Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Reading Group Month

October is National Reading Group Month

October is National Reading Group Month, and the organization’s annual Signature Event will be held in Nashville this year. How I wish I could attend to hear well known authors speak and to see Nina Cardona from NPR’s All Things Considered as emcee. Books have always been a cornerstone in my life, and any reason to celebrate reading, even group reading, is fine with me.
While teaching in the Hazelwood School District years ago, I was lucky enough to have the St. Louis County Library system nearby. This included a bookmobile that came almost to my front doorstep. However, I was busy and did not know many people in the area so my group reading never developed.

Once I moved to Jasper County, group reading was not popular, and it took a while to find people interested in sharing reading. However, a tiny group of retired teachers and friends now make up my reading group. We agreed at the beginning to forego the lunch and house cleaning preparations necessary for a social gathering. We were totally interested in the books and decided to meet at a private and neutral site where books are the entire focus of a two-hour discussion. The group is of made of women in the same age group, of similar vocations, but members are of varied religious practices, divergent political allegiances, and the only true common denominator is the love of reading. Occasionally, we spring for a luncheon out during our summer recess or at Christmas. Our reading tastes are varied, but all have introduced the others to a new author or genre, forced the rest to broaden their reading tastes.

A St. Louis friend had a book club of five women who had been friends for over twenty years when they decided to read together. They were a very diverse group in disposition, education, and incomes. However, when they came together for a reading group, they did more than just read and discuss the book. Somehow they managed to add some other dimension to each month’s choice. When they read the Oprah book Choice, Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz, they went for an overnight trip on the Current River where they canoed and ate picnic lunches on the riverbanks. When the book choice was Bread Alone by Judith Hendricks, they met in one member’s kitchen, made a batch of bread and baked it while they discussed the novel, treating themselves to warm, homemade bread and butter after the meeting.

These were generous women and knowing a monthly trip to St. Louis was too much for me and another friend reader in Branson, they planned at least one meeting a year closer to our side of the state. The year we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, we met in Rolla for antiquing and a wonderful trip to The Reader’s Corner, a used bookstore in downtown Rolla. Another year we met in Lebanon for a tearoom luncheon and outlet shopping. The book that trip was The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson, a novel about family relationships. The women were a lot of solace for me that year as my mother’s home at just been destroyed by fire.

While I won’t be attending the annual meeting of National Reading Group Organization nor any of their chapter events across the United States, I will be reading with my own local reading group for the winter. The joy of shared reading can be anyone’s pleasure. Find a friend or two and start a group, making up your own rules and directions, or get a church group to add a book list to its agenda. Visit your local library. If dressing and going out is not your thing, join a shared reading group online at home, such as sites like

For information on National Reading Groups or this years events, go to

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Outer Banks and Smokey Mountains

The Outer Banks are extraordinary landscapes, and they deserve a trip all of their own to be enjoyed thoroughly. However, we were just too close not to push on and grab a little of their flavor. The surf was loud and waves high. The area had received eight inches of rain a couple of days before we arrived, but while we were there the weather was lovely. The worse part is getting there on the slow ferry.

I am not a fish eater, but I thought I should eat local cuisine at least once during our trip to the East Coast. So the first night right after traveling through Ocracoke, we ate at place called the Quarterdeck. It was recommended by a local and was obviously a place the locals favored as the crowd intensified as the evening passed. Folks seemed to be regulars, to one another. I chose a platter that was a medley of fish. The waitress warned me the fish of the night was an oily, very fishy mackerel so I substituted extra shrimp in its place. The shrimp was good, and the scallops, crab cake, hush puppies were okay. However, I left most of the oysters. I tried two but they are just too “slick” for me. That was enough fish to last me ten years or so!

The next day we visited a couple of lighthouses with the Hatteras being the most interesting in that it was the oldest. However, the setting of the Bodie was extremely pretty. It was also interesting the see the beach homes, tall on stilt legs like a heron. The house in Rodanthe where Richard Gere and Diane Lane made the movie Nights in Rodanthe was fun to pass. We tried to walk out to a bird watching glade, but again the mosquitoes were so bad. We fought our way back to the parking area only to find the car filled with the critters too!

One final stop was at a National Historic Site of Roanoke, the early settlement where the first English child Virginia Dare was born. It was a pretty setting; the visitor’s center was interesting, but not much outside to see but old earthworks. Nearby was a reconstructed Elizabethan Gardens. DH was not paying to see them but would wait on me to do so. I was so tired I passed on it myself, and we headed west for the trek home.

The drive home was on fast interstates where ribbons of concrete pass over one another like laces in an athletic shoe. We got off at the Smokies to drive through the park. Before entering, we stopped at a local produce stand. I bought some Honey Crisp apples that are hard to find in our area. Sometimes you can find them at the supermarkets for a super price. These were locally grown and delicious. I also bought a few Cherokee Purple tomatoes, an heirloom variety that they are trying to bring back locally. The tomatoes were dark, almost a purple and less acidic than other varieties.

While we had been through the Smokies long ago, it was pleasant to see them again. We entered at Cherokee, North Carolina. We stopped at Mingus Mill and short walk back into the forest put you near this old gristmill. While DH walked back to the water source, I went inside the mill. A woman was buying some stone ground corn meal in bulk. The miller was such a sweet man and proud of his fine quality of meal. While you could buy small bags of wheat and corn, he was glad to bag up the freshest meal as it came out the shoot. He put it in huge feed sacks and sold it cheaply. He thought I wanted a bag too and was preparing one before I could say otherwise. When DH walked in, he was startled and amazed at the industrial amount of corn meal he had to drag to the car and asked what I was going to do with it! My friends are going to get Mingus Mill corn meal for Christmas.

Driving through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge was a nightmare. Traffic backed up for miles and you crept along like an inchworm. It was miles of commercial junk, fudge, jellies, tee shirts, touristy trap. Once through that area, it was deadheading for home. It was 3100 miles from home and back again. It was tiring but worth it for all we saw.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Savannah to Charleston

We headed towards Charleston and arrived in a fit of traffic. It was a busy and fast town with a taste for the expensive. In many areas, evidence of economic hard times showed, but in Charleston, people admitted the downturn was hard. What was once a heavy shipping area now had only occasional ships coming in to dock. People were very aware of the slow economic times.

Again, we stayed close to waterfront and walked many places. Some shopping areas but mostly the storefronts were places to eat and drink. In the early evening, we walked a long way down to a pier. The sun began to sink while we watched a few sailboats and a couple of ships come in to unload. The South Battery was gorgeous from here.

We wanted to eat on the way back to the hotel, but choose not to eat fish, the most popular type of food available. We settled on a small Italian eatery where the food was delicious. I had chicken picata, always a favorite for me. This picata had southern twist as it was served over rice.

The next morning we started early because we caught the first boat out to Fort Sumter. It turned out to be a lovely ride and the fort was more interesting than most. The National Park Ranger was a young gal who knew her stuff and added drama to her presentation. She was fascinating! The time went so fast that it was time to board the boat again before I was truly finished. On the ride back, we saw several pods of dolphins romping in the ocean waters near the boat.

With only a little time before we were to board a tall ship for sailing, we went to the city market. It was full of lots of items. Some were cheesy and commercial, but some were true artisans. There were many stands selling the famous sea grass baskets of the area. The African American women who did the weaving explained to me that one learned the craft only from mothers and grandmothers. The baskets were gorgeous, full of handmade details, and very expensive. I brought home one small woven medallion.

In the afternoon, we went out on a sailboat, known as The Pride, an 84-foot tall ship. It was a pleasant ride, and once again we saw dolphins. We also saw beautiful pelicans gliding in and landing on the water. I had no idea a pelican was so graceful in flight. We tolerated the sun well because I remembered sun block, but several other people burned to crisp. However, we were tired from sun and wind. We took a few minutes to check out the shrimp boats on the other side of Ravenal Bridge. I think the fishermen were teasing us because we were tourists, but they answered our questions and showed us their catch of large white shrimp. Then we treated ourselves to the rare occasion of hamburgers and crashed into bed early.

The next morning we were up and out of town. Heading across the Ravenal Bridge once again, we headed towards North Carolina. DH saw a sign for Hampton Plantation he wanted to check out so we head down a lane lined by oak and pine. The Spanish moss draped over the limbs like a lace mantilla. Then a narrow path headed down to the plantation home that had once belonged to rice planters. We were too early to get inside, but we walked the grounds. It was no long before massive hoards of mosquitoes attacked us. I cannot imagine how those rice planters and families lived in this area years ago. The tree in front of the house was once saved by George Washington in 1791 on his visit to the area.

Back on the road again, we passed up Myrtle Beach to go to Surfside Beach, one recommended by one of the sailors on The Pride. He was right; it was a gorgeous beach with pristine sand. Being the off-season, there were few people, and we walked the beach, waded the ocean, and picked up seashells.

Finally, we headed back to the car and moved north, stopping at Georgetown, a small village of modern shops and wide, clean streets. We stopped in front of the Upper Crust bakery where we bought the most delicious apple caramel bars. We made one other quick stop at a flea market to check out the local merchandise. Crammed full, it sported more of the same that we have here. However, I did find two English Blue Willow mugs like nothing I had seen before and a lovely knife rest.

Seeing Savannah

We arrived in Savannah early enough to see much of the town on the way in to a motel. Found lodging right at river’s edge in the Hilton Gardens, which was very nice and reasonably priced too. WE unloaded and hit the sidewalks even though we were tired and grungy. The town is old and the buildings interesting. The main interest seemed to be shopping and eating, neither of which interested us. However, we fell into step with the crowd and peeked in a few shops. We found Paula Deen’s restaurant, but the wait was two and half-hours for a table. No food was worth that to us. We did go in and look around the restaurant and the attached shop as well. We learned that Paula was opening another place in Charleston soon.

After a few hours of walking, we sat down to listen to some music, poor in my humble estimation. So, I wandered around the area while DH sat. I found a shop run by a nice, chatty man whose family had been there for 200 years. He had been an ocean miner, had traveled extensively but missed family. He returned to the family place where he says he now had Christmas and Easter dinner for over a hundred relatives each year. He was fascinating conversationalist, and I urged him to write the book he longs to pen.

Back on the street, I found one of the carriage drivers taking a break. She was a sweetheart from Norman Oklahoma, just like finding someone from home. I wanted to ride, was hot and sweaty. She said she would wait for me to get a beer, a tea or whatever and join her next ride. I knew DH would think the expense unnecessary so I returned to him and said I was going one way or another. He beat me to the buggy!

Oh, and what a ride! It was cooling and relaxing; I loved it and will do it again if I get the chance. We took out with Hank and Rowdy, two beautiful Belgian horses with feet the side of streetcars, pulling the carriage. I sat next to the driver and never missed a word of her history lesson about Savannah. She was informative, honest and witty. She had stories about almost every house or statue. We passed the home that was setting for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the home of Mrs. Wilkes who is featured in John T. Edge’s book titled Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook. I heard the comment that her food was better than Paula Deen’s! The book is a delightful read with lots of Savannah stories included.

Charleston Tea Plantation

One of the most impressive sights on this trip was a visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation. This is a working farm and the ONLY tea grown in North America. The sandy soil for good drainage, plenty of humid heat and rain made growing conditions perfect for tea. It took forever it seemed to find the place out on a tip of land. I was so excited and not disappointed for one minute. Small by farm measures, it is less than 200 acres. Originally, the land was used for watermelons and potato crops until 1960. Now the tea bushes are all trimmed and look more like a garden hedge than a farm crop. We were lucky enough to be there on a day when they were harvesting.

So we took the trolley ride out into the fields. The trolley had been a streetcar in Philadelphia at one time. The guide said that snakes are common there such as diamond backed, cottonmouths, and copperheads. No one had to tell me to stay seated and on that trolley! The harvesting equipment is a unique as the crop. Elsewhere tea is handpicked, but here parts of a tobacco harvester and a cotton harvester were put together to create a new machine for harvesting tea. This harvester is fondly called the Green Giant.
Once we had taken the outside tour, we went inside to view how the picked tea was handled. Again, machinery was interesting. One could linger as long as they liked watching tea being dried, cut, and bundled. This tea is sold under the label of American Classic and available right now only in South Carolina. Although affiliated with Bigelow tea, it is never mixed with Bigelow in anyway. They are always sold separately, as Bigelow tea is imported from elsewhere.

There is a small gift shop and tasting area. I was thirsty so the iced peach flavor was a hit with me. I carted a bag of it back to Missouri! The setting was lovely that day with perfect temperatures for sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch. I did not want to leave, but after a picnic lunch and wonderful visit to this tea plantation, we moved on into Charleston.

Road Trip to Georgia

I never considered myself much of a Southern sympathizer. I grew up in the border area of Kansas and was a Jayhawk all the way. However, over the years I came to appreciate some Southern history. I learned my mother was born in Arkansas, I married into a family with some roots in Georgia, and I found that a Frenchman in North Carolina started one leg of my family. When I reread Gone with the Wind as an adult followed by a read of Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone with the Wind, I had a real hankering to drive across some of the South. It took me two years but recently made the trip.

Georgia was a pretty state, but I found much of the terrain similar to the rolling hills of Missouri. The abundance of Southern crepe myrtle started here and was lovely. Kudzu was in evidence of course. There were not the lovely roadside wildflowers of Missouri though. Two famous battlegrounds were on the route, Shiloh and Chickamauga. Both were beautiful settings, and it was hard to imagine the carnage that took place there. Visitors were quiet and respectful in both battlegrounds; the trees were tall and stately, silent to the horrors they had seen well over a hundred years ago.

Although I saw what was left of the home of John Ross along the way, I was severely disappointed to find New Echota closed when I got there. This was the last capital of the Cherokee Nation before the Trail of Tears. Although I cannot trace my own line back far enough to see where they started on the Trail, ALL Cherokee came from somewhere near these Southern points. Oklahoma is not the native land for any Cherokee.

I was also disappointed that Flannary O’Conner’s home, Andalusia, was not open on Labor Day when we passed through. However, we did visit Milledgeville, and I could picture the writer visiting the quaint stores and homes there during her lifetime. (I was to learn later in the trip that Milledge was a name that meant “grits cutter” or miller.) We saw the Episcopal Church where Sherman lodged his horses during the Civil War. He had his soldiers pour molasses down the pipes of the church’s organ so that signals could be not sent to Confederates.

While that day’s agenda seemed to be a failure, all was not lost. By moving on down the road, we made Social Circle, Georgia in time to have a lovely supper at the famous Blue Willow Inn. It is a lovely old home serving meals on Willow plates and decorating the walls with Blue Willow dishes. The grounds are lovely, landscaped with flowers and shrubs, including a small koi pond. The menu is served buffet style and all the foods are Southern favorites. It was my first sampling of fried green tomatoes, although I remember hearing that my grandmother made them years ago. I sampled turnip greens, not a favorite. I liked my first piece of peanut butter pie, although I was so full by then that the pie did not get its due! Other foods like crooked neck squash, macaroni and cheese, apple salad, corn muffins, sweet potatoes were side dishes I make often. I might be more of a down-home Southern cook than I thought!