wishing I had some fried rabbit to go with my new mess o’ greens!

DSCN0712_cropped_630x480 [500x375]9025971055619855948

Butterfly Rain Forest

20141229_131114This week, my friend, Bill, and I went to the Butterfly Rain Forest which is part of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The museum is in Gainesville on the University of Florida campus. I recommend the Butterfly Rain Forest very highly.