Monday, November 22, 2010

what's for dinner?

first off, happy thanksgiving to everyone. at least everyone reading this who's of the american persuasion. should you be from suriname or bosnia-herzegovina, i hope you've enjoyed celebrating your countries on this, your day of independence. and to those from moquegua, peru, i bid a happy anniversary to your city.

i learned something else this week that has nothing to do with holidays. i live in one of 803 food deserts in the united states. i can't think of a better fact to learn during the week of thanksgiving when all that's on many of our minds is, well, food.

so what exactly is a food desert, you ask?

a food desert, according to lois morton and troy blanchard, is a county or parish (don't want to leave the louisianans out) in which more than 50% of the residents live 10 or more miles from a full-service grocery store. you may not have believed me when i said that we live god knows where, but here is scientific proof. the closest full-service grocery store to me is 21.9 miles away.

within those 21.9 miles are the following "food" outlets:

- bennie's food mart and chinese/fast food take out
it sometimes results in barbecue chicken lo mein, but the egg rolls are out of this world.

- the webb diner
ms. vera cooks up delicious breakfasts and lunches six days a week.

- the bayou bend country club
morgan freeman's a member, the fried chicken's good, but alas i am not a member.

- three gas stations with plate lunch options
probably delicious, but i've seen too much horrible gas station cuisine to dive in.

- the lunchbox
think all your favorite fried foods, served with your favorite sides, and sweet tea.

- dollar general
good for dried goods, notebook paper, and the occasional gag gift, but not a lot else.

there you have it. the culinary options of west tallahatchie and east coahoma counties outside my kitchen.

sure i can get great egg rolls, grits, fried chicken, and catfish whenever i want - provided that whenever i want takes place between 7am and 6pm - but there are only so many combinations you can make from those ingredients before you end up 37 pounds the wider and in much need of those things called vitamins that often show up in vegetables. plus, who wants to live like man v. food everyday?

learning about the sheer absence of full-service grocery store is one thing when you're just living it. sure, it's been a hassle to make the 40+ mile round trip to go to the store, but it's what everyone around us does. you just learn to plan ahead...or at least you try.

but seeing it on a map is entirely different.

the dark areas are the food deserts. whenever i look at a map i always try to find me. sometimes i'm pleasantly surprised like when i looked at the electoral map of 2008 and saw that my county in north carolina went for barack obama and helped carry the state. other times, a stark realization hits like when i saw this map. but then i said to myself, "hey, at least i don't live in south dakota."

i find it interesting that the predominance of these deserts occur in the breadbox of our wonderful country, those midwestern states known for their fields of grain, corn, and other staple crops. that seems to be the definition of irony. it's like the quip that people who build big houses don't live in them. well, people who grow great amounts of country's food supply can't get an apple with out burning up a couple gallons of gas either.

we've all heard about this push for local food. it's healthier. it's better for the local economy. yada yada yada. it seems like it's going to be necessary for folks in rural america. some folks are already on the boat (or should i say farm). there are csa's and co-ops popping up all over the place. hell, my uncle in brooklyn even has a garden in the alley behind his apartment. if he can grow tomatoes, potatoes, and other staples in an alley in a city 12 million strong, i think we can figure out how to do it reliably across rural america.

many already have, but i also know that there are a great many who live in rural areas, especially the mississippi delta and appalachia, who haven't and need to do because while they may be overweight and on the short track to diabetes and other health problems, they're also malnourished.

i can't forget the kids i saw on tv last summer who, when asked to name certain vegetables, might as well have been blurting out their favorite justin bieber songs. they had no clue. they didn't even know that french fries came from potatoes. we've come a long way to a place where we think food comes from a store and not from the ground or from an animal that actually lived somewhere before we ate it in nugget form.

there are many reasons for this shift, but i'm firmly on the local food bandwagon now. with the local groceries that used to dot small communities around our country being driven out of business by larger conglomerate stores and more people moving to urban areas, those who remain in rural america will continue to have the quality of their food dictated by elements outside their control.

i'm not exactly sure where this is headed for me personally, but i'll keep you posted on life on the bandwagon as long as i'm on it. and i'll stay on it if for no other reason than i'd rather pick a small bunch of tomatoes out of my backyard than drive forty miles to buy them from walmart.

photos from here, here, and here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

animal hijinx

it's been about two weeks since i heard what was indeed the most disconcerting noise i've ever heard come from the mouth of a living creature. i was sitting at my kitchen table a few days before halloween working when, from what sounded like it was just outside the window of the pantry, there came a scream that sounded like a cat running over an electric fence line while a bear clubbed it with a salmon it had just caught out of the river; the animal was simultaneously fearful and befuddled.

when i got up to see what i expected to be carnage in my backyard, there was nothing. no trace of anything. no animal limping away in pain. no other animal enjoying its place in the food chain. no phone calls for me to make to my neighbors about how their precious little mittens or tess or fill in your favorite southern author's name here was in my yard motionless of no fault of my own, but rather something resembling manbearpig.

now i know what you're thinking. you're thinking, "dude/broseph/sir/beardy, no animal makes that noise you described so eloquently and then vanishes without a trace in a manner of seconds. you, dude/broseph/sir/beardy are a liar."

well sir or madam, you haven't seen many horror movies, have you? this was textbook thriller cinema minus the fact that i didn't run into the attic or take an impromptu shower in the middle of the day or go looking for the 1/2 bear, 1/2 man, 1/2 pig that certainly just ate a cat in my backyard. yes, aside from my brilliance, this was halloween 13 quality horror: noise. fear. silence. return to normalcy. continued fear. continued silence. extended fear.

(okay maybe there was a little less fear on my end. maybe, but i'd like sasha mitchell of kickboxer 4 fame to play me in the movie version given his acting chops and ability to bring a series to a screeching halt.)

this, however, was not the last strange encounter with rural fauna that i've had since then. a couple of days later, biz and i took an early morning walk through town. there are about three ways to walk through town, and luckily enough for us we chose the path littered with dogs, many of whom were homeless or at least appeared so and in dire need of attention.

at one point, i counted 14 dogs on all sides of us, some ferocious 7 pound dogs with more bark than bite, some dumb chocolate labs who don't understand anything but their need to retrieve something even if they already have it, and one overfed basset hound bringing up the rear.

if you've ever been surrounded by 14 dogs, it's not exactly easy to move quickly. if you've ever been surrounded by 14 dogs with an combined iq of 14, it's nearly impossible to move. and if you live out in the boonies like us, then you know that at least half of them are strays. they just wander wherever, so they might as well follow you. oh, and they probably have a cocktail of diseases streaming through their veins. the joy of rural life.

as we walked i could only think of two things: 1) how i wished i'd had a stick of some sort to shew them away and 2) will ferrell and john c. reilly's psa in talladega nights about the packs of wild dogs that were taking over america's cities and how it had only taken them four years, but they had started to take over rural america as well.

not to be outdone by stray dogs and disappearing, cat-eating predators, though are the chickens. that's right i said it. chickens. our neighbors have chickens. they had four until sometime friday when that lovely pudgy basset hound and his west highland terrier friends broke into their coop and snatched two of them away, leaving me to transfer the other two to another coop while the neighbors were out of town.*

let's be clear about one thing. chickens are wily. in the midst of the transfer one decided she didn't really want to move so she just flew out into the yard and ran around, wings tucked in, head bobbing away, making me look almost as graceful as the llama at right as i chased her into and out of the bramble, the coop, and the yard.

i kept running over the joke my dad used to play on me about catching birds in my head as i panted across my neighbor's yard. he said all you have to do is get really close and pour a little salt on their tail. while that's an absurd task, after about ten minutes of chasing that wonderful, beautiful member of creation in and around the yard, i began to wonder if wouldn't be such a bad idea. about that time it ran into the hole and got trapped, so i guess we'll never know.sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

animals of all kinds are on the brink of absolute freedom out here, and sometimes when they walk that line between freedom and the domestic life, they add a little flavor to life even if it's not always the one i'm craving.

*after much consideration and moderately scientific research, i have a working hypothesis that the pudgy basset hound and the terriers fashioned themselves into a sort of three headed trojan horse that struck both fear and wonder into the cat outside my pantry just before halloween causing the scream heard 'round my kitchen. i also think such a plan would work well the theatrical stylings of sasha mitchell, allowing him to be both kickboxing "stud" and lovable idiot cody all while searching for this mythical beast.

photos from here, here and here.

what do you think?

got your own thoughts on rural life?

certain aspects of it you'd like me to explore?

people you'd like me to interview?

i want to write what you'll want to read, so leave me a comment, shoot me an email, or drop me a line on facebook.

but please, no pokes. they hurt and they are confusing. unless you're poking the queen. then they are hilarious. and while i may be a jack of anywhere from a few to some trades and master of a handful, i am also not a figurtive head of state and thus am ineligible for hilarity-induced poking.

proceed with your thoughts and enjoy the stories and somewhat aimless wanderings of life in god knows where.

Friday, November 12, 2010

america's pastime

if you've spent any time watching sports in the last fifteen years, then you know one thing is certain. baseball is no longer america's pastime. i guess people got tired of watching wwe stars jack homers instead of actual baseball players. sure it's been around longer than basketball and football, and there are few things more american than going to the ballpark on a summer afternoon, enjoying a hot dog and some peanuts, but now football is king.

despite the love/hate relationship between the press and brett favre and the unending saga that is the impropriety of heisman trophy winners/candidates, football reigns supreme across america - from the plains of kansas where they still play 8-on-8 to the deep south where football fans are just soccer hooligans with a different accent and from texas's friday night lights to the little schools all over the map who just want to play the game. sure maryland's got it's crabcakes and lacrosse (sorry carson elrod) and southern california digs the beach volleyball (see what i did there?), but they can't hold a candle to the overwhelming hold football has on america... especially small town america.

how can you not love a sport where something like this takes place:

contrary to the overwhelming similarity of most towns in america these days, every town doesn't have a walmart or a target or even an institution of higher learning. we don't all live in city x, but what every town in america (and if not town, county or parish) does have is a high school. and that high school serves as the locus point for much of life in rural communities. as i've said before most rural communities are made of folks whose families have been there literally since they first walked up a decided to stake their claim there. there's a deep investment in the community and all it offers.

furthermore, the alliance for excellent education says that rural high school graduates are half as likely to complete a post-secondary degree than others. so while college grads will hoot and holler for their team on saturdays, those who ended their schooling a little earlier turn their attention to fall friday nights.

on those friday nights across america, stadiums are filled with parents supporting their kids, younger children dreaming of one day being the one to catch the pass that wins the big game, and a lot of teenagers texting one another while they pretend to watch the game they paid 5 bucks to see. the wins and losses are tallied and often used as a barometer for the health and well-being of the community. apparently to some, the success of a group of 15-18 year olds playing a game can be a determining factor in how one community perceives itself. that's almost as crazy as thinking that a group of 435 adults of various persuasions can have lucid discussions and make policy decisions.

and from saturday to thursday the highlights are recounted not just from the last game, but from games years ago when something similar happened (only better and in spite of more difficult circumstances).

there are also lots of uncle rico's out there claiming that they'd have won state if their coach had just played them, and blaming him that they're now selling tupperware and breast enhancements instead of playing in the nfl.

despite the exaggerated expectations put on high school football and the overblown inferences of success or failure, high school football really is a beautiful thing when seen in person. a few weeks ago we went to a local school's homecoming game. unbelievable.

there was a sea of people in the stands and around the field. the stands were packed with parents, alumni, children, students, everybody. it's safe to assume that the entire county was in attendance for at least part of the game. there was an alumni dance team, an alumni band, and enough stories going around about how "back in my day..." to fill a book. the lights on the field were just powerful enough so the kids could play at night, but dim enough to give the view that vhs feel, nostalgic and a little out of focus. it was truly a community event like nothing i've seen before.

i also heard that another school in the area, if their team won the state title, school would be canceled for a couple of days. really? i thought those privileges were left for the men of troy, free shoes u, and the u itself. i guess not.

elizabeth hates football, but there's something about high school football - knowing the kids who play on the team, in the band, or on the cheerleading and dance teams, having relationships with them, and wanting them to succeed - that gets her. it's that sense of community, that sense that we know each other and see each other around that appeals to her, i think, and i have to agree.

do i wish this was the case? do i wish sports were the common rallying point for small communities? despite my love of sports, no. and there are some who agree with this notion and are doing something to shift the rallying point to something a little more constructive. i sincerely hope they can.

for now, all i know is that you can walk into just about any small, rural town in america, ask about the high school football team(s), have a conversation that goes on for hours, and perhaps even leave with a few new friends. maybe one day the conversation will revolve around something else, but until then rural communities will continue to talk about sweeps, options, and the occasional flea flicker executed by a group of teenagers. it's true wherever you go.

photos and video from here, here, and here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

two steps forward, one step back

let's get one thing straight. no one has ever said to
me, "hey, you know who always seem to be on the cutting edge of technology? you."

i was easily one of the last five people i know to get a cell phone (and that includes a slew of folks at least a decade younger than me), we didn't have internet access at my parents' house until i was in high school, and while my friends milked their parents for the newest video game craze every christmas during our childhood, mine could not be milked, so i saved some of my spending money from an eighth grade trip and some allowance and bought my own nintendo 64 only to promptly sell it to a friend's younger brother about a year later.

i even prefer to write with a pen and paper, though i fully realize that were i to write this blog with pen and paper it would a) not be a blog, b) take an immense amount of postage and stationery to deliver to you, the readers, and c) give you one less thing to read during your "breaks" from work. for all my slowness (you may read: unwillingness) to incorporate technology into my life, it is clear that certain changes are inevitable, even beneficial to life in the twenty-first century.

it is also clear that the more rural parts of our world have yet to incorporate the totality of twenty-first century technology. in some cases this happens willingly and in others it stems from being ignored by those of the urban persuasion.

where it happens willingly, it is surprisingly refreshing.

there's a man here in town who swears by his blackberry, a worn out and warped pocket notebook that holds all his contacts, upcoming meetings, and notes in a space smaller, cheaper, and a lot less radioactive than its electronic namesake.

the best source of local information remains the local paper, still available only in print form and only delivered weekly. that's right, one paper per week. on the brightside it's better than the deal my parents have in the mountains of north carolina. their paper prints monday, wednesday, and friday, but gets delivered tuesday, thursday, and friday. logic abounds.

people even use phonebooks, and not as paperweights or props for feats of strength. they actually use them to find numbers, because a lot of people in rural america still have something called a "land line."

whatever that is.

maybe the most endearing, though somewhat financially confusing, case of the willing indifference to technological advances is the use of the postal service for in-town correspondence. while no one this side of scrooge can complain about getting something in the mail that is not a bill, credit card application, or catalogue, it is mildly troubling to think someone went to the trouble to stamp a number of envelopes, hand them to the postmistress, and have her walk twelve feet to put them in everyone's post office box. at nearly 3 2/3 cents per foot, it doesn't seem like a great deal, but somehow it actually is.

however, where the failure to embrace technology happens out of omission, it's depressing at best.

the most recent episode of radio lab, reminded me that for the last two years, we've been living in unprecedented territory: more than half of all people in the world live in cities and not in rural communities. we now live in a decidedly urban world. instead of living in a world dominated by the minority who live in cities, we now live in a world dominated by a majority who call the "metro-area" home. while this is not news to anyone, it does pose some interesting questions. especially ones about how we get our news.

jon stewart said it well at the rally to restore sanity and/or fear when he remarked that the news media are based in cities across the nation and that they reflect back to americans a world that is not always true to every viewer's life experience. it's almost as if we live in one world all day and, if it turns out that we don't actually live at cnn, fox, or msnbc, we see a different one on the television when we come home.

in smaller cities and larger towns this might not necessarily be the case since the chances of having a reputable local news channel is greater, but out in the middle of nowhere where most folks rely on satellite tv which provides them with roughly 8 bravos, 9 discovery channels, 10 qvcs, and perhaps even a channel looping images of a partridge in a pear tree, local programming is virtually non-existent or inaccessible. (when it is accessible it's reminiscent of that attempt your high school made at doing the news: grainy, slightly entertaining, and less than informative.) so, the world that comes through the wire is in fact not reflective of the life lived by those of us in middle-of-nowhere america.

furthermore, great efforts like the one laptop per child program, led by nicholas negroponte, try to connect every child in the world living in a rural place with a laptop computer so that they can get up to speed with their more privileged, urban peers. every child, that is, except poor, undereducated ones in rural america. apparently, they aren't in need of catching up to those with more opportunities, especially those in their own country.

so while, it's refreshing to know that out here some folks still carry a pen and a notebook around, and prefer a face-to-face meeting to an email chain on a smartphone, it's only refreshing when we have the choice to remain several steps behind everyone else. there's little refreshing about being left several steps behind or kept out of the discussion entirely.

we all know what happens when we get left behind. we start listening for the loudest familiar noise, and when we hear it, we start following. and not because it's telling us the truth, but simply because its noise and it could lead us somewhere, despite the fact that while "somewhere" might be the nearest town, it might also be a campsite full of crazies smoking peyote and getting ready to drink some kool-aid under the spell of the snuggie.

photos from here, boone, and here.