Bulgaria · Family

Golden Sands

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My friend Alexenia Dimitrova told me I would come to love Bulgaria if I could choose what I came to see. If I only saw the crumbled buildings and the sex shop signs, I would miss the beautiful faces of kind people. The more Bulgarian I learned, the more good things I could see. I tried to explain this to my children.

“It’s a choice: Do you see the cigarette butts in the sand or the sea shells?” I said pointing to beach in our little corner of Varna.

Marie crinkled up her nose, “That doesn’t make sense. What if I see both? I can’t help but see it all.”

“But what do you choose to focus on?”

“I choose to focus on food,” she said. “I’m hungry.”

Well, she is growing.

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Family

France

I was born at Toul Air Force base beside the village of Rosieres-en-Haye. My mother told stories of the pre-dawn trek to the hospital in a VW bug with my father, a military chaplain, speeding down farm roads as steam rose from the freshly fertilized fields. I was born just as the sun was coming up.

30442924_10155738507872087_1700050705475174400_nMy father went to the Rosieres-en-Haye mayor’s office to register my birth. There were 11 major U.S. bases in France then, including Chambley with my father’s chapel and metal trailers for officer’s quarters, and Toul-Rosieres with the hospital.

When I was in my 30s, my mother, sister, and one of my brothers went back to France to revisit my parents’ lives when they were young. My father had died, and we wanted to see the places that had been important to him. But when we went to Chambley, we found the base in ruins and abandoned. The chapel was a hollow shell and weeds grew where my father’s office had been. My mother cried. We all cried. The officers’ club had been set afire in places. The street where the trailers had stood was overgrown. We left in shock.

With some sense of desperation, we drove to Rosieres-en-Haye. The mayor’s office was closed. A few people were about the streets. We asked, begged, anyone to help us open the mayor’s office. With our very limited French, we understood that one person in town spoke English and were pointed to a house up the street. Raymond stood outside the gate and took us in to his wife. I can still see Rosemarie with a phone in her hand. Just one moment please, she said. She was on the phone with her sister and had just received wonderful news.

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Rosemarie’s doctor had called her about the time we pulled into town. Her cancer was in remission, so she wanted to celebrate. Could we please come back soon and she would prepare a picnic lunch. In that moment, our fortunes changed and her happiness took us over. We wandered through the village a bit. Rosemarie led us back to the mayor’s office, now opened, and there were the birth records and my father’s signature. Then we sat in the garden, and with Rosemarie and Raymond, ate bread and cheese and potato salad. We talked of everything and became friends.

In the years that came and went, their son married and had two children. Rosemarie and my family found each other on Facebook and we watched each other’s lives unfold. My sister and I adopted daughters. My brother went to law school. While I was living in Washington, Rosemarie and Raymond came to the states and we had a fortuitous picnic on a sunny day. We posted pictures. Time marched forward. I moved to Kentucky, then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Raymond developed leukemia. He died six months later, and my mother died a year after that.

My family has always coped with tragedy with movement and intensity. My siblings and I posted pictures of our lives and our children, using Facebook as our scrapbook and history. Rosemarie needed a reason to get up in the morning. So, unbeknownst to us, our story helped her face the day. She would push herself to the computer and say, “Let’s see what the Whitehouses are doing today.”

She watched my daughters grow up: our move to Kentucky, the cheerleading tournaments, archery tournaments, the lost teeth, awards days, and family vacations. So, when I got the Fulbright to teach in Bulgaria, Rosemarie asked me to come back to France and to stay, once again, in the village. Of course we went. How could we not?

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 11.30.52 AMWhen we drove into Rosieres-en-Haye, I did not need GPS to find her house. Rosemarie and the house looked just the same after 20 years. I brought bread from Paris. She explained to my daughters that friends, compagnons in French, means to break bread. We ate and once again walked through the village together.

There is the monument to soldiers who died in World War I. There is the church, now 500 years old. The priest rotates through for mass one Sunday a month. There is where Raymond is buried. And there is the washhouse where Rosemarie’s grandmother knelt on straw plats, scrubbing clothes, and gossiping with her neighbors. There is where her parents’ had a café and grocery.

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 11.29.58 AMWe looked for morel mushrooms in the woods nearby, but found none in the damp early spring. We found wild violets by the score. Children ran from house to house freely. One decided that I looked like I was Argentinian rather than American. They practiced their English and laughed with me at my French. When night fell, we drove over to Nancy to see the magical Place Stanislas. The 18th Century square, believed to be the most beautiful in Europe, contrasts with the earthen houses and rock walls of the surrounding villages. We drank sodas; my daughters laughed trying to find themselves on the square’s web cameras, and then we took the winding roads back to Rosieres-en-Haye.

Sunday morning came quickly and Rosemarie and I tried to avoid saying goodbye. I realized that I am older than she was when we appeared at her garden gate the first time. She kissed my daughters, hugged me tightly, and whispered, “You know the way back.”

Again we drove over the hills and through the same fields that my parents rode past on the morning I was born. Past the tree-lined paths and the Toul base, now a solar farm. We wound through village after village, until we heard church bells ringing. Leaving the girls in the car, I wanted to at least see a country church. It was Orthodox Easter after all. The bells were still ringing as I entered, but no one was there. It was as though the mass had just ended and the priest stepped out. The architecture indicated it perhaps dated to Medieval times, making it even older than the church in Rosieres-en-Haye. Children’s drawings were mixed in between statues of saints and the stained glass windows. But on the front pillars were modern paintings that made me gasp. A similar one, an abstract of Jesus’ face, had hung in my parent’s house my whole life. The fervent brush strokes were so distinctive, precious, and intense. I knew that these images had been made by the same painter, and somehow I knew my parents had once been here, too. I sat down in awe. The bells stopped ringing, but still no one came. I needed to go. And, I knew my way back.

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Family · Kentucky

Ode to the Croquette

We are a month and a day from leaving for Bulgaria. I know I will write about the threads of history that appear on dinner tables. In the meantime, I want to be grounded in that which I know is distinctively Kentucky. My university’s mascot, the Colonel, is borrowed loosely from the fried chicken king. My sister makes turkey dressing from the same pans our grandmother used to make sure the correct amounts of homemade stock are mixed together with cornbread.

23658367_10155395207587087_7818194235285310300_nThe one dish though that must appear at family celebrations is so incongruous with what outsiders might expect in Kentucky that strangers look askance at our table — banana croquettes. Think bananas rolled in homemade mayonnaise and crushed peanuts. Nothing about this dish should scream Kentucky, but it does. This is the dish my children insisted on taking to the church Thanksgiving potluck. This is the dish that must be there in order for it to be a true Whitehouse family holiday.

Nobody makes banana croquettes with homemade mayo any more. I’ve seen recipes swearing by Hellman’s, but one of my aunts discovered Marzetti Coleslaw Dressing and we never looked back.

The history of this dish appears to go back to 1870 when a forbearer of the Chiquita company introduced bananas to the United States. Over the next three decades, Americans fell in love with the fruit transported by rail from the central Americas to New Orleans and then Chicago. Kentucky food historian Maggie Green says 75 percent of American bananas made a stop in Fulton County’s icehouse, the only one along Chicago’s rail route.

This 1935 video from United Fruit Company disturbingly shows “virgin jungle being converted into a banana plantation.” It also announces, “In grandmother’s day, parents believed bananas caused stomach ache.” Then, a wizened family doctor prescribes bananas for a young patient with digestive issues. Vigorous athletes are paraded to tout the fruit’s energy producing benefits. The dutiful mother cuts up bananas with milk for her smiling son.

The Chiquita people put out cookbooks praising the benefits of corn flakes with milk and bananas. My father called this breakfast a childhood favorite.

It’s not hard to make the leap from milk to mayo, but the crushed peanuts thing is a stretch. General agreement amongst Southern cooks is that nuts must be halfway between powder and chunks, smaller pieces than the prepackaged store variety but still with some crunch. Getting to grind or crush the peanuts is an honor given to children.

I tried to develop theories about how the croquette combination came together. My mother said it had to be an African-American cook who introduced it to white Kentucky. For a long time, I thought it be a Caribbean dish put together by slaves who later were forced up the river to work in Kentucky tobacco fields. But the timing was somehow off … either dish had to be much younger or older than my poorly formed assumptions. Bananas first came from Africa after all. Then, I stumbled on this video of a woman making what she calls Kofi Broke Man: roasted plantains and red skinned peanuts. She says, “And this looks perfect. Just like the ones we buy by the roadside in Ghana.” The poor man’s dish provides a hearty feast even for someone with only a few coins in his pocket.

The connection between the Kentucky side dish and West African street food makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve read. My humble thanks to the African-American woman who somehow pulled these home staples all together.

The earliest family memory I can directly document of banana croquettes comes from the 1940s. My great uncle Hobert brought his wife Grace to Nelson County to meet his family before they headed back off to Montana. (How they got there is another story.) They were treated to day after day of feasts, each at a different house.

Six decades later, I went to Thanksgiving dinner at Grace’s house in Montana. Of course, I brought banana croquettes. She tasted it and said with smile, “I know this dish.” Yes, it had been served those gatherings when she was a bride. Grace pointed to the Marzetti’s bottle sitting on her counter, cocked her head and said, “I like your version better.” I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my cooking than at that moment.

 

Family · Kentucky

Beginning

My ancestors were thieves and scoundrels, near slaves and certainly slave owners. They were also ministers and soldiers, farmers and bankers, homemakers and lots and lots of teachers. They sharpened knives in England, made leather boots with Lewis and Clark as they hunted for the Northwest Passage, and fought on both sides of the Civil War.

IMG_5284They were an American complexity that I tried to figure out as I stood in a dry creek bank next to a dilapidated bridge, staring into the sunlight at two haystacks not a hundred yards away. This was the promised land.

“There where those hay bales are. That was where they lived. The road ran in front the house. It was a cabin. A log cabin. James and Sarah lived there first and then their son Benjamin. They are buried on that little knoll there, or that one,” said Monty Bryant, a local historian and an incredibly distant cousin I had met an hour earlier.

He stood at the creek’s edge and would go no further. A no trespassing sign was nailed to a tree above the moss-covered bridge, light showing through its cracks. I edged closer to the far bank. The current owner was in local parlance “not right.”

“Can’t I talk with him and see if he’d let us look closer. You know I’m good at talking to people,” I pleaded.

“He has a gun,” Monty replied. Even I know better than to trespass on a Kentucky landowner with a gun.

Our ancestor James Whitehouse was the first of our people to arrive in Kentucky. Born outside of London, his parents and most of his siblings died in an 18th Century tubercular epidemic that killed millions across Europe, “particularly amongst the poorer classes,” according to the Journal of Military and Veterans Health. James was at loose ends when his father, a cutler, died, and he joined what could only be called a gang. The Old Bailey Court records state that he and a buddy came across a woman carrying a silk gown in a bundle. He asked what a whore was doing with such nice things and smacked it from her hand. The clothes were found pawned. For awhile, he hid out at his grandfather’s house, but eventually turned himself in. He was convicted of theft, branded, and sentenced to transportation, 14 years working in Virginia. He was 15 years old.

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Loaded with 94 convicts, the Tayloe set out in 1774. Capt. John Ogilvie was a cruel master, chaining prisoners in groups of six and rarely letting them out of the hole during the two-month slog. Somewhere out over the Atlantic, he shot a bird off the deck, who fell into the water. Ogilvie offered freedom for the man who could retrieve it for him. The prisoner who swam out to fetch it was attacked by a shark, lost an arm, and died just after returning with the bird. A sadistic captain wasn’t the only threat.  Lightening destroyed the mast as it pulled into Chesapeake Bay, shaking the ship to the core. All this was recorded in the Virginia Gazette once the vessel landed. But, here is the odd thing about transportation: it likely saved James’ life. He either would have been hung as a thief or died from the White Plague had he stayed in England.

Records of what happened to James in Virginia and the end of his indentured servitude are unclear or lost. More than one historian believes his grandfather may have paid a bond to end his sentence early. Regardless, legal marriage for such men was rare and unlikely, and no matrimonial proof exists. We do know that James arrived in Kentucky in 1783 with a woman named Sarah whom he called his wife and their three children. We do know he served in the military and from that earned a land grant. They eventually settled along Scrubgrass Creek, the dry bed in which I was standing.

Some of their children would be literate. Joseph would write a diary of his account trekking with Lewis and Clark, though much effort was spent complaining about the experience. Monty’s ancestor Benjamin would marry into Abraham Lincoln’s family. My ancestor Joel would never learn to read and would bounce around Kentucky for awhile looking for land of his own before settling in the next county over.

James himself became a respectable and honored man in the community. He served as constable, sort of the law in that edge of the woods. By the time he died in 1819, he owned two horses, five cows, two mules, two pigs, two plows, a flock of sheep, and five yards of silk. A crop of flax was ready for market.

“I love these people, the Whitehouses,” Monty said. “They scrapped a life out of land that nobody wanted.”

Except of course the Shawnee who were driven off from here, but it seemed rude to bring that up. “They worked hard, so hard.”

James’ estate settlement lists a churn, table and chairs, his iron tools, his sundry old books. There would not be a high school for the children living along this road toward Forkland until 1927. Electricity would arrive in 1947. Cell coverage still does not reach this far.

And yet, the people buried over across this creek made the way for my grandfather to become a small town banker, for my father to become a minister, for me to become a college professor. The life they carved out made my life possible. They arrived here with nothing, not even good character. They rebuilt their souls and planted their very DNA into the ground. I had to come here, to see the spot where they settled, even if I had to stand in a creek bed to reach across time.

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