Archive for September, 2011

My older niece, the beautiful and talented poet and photographer Amanda Gamble, turned twenty-one yesterday. I happened to remember this “birthday ghost” story last night around midnight–so it’s a day late.

There’s a street in a rundown area of Knoxville, Tennessee that is haunted by a very curious ghost. He appears as a black shadow hovering under the streetlamps, on nights–or early mornings–when someone along the street has a birthday.

They say they are awakened from sound slumbers to the sound of whistling–Not only that, but the ghost seems to know only a single tune.

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you. . .

The whistling ghost has been given the name Jack, or Whistlin’ Jack, and no one knows for certain who he was in life. Some say that he was a postman who delivered mail along that street for many years, walking along and exchanging news and views with citizens, who would whistle that little tune to anyone who mentioned they had a birthday that day.

Others say that he was an oldtime lamplighter, which explains why he might stand under the streetlamps of today, electric though they may be, but doesn’t explain the whistling.

Then there’s a third candidate: a Knoxville city policeman who knew everyone along that beat, birthdays, joys, sorrows and all. This policeman was killed in the line of duty by a drunk he tried to arrest one night, and has returned ever since in the guise of Whistlin’ Jack.

One story about his appearances will suffice: it dates to the last ten years or so.

A lady living on that street in that rundown area of Knoxville woke early one morning to the sound of whistling just outside her window. A bit scared–there had been some problems with burglars and home invasions in the area recently–she cautiously pulled a curtain aside and peeked out to see an odd sight: a black shadow, obviously male, silhouetted in the circle of light under the streetlamp in front of her house.

He whistled through whatever he was whistling, and then vanished before her startled eyes.

She tried to wake her snoring husband to tell him what had just happened. He glared at her, told her she was either overtired or just plain losing it, and went back to sleep.

Which she did. As she drifted off to sleep, she remembered something: this was her birthday.

And the whistling from outside had sure sounded an awful lot like Happy birthday to you. . .

This story comes from Charles Edwin Price’s 1999 book Mysterious Knoxville.

And a late happy birthday to Miss A! ❤

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The Scent of Apple Bread

This morning Knobite Corner got a hint of early fall: fifty-five degrees, cloudy, damp, and a biting north wind. It’s remained pretty much the same all day, with a high on our front porch of sixty-five.

In short, perfect baking weather.

So bake I did. Only a single loaf of bread, but to my surprise it turned out marvelously well.

After last time, when I had too few raisins to make my apple raisin bread and ended up adding more apples to compensate, I decided to try it with apples alone this time. Basically, then, it’s my apple raisin bread recipe with one subtraction and one addition, as follows:

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon (plus a smidgen more) light brown sugar

2 Red Delicious apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

I put the dry ingredients together and give them a gentle mix with a spoon before adding them to the wet ingredients, stirring to make sure there are no “dry pockets” left, and add the vanilla last, giving the batter one last good stir.

Spray an 8″x 2 1/2″ (think that’s right!) loaf pan with a nonstick spray. Pour in batter and bake at 350 for 55 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Let cool in loaf pan ten minutes then remove to wire cooling rack to cool completely.

I decided against making this in a muffin pan because it’s cool enough today to bake for a longer time; otherwise, I’d have sprayed a 12 cup muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray, filled each cup 2/3s full of batter, and baked them for about twenty minutes.

It occurred to me, after I’d tasted the end result, that it would probably work just fine to add as much as a quarter cup of the brown sugar, and I may try that next time.

Meanwhile, the house smells wonderful! 😉

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I was talking on the phone with my friend Lily last night about biscuits (at which she, having learned from observing older mountain women, is a champion) and, in the course of the conversation, I was reminded of this story, from James V. Burchill and Linda J. Crider’s 2002 book Specters and Spirits of the Appalachian Foothills.

I used to beg my mom to teach me to bake biscuits. Mom began cooking for her farm family at the age of nine, so she never ever measured anything; she just started throwing a bit of this and a dab of that in a bowl, and I’d throw up my hands and walk away disappointed. I understand very well the frustration of a lady Burchill and Crider call Marjorie.

Marjorie could cook–oh, could she cook–except for one thing: she could not, no matter how she tried, bake the cathead buttermilk biscuits her husband William wanted on the breakfast table every morning.

William, though, had an inspiration one day. He invited Marjorie’s aging mother to move in with them. Kind, you say? Well, yes, but William did sort of have an ulterior motive.

Mom could bake perfect cathead buttermilk biscuits!

Marjorie’s mother lived with the couple for nearly twenty years, and every morning, she’d get up at five thirty and, while Marjorie prepared the rest of William’s breakfast, Mom made biscuits.

Perfect cathead buttermilk biscuits.

And then one day Mom fell gravely ill. She was dead within a day. Marjorie and William mourned a bit differently from each other. Marjorie mourned the loss of a beloved mother, while William mourned the loss of a beloved mother-in-law who baked the best biscuits in the world.

The morning after Mom’s funeral, Marjorie got up at five thirty as usual and went to the kitchen, knowing already that William would miss his biscuits. So she decided to try, one last time, to make the dadblamed things.

She puttered around for a long time, trying to work up her nerve to begin the herculean task.

She said to the empty air, I may as well accept it. I will never be able to make biscuits the way William likes them, and he’ll end up eating breakfast at somebody else’s table. You just watch!

No sooner than the words were out of her mouth she heard her mother talking to her.

MOM? Is that you?

Yes. Now you listen. I’m gonna teach you how to make biscuits.

Feeling a bit lightheaded, Marjorie followed her mother’s directions to the letter. Two cups of flour. . .a pinch of salt. . .buttermilk. . .and oh, yes, preheat the oven to five hundred degrees. . .

At some point, when the biscuits were in the oven, Marjorie said, a bit resentfully, You never told me to do all that when I was trying to learn to make biscuits, Mom.

Of course not, her mother replied briskly. I had to keep something for my ownself.

Marjorie took the biscuits out of the oven, put them on a plate, and set them on the table, then finished the rest of William’s breakfast.

William came downstairs just as she finished. He snuck past like an egg-suckin’ dog, muttering about being late for work, and already thinking about the cathead biscuits at a diner between him and work–his salvation!

Marjorie was having none of it. William, you sit your fanny down this minute. You ARE GONNA EAT THIS BREAKFAST I WORKED SO HARD OVER!

So–reluctantly–he sat down, and Marjorie served his plate: hash browns, eggs, and last of all one of those cathead biscuits.

To his credit, William tried the biscuit, and a look of outright astonishment came over his face. Sweetheart, this is fantastic! He helped himself to another. They’re even better than your mother’s!

Marjorie just smiled.

When he had gone, his last words praise for those magical, unaccountably wonderful cathead buttermilk biscuits Marjorie had made, Marjorie looked around for a moment and then said, Thank you, Mom.

Her mother’s voice replied, You’re very welcome, daughter. Now just remember everything I told you, and your biscuits will always turn out perfect. Reckon I’ll be on my way now.

And the beloved voice was gone, and Marjorie, with tears welling up, whispered, Thanks, Mama. See you.

William never complained about Marjorie’s biscuits again. He bragged about them to friends, telling them she got the recipe from her mother.

I’m not sure he knew exactly when she got the recipe from her mother, but no matter. 😉

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Now if you see that girl of mine
Tell her if you please
That when she bakes those biscuits
To roll up her sleeves. . .

With temperatures hovering, following TS Lee’s progress like a rainy monarch through Knobite Corner, in the upper sixties–a great relief after a high of ninety-eight last Saturday–I’ve spent three of the last four days cooking. Monday, I made a beef Veg-All cheddar casserole. Yesterday, I made a pot of vegetable soup and cornbread muffins. The soup is excellent, even if I do say so myself; the casserole needs extensive tinkering but is edible. As for the cornbread muffins–hey, who can eff up a Martha White cornbread mix?

Today, feeling frightfully brave, I decided I’d do some more baking.

So I began with my one and only five-star accomplishment: apple raisin muffins. Lacking the requisite two cups of raisins, I was about to throw up my hands in disgust when I heard Her Majesty Queen DinoSnob murmur, use what raisins you have and add extra apple, dingbat.

Excellent idea, Your Majesty, I said aloud.

Aren’t they all?, she said. She loses no chance to remind me that, in addition to being a traditional country music maven, she has a fearless culinary heart; one failure and I’ll never make a dish again, while she’ll try till she gets it right.

So, I used my scant half-cup of raisins, chopped up not one but two Red Delicious apples in place of the rest, mixed up my muffins, and set them to bake in my funky square muffin pan.

As the rest of my sad story has nothing to do with the muffins, allow me to say that A) Her Majesty was correct in her choice of ingredients and thinks next time I should eschew raisins altogether and B) Mom, my captive test subject, announces unequivocally that I have outdone myself.

With the homey fallish scent of apples, cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the house, I decided I’d use up some more of the quart of milk I’d invested in to make the cornbread muffins and make biscuits.

After all, who can eff up the recipe on the Bisquick box, right?

But that was before I realized that box of Bisquick had been in the cabinet since the Christmas Her Majesty made Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage Balls for a brunch– sometime, I fancy, in the Stone Age, because it was hard as rock and crawling with mealworms.

Ewwwwwwww! Her Majesty and I chorused as I slamdunked the box into the trash.

Then I decided to try the recipe the way it was given on the White Lily bag of flour I’d used in making the highly successful muffins.

Her Majesty pointed out, You don’t have Crisco. . .

No, I said stoutly, but I have cooking oil.

That, said Her Majesty, isn’t what worries me.

Ah, c’mon, where’s that fearless culinary heart?

She left me alone to court disaster.

Bake them biscuits, baby
Bake ’em good and brown,
Cause when I’ve had my breakfast
I’m Alabama bound. . .

All went fairly well, I guess one could say, at first: I put out my two cups of flour (self-rising; I’m a lazy woman 😉 ), then added two thirds of a cup of milk and enough cooking oil to make three-quarters of a cup of liquid.

And I mixed it up, and it did form a nice doughy ball.

So I’m home free, right?

Wrong. I’d forgotten–my two previous adventures in biscuitmaking having induced traumatic amnesia–how damned sticky the dough can be.

The rest of the story is too painful to share save in outline.

I did manage to salvage seven biscuits from a doughball that should have made a dozen.

I had to vacuum up a copious amount of flour from the floor around my worktop.

There’s still dough clinging to the ceiling and a light dusting of flour in my hair and eyebrows, which has a peculiar aging effect.

But–to my surprise–such biscuits as did come out of this round of insanity are the best ones I’ve made yet.

And I comfort myself with this:

My sister, a world-class cook, can’t make biscuits at all.

Nanny nanny boo boo. . . 😉

Walkin’ in my sleep, babe,
Walkin’ in my sleep
Up and down that Dixie line
Walkin’ in my sleep. . .

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I have heard the mermaids singing. . .T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

In the wee church of St. Senara in Zennor, Cornwall, there’s a chair, said to be more than six hundred years old, that has carved on one side a mermaid. She could be symbolic of the dual nature of Christ, or she could be the heroine of a folktale. (I’m partial to the folktale, myself. ;))

The best singer in the little congregation at St. Senara was a handsome youngster called Matthew Trewhella, back in the late Middle Ages. So accomplished a vocalist was he that he always sang a solo at the close of vespers, and other times besides.

Now there was a little stream running beside the church that meandered its way to nearby Pendour Bay, and in that bay there lived a mermaid.

One evening, this lovely sea creature heard Matthew singing, his voice carrying on the wind. Enthralled, she listened to him, and by the end of his song, sight unseen, she was in love with him.

So each evening she would come up to the shore to hear him sing. Eventually, she became bold enough to swim up the little stream, and listened from its relative safety.

But her love grew and grew and she pined to see this man who sang so sweetly. Surely he must be as beautiful of face and body as of voice!

Now, being half-fish, she was awkward on land, but love’s determination knows no bounds. One night, she lumbered over the ground and somehow managed to steal a long dress. The next evening, in her stolen finery, she boldly made her way into the church and seated herself on the back pew, waiting to see Matthew.

Her hope had been right. Matthew Trewhella was as handsome as an angel, and sang like one.

For awhile, then, she slipped into the church each evening, to hear her true love sing. Sometimes, she would join him in song, her voice as true as any of her siren kin. Matthew heard her, but couldn’t quite figure out where in the nave that new alluring voice came from.

One evening, a stray sunset light shone in the window and illuminated her face. She, singing and watching Matthew, never noticed, but Matthew, at the front of the church, did. His voice faltered for a second as he stared at the beautiful girl on the back pew. She was the one whose voice blended so perfectly with his!

In that moment, he fell irrevocably in love.

After the service, as she tried to slip away to the stream and thence to the bay, Matthew caught up to her.

Before she could speak, he poured out his love for her, in words as impassioned as his singing.

When he finally stammered to a halt, looking into her lovely face, she told him gently that, though she loved him and would sing with him forever if she could, she could not be his. She was a sea creature and could never survive on dry land. She asked only to be allowed to continue to come listen to him of an evening, and then to return to the bay.

Matthew, his voice trembling with his love, told her then and there that, if she must return to the sea, then he would go with her, for he could not bear to be parted from her.

Before she could protest, he swept her out of the little stream, up into his arms. Startled villagers last saw Matthew Trewhella carrying that strange lovely girl toward Pendour Bay.

He was never seen again.

But they say that sometimes of an evening, if you listen closely, you can hear two voices singing as the sun sets over the bay.

That’s Matthew and his mermaid, they whisper with a smile.

For more about the Mermaid of Pendour Bay and her lover, see Richard Jones’s 2002 book Haunted Britain and Ireland and the Wiki article about Zennor. The two versions differ in a few small details, so I kind of put them together. 😉

Incidentally, we have pictures in the family of my grandmother and Mom–then a toddler–standing in the waters of Morro Bay, California, which is also said to be home waters to a mermaid.

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opening the door to an honest chill
feels new and early

if only the sky winked down that flirty blue
I’d call it October

the kitty, glinting like an opal,
crosses my lap to creep behind the curtain

settling in the window to doze and dream
he doesn’t stay long

he comes out complaining
the leaves chatter too loud

divas that they are, planning what gowns to wear
when the equinox throws autumn’s first great ball

the wind brushes by with a melancholy whisper
soon. . .

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Welcome, September

In the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday this song is sung by an aging Peter Stuyvesant as a lament for his lost youth. So in context. In actuality, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote it to suit the limited range and gruff voice of their star, Walter Huston–probably why it was such a perfect fit for Willie Nelson, who recorded the song on his 1979 Stardust album of pop standards.

I’ve never thought of the song in terms of aging, though–incurable romantic that I am, I think of it in the context of a relationship that may or may not make it to December. Just sayin’– 😉

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