Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

A Gift to Art and Us

The legacy of Fred Chappell

By Stephen E. Smith

Courage.

That noun rarely comes to mind when considering the attributes a writer should possess in abundance. But what a writer does — the act of creating through fiction, poetry, drama, etc. — is something anyone could do who has the heart, the skill, and the courage to do it. And courage is what Fred Chappell, North Carolina’s former poet laureate and career-long creative writing teacher, instilled in his students during his 40 years as a professor in the Master of Fine Arts program at UNC Greensboro.

Fred died on Jan. 4 at age 87, and I suspect he would find this highfalutin’ courage stuff a trifle excessive. He would laugh and shrug it off as so much puffery. But in fact, courage was Fred’s greatest gift to his students. They had to demonstrate the fortitude to survive his graduate writing workshops. If you couldn’t take the criticism, you had no business pursuing a writing career. Moreover, you’d be unlikely to take the chances necessary to produce art that’s compelling in its originality. 

Fred taught by example, demonstrating great courage as a writer from his early Southern gothic novels to his last line of poetry, taking his readers into unexpected precincts, exploring new ground within the context of traditional verse and prose, while always challenging and surprising and delighting his readers.

Of the more than 30 books and hundreds of uncollected stories, poems and literary essays that might be reviewed in this space, one book stands out as both traditional, experimental and uniquely ambitious — Midquest: A Poem — for which Fred was awarded the Bollingen Prize.

Originally published as four chapbooks — River, Wind Mountain, Bloodfire and Earthsleep — the poems (each volume is presented as a single poem composed of shorter poems) appeared from 1975 through 1980, when Fred was in his 30s. Constructed around the elements of water, wind, fire and earth, the work that comprised Midquest was a startling achievement following Fred’s first volume of poetry, World Between the Eyes. When other poets were playing it safe with carefully controlled collections of verse, Fred suddenly expanded the national poetic palette by employing a startling range of forms. Reviewers labeled Midquest “a verse-novel,” but such descriptions don’t capture the variety of exploration and the sense of adventure evident in each “poem” in the collection.

The arrival of Midquest had an effect on late 20th century audiences similar to that of Leaves of Grass on 19th century readers. Within a familiar format, there’s an explosion of energy and constant exploration, all of it mingled with Fred’s depth of knowledge, range of diction, and implacable intellectual curiosity. Fred lays it all on the line and he makes it work. Midquest could only have been written by a poet of extraordinary courage.

The poem “Firewood,” which appears in Bloodfire, is nothing less than astonishing. A stream-of-consciousness foray through the mind of a persona who is chopping wood, it’s demanding of readers in its humorous wordplay and levels of philosophic allusions. As the persona hacks away at the heart of oak, he muses in some of the densest language imaginable. Here’s a bit of “Firewood”:

. . . we can

even half read the dark that sucks the fire away

& swallows, hearth being dug out of earth &

overpowering entropy of earth clouds from the

beginning the wild root mass of fire, it was sun

jammed into dirt that raised the tree, Lucretius’

seed of fire ignis semina is seed semina mortuis

(dirt we rose from, dirt we’ll never forget)

of death in that same split second, moment

split by the man’s hand hard as an iron wedge . . . .

And so the poem goes for more than 450 lines that engage, delight, mock, question, enlighten, challenge, amuse, and befuddle the determined reader, all of it sustained by an energy that’s part elegiac, folkloric, spiritual, and droll. If “Firewood” is a trifle demanding of the reader, it’s emotionally immersing and immensely satisfying as a work of art.

I was out of the MFA program and publishing books of poetry when I read “Firewood.” The sheer brilliance of the work left me with the knowledge that I’d never achieve such excellence but that I’d be compelled to try, even if it took forever. Fred’s Midquest had relegated me and my fellow poets to the status of neighborhood rhymesters.

If “Firewood” demonstrates a degree of exclusivity, “Cleaning the Well” from River is generous and inclusive — a narrative poem about a boy lowered into a well to clean out years of accumulated detritus:

Two worlds there are. One you think

You know; the Other is the Well

In hard December down I went.

“Now clean it out good.” Lord, I sank

Like an anchor. My grand-dad leant

Above. His face blazed bright as steel. . . .

Beginning his descent into the unknown, the persona imagines:

Ribcage of drowned warlock gleaming,

Rust-chewed chain mail, or a plangent

Sunken bell tolling to the heart

Of Earth. (They’d surely chosen an art-

less child to sound the soundless dreaming . . . .

What does the poet find? He discovers random objects right out of the possibilities of life:

Twelve plastic pearls, monopoly

Money, a greenish rotten cat

Rubber knife, toy gun,

Clock guts, wish book, door key,

An indescribable female hat.

Hauled back to the surface, the poet muses:

I had not found death good.

“Down there I kept thinking I was dead.”

“Aw, you’re all right,” he said.

Fred followed Midquest with more than 25 books — novels, short story collections, and volumes of poetry — material crafted with his unique combinations of precision, intellect, generosity, and courage. But Midquest remains a singular masterpiece, a poem every lover of great literature should read and cherish.  OH

Stephen E. Smith graduated with an MFA in creative writing from UNC Greensboro in 1971. He was one of Fred Chappell’s students, and a friend. Apprentice House Press will publish Smith’s memoir, The Year We Danced, on May 7.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

All Hail the King of Toaster Pastries

Why Pop-Tarts are a thing again

By Maria Johnson

As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was an advertiser’s dream.

Allowed to roam all three TV channels — four if you counted “educational TV,” which I didn’t — I spent many Saturday mornings glued to the cartoon adventures of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Space Ghost and Fat Albert while making room for real humans in the form of The Monkees.

I use the term “real humans” loosely.

Anyway, consuming so much animation gave me a rich audio and visual catalog. I still hear the whistling of falling anvils when something drops, mutter “ruh-rho” when I make a mistake, and feel like I’m turning to a block of ice then cracking into a million pieces and falling into a pile of shards when I step into water that’s colder than expected.

So, you know, yabba-dabba-doo for imagination.

I also ingested a helluva lot of marketing for sugary convenience foods, which translated — as intended — into me begging my parents to buy them, which translated into a nasty Pop-Tarts habit.

Strawberry.

Blueberry.

Brown sugar-cinnamon.

Dutch apple.

Chocolate.

Painted with a hard shellack of frosting.

Or plain.

It hardly mattered.

These highly processed tiles of joy were sold as “toaster pastries,” which was laughable because they were neither real pastries nor toasted. Not much anyway. Not in our house. My brother and I usually snarfed down those perfectly rectangular suckers at room temperature.

They were packaged in twos, suggesting to some people, perhaps, that the contents were meant to be shared. Translated into sibling-speak, however, the meaning was clear: “Two for me. Get your own.”

We did, and we were wary of pretenders, chiefly Toastettes, which were distinguished by deep hash marks around the edges, and Danish Go-Rounds, which were flat tubes of fruit-filled crust curled into spirals.

Imposters, both.

In due time, of course, I left Pop-Tarts behind, moved onto other unhealthy habits and eventually — as happens to the best of us — became a health-conscious adult.

If I ever bought Pop-Tarts for my own kids, I don’t remember it.

In fact, I tilted the other way, toward whole-grain parenting. Let’s just say there’s a reason my adult sons sometimes tease me with the word “flax,” as in, “Oh, what a shame, Mom. There’s no flax on the menu.”

Or, “What would you call the color of those jeans, Mom? Flax?”

Or, “If only I’d eaten more flax, this wouldn’t be happening.”

To which I can only say, “That’s probably true.”

So, honestly, it was one of the biggest shocks of my life when the boys came home for the holidays recently and we all sat down to watch one of their alma maters, N.C. State, play in a longstanding Florida football contest that was branded, for the first time ever, as the Pop-Tarts Bowl.

Huh?

My interest was piqued.

I hadn’t thought of them — Pop-Tarts, I mean — in so long. And now, here was the logo, plastered all over the field and the screen. Honestly, I didn’t realize Pop-Tarts were still in production.

Then came halftime, and a bellowing announcer directed everyone’s attention to midfield, where a giant toaster was set up. Music blared and the crowd noise swelled as the official Pop-Tarts mascot — frosted, natch, with sprinkles — rose up on a stage inside one of the slots.

Jets of sparks and smoke spewed as the mascot emerged into full view.

Endowed with golden-brown arms and legs, the Pop-Tart strutted, punched the air and whipped up the crowd with his painted-on smile.

It was a rock star’s entrance. Freddie Mercury had nothing on this cat.

A dam broke inside of me. I was flooded with memories.

Of the smell of Pop-Tarts.

Of the feel of Pop-Tarts in my hands, and how I used to break off the crusty edges and eat them first.

I could taste them again.

I fidgeted in my seat.

“Have y’all ever had a Pop-Tart?” I asked the young heads in the room.

They stared at me.

“Not even in college?”

More blank looks.

“Do you WANT to eat a Pop-Tart?” I asked.

Shoulders shrugged. Then someone said, “No, but I think YOU do.”

It was the truth.
“I’m going to the store,” I said flatly. “Who’s with me?”

My younger son, the one who taunts me most about flaxseed, was ecstatic at seeing me crack.

“I’m in!” he said.

Minutes later, we were back with two boxes: one blueberry and one brown sugar-cinnamon, both frosted. We passed them around.

The packets were wrapped in thin, silver film, not the paper and foil envelope of my youth.

The tarts were smaller and thinner than I remembered.

And they tasted less robust, if that’s possible for a laminated wafer born on a conveyor belt.

But they tickled a long dormant lobe of my brain.

My older son’s partner, who is an outstanding baker, chewed slowly.

“What do you think?” I asked, smiling at her with purple teeth.

Her brow furrowed.

Beside her, my elder son, who’s also a foodie, offered an olive branch: “It’s . . . complicated.”

Kansas State won the game. I couldn’t tell you the score.

But forever seared into my mind is the sight of a Pop-Tart incarnate flitting about the sidelines and the announcer wondering which team was going to have the privilege of eating the mascot at the end of the game.

It was blatant cannibalism.

I was all for it.

At the game’s conclusion, as thousands of fans roared their approval, the mascot sacrificed himself to the humongous toaster, descending on his stage to a fate sealed by the heating elements.

A few seconds later, an oversized, frosted tart — sans arms and legs — slid from the bottom of the toaster. The winning team was invited to come over and break off a piece to celebrate.

It was advertising genius.

I fell for it. Again. As it turned out, I had plenty of company.

The kitschy show went viral.

Pop-Tarts’ brand value jumped 25 percent thanks to the media chatter, such as this post on the social platform X:

“I would actually watch the Super Bowl halftime show if it was the Pop-Tart fighting a Toaster Strudel.”

Enchanted fans snapped up novelty T-shirts commemorating the game.

And my newly exposed sons?

The epicure decided he could do without pastries that resembled postcards.

The other, the anti-flaxxer, was open to a Pop-Tart inclusive life.

Secretly, I was happy.

Days later, when we dropped him off at the airport, I noticed he’d left something behind on the car seat: a silver packet of Pop-Tarts.

“Wait here,” I told my husband. I dashed into the airport, sussed out my son in a security line and pardoned my way through the queue.

“You left this in the car,” I said, breathlessly handing him the shiny packet.

He grinned.

I grinned.

Then I turned and zipped away as fast as . . . well, the Road Runner.

Meep-meep. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Sazerac March 2024

Sazerac March 2024

Sage Gardener

Plant some beets. Now. If you don’t have a vegetable garden, put them in your flower bed or in a planter. They’re easy to grow, thrive in cold weather and add a splash of color to your winter palate of pale, mushy turnips, rutabagas and potatoes.

Beets in all forms are descended from a maritime plant that grows wild along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe. Prized by the Greeks and Romans for their green tops (Swiss chard is a first cousin to beets), the multicolored roots were largely ignored except for animal fodder through the 17th century. Beetroots, as the Brits call them, really didn’t catch on until the 19th century when the French began pairing them with rich béchamel sauce, stewing them in butter and drowning them in cream. Then again, what doesn’t taste good after swimming in a rich roux? Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, “throughout the Colonial era, Americans relied heavily on the garden beet for survival during the winter months. The vegetable was considered an essential winter food — especially during the Six Weeks of Want, a period of produce scarcity that extended from the end of January through mid-March.” That, according to the Smithsonian’s online article “Beauty and the Beets.” (There’s also a www.justbeetit.com website and an online recipe for Paula Deen’s Red Velvet Beets.) On the other side of the planet in Belarus, Poland and Russia, borsch was emerging as a nourishing beet-intensive stew, packed with other various cold-climate vegetables and amped up with almost anything on two or four legs. Ukraine claims borsch as its national dish. An X-(or Twitter-)sphere battle is ongoing between Russia and Ukraine over the birth of borsch. The comments section is ripe with fighting words: “As if stealing Crimea weren’t enough, you had to go and steal borsch from Ukraine as well.”

But back to beets. Fresh is best and farmers markets will be peddling them soon — red, yellow, orange and candy-striped. Don’t have the space to grow your own or the time to make it to the markets? Beets are one of the few vegetables, in my opinion, that aren’t ruined by canning. Harvard beets (beets, sugar, water and cornstarch) are one of my favorite winter dishes. (The name is derived from the deep red of Harvard’s football jersey — or perhaps a tavern in England named “Harwood” that was corrupted in American English into “Harvard.”)

I’m not sure my mom (or most other Southern cooks of her era) ever cooked beets that weren’t canned — and then pickled. If there’s a traditional Southern recipe for beets that are anything but pickled, I’d be tickled to know. I couldn’t find one in any of my slew of Southern cookbooks, including the one from Crook’s Corner, though I know they once served warm-goat-cheese salad with roasted beets and pumpkin seeds. A shame, because they’re so good roasted or in borsch or even raw in salads.

I must admit that most of the beets we grow rarely get much larger than shooter marbles. No sweat. We split them in half, cut up the greens and throw them in a frying pan with way too much butter. Butter, beets, ba-da-boom. Ba-da-yum. Don’t beat me up. Remember I don’t claim to be an expert gardener, just a sage one who never skips a beet.
              David Claude Bailey

Unsolicited Advice

There’s a reason the March Hare in Lewis Carroll’s epic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, appears nerve-wracked and, well, harried: We’re betting it’s because he’s just returned from a family vacation with his many offspring. Since his month is upon us — and so is spring break — we thought we’d offer up a helpful packing list for Mama or Papa Rabbit. Hop to it!

Snacks: We know you’re on break, but here’s a little math equation for you. Take the number of snacks you think you need and multiply that by at least five. It likely still won’t be enough, but you’ll get closer.

A book: You’re a sippy-cup half-full kind of thinker, aren’t you? We like how hopeful you are that you’ll have time to relax. So, go ahead, bring the book. They make great coasters.

An outfit per day: Load up that suitcase with fashions for the person you hope you’ll be on vacay as opposed to who you know you’re gonna be. Just make sure you also pack your fav sweats. You know, the ones with the holes.

Devices with screens: Let’s just be honest here. Opening aforementioned book? A device in the hands of your kiddo might be your only chance.

Ear plugs: We’re sorry, what?

Sazerac Letters

To Cassie Bustemante in response to her December 2023 “Chaos Theory.”

Laid up by my third round of COVID (my chemo-compromised immune system likes to alternate that with pneumonia every few months), I finally found time to read December’s O.Henry and laughed out loud over your story of blow molds, which I did not know were called that until today. My three offspring and their two cousins loved nothing more than seeing their paternal grandmother’s “tacky Santa,” old and faded then, lighting up her carport in the ’70s. He was so beloved that when Nanny’s “treasures” (of which there were three stories and an outbuilding full) were offered upon her entering a nursing home, the only item asked for by name by all five grands was Tacky Santa. It took some costly negotiation, but my middle son prevailed and, to this day, it’s the “leg lamp” on the front porch of his multimillion-dollar Texas home, even after the HOA’s silly comments about “not meeting neighborhood standards of taste.” Thanks for the memories!     
Nelda Howell Lockamy

Photograph © Greensboro History Museum Collection

Window to the Past

Did you know that New York-based Constellation Brands has its humble roots in the Gate City? Beginning life as Car-Cal Winery, the company imported from California and bottled here before relocating to the Empire State. You could say it was a Car-Cal-culated move as it’s now one of the world’s top wine producers.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

Thank you to all who entered our 2023 O.Henry Essay Contest, with the theme, “The Kindness of Strangers.” Your stories brought tears to our eyes and laughs to our lips while cementing our faith in humanity. With so many delightful entries, our task was daunting, but we’re pleased to have chosen three beautiful essays that will appear in our pages throughout this year. Without further ado, your 2023 winners:

First Place: Ronald Winter, “The Kindness of Strangers, In Unlikely Places”

Second Place: Harry Roach, “The Gift of the Fan Belt”

Third Place: Kay Cheshire, “The Checkout Counter”

We’re mixing things up for the 2024 contest and will accept entries May 1 through September. 30. Look for an announcement and details about our theme in our forthcoming May issue. 

        O.Henry editors

Turning a Page

Nobody knew what to expect in 2018 when a group of readers, writers, students, academics, authors and volunteers organized the inaugural Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.

Founded by book lover Steve Colyer and Scuppernong Books owners Brian Lampkin, Steve Mitchell, and Deb and Dave White, it closed with a sold-out event featuring celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni.

Now Greensboro Bound has named its first-ever executive director.

What prompted the move?

“Exhaustion,” says Lampkin. “Most nonprofits get to that point,” he chuckles. “You have all this volunteer enthusiasm and you realize you need somebody to tie everything together.”

After a thorough search, Greensboro Bound decided on Lex Orgera.

“Lex is an exceptional writer and publisher,” Lampkin says.

A poet, writer, editor and herbalist, Orgera holds an M.F.A. from Emerson College. She is the cofounder of Penny Candy Books for young readers and the author of two collections of poems, along with a memoir, Head Case, about losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’m really thrilled to be stepping into the role of executive director in an organization I believe in,” Orgera says. “The festival is an amazing weekend of conversations, ideas and workshops, but we also partner with Guilford County Schools to get books and authors in front of students,” Orgera adds. “We stay busy!”

And the upcoming festival in May?

“We have a little something for everyone — best-selling novelists, award-winning poets, music writers, culture critics, chefs, memoirists and more.”

With Orgera on board, the 2024 edition of Greensboro Bound should be quite a read. — Ross Howell Jr.

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

When Winter Gives You Lemons . . .

Make savory salmon with tangy citrus butter

Story and Photograph by Jasmine Comer

Years ago, I had a culinary revelation — citrus fruits reign supreme in the depths of winter or when it simply won’t go away in March. How could a season so dark and chilly yield fruits so bright and tangy? How could such vivid sweetness thrive in a season painted in shades of gray? I had always associated lemons with summer and my seasonal childhood fav — ice-filled fresh lemonade. Nature never ceases to amaze me and, while I can’t explain why things are the way they are, I do know that every savory dish needs a dash of acidity. When I was preparing this recipe, I was reminded of a book by Samin Nosrat called Salt Fat Acid Heat. Nosrat believes that if you can master those four elements, you can master the kitchen. The trick? Balance — that delicate dance of flavors and textures. When done right, balance creates unforgettable meals, the kind your senses recall at their very mention. This recipe reminds me of that profound truth.

Salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, salted and seared, then basted in citrus butter, creates a melody of acidity and fat — and, of course, salt and heat —  that will delight your tastebuds. Even though this recipe is specifically for salmon, the citrus butter would also add a rich, zesty flavor to any type of vegetable, or even your favorite poultry or fish. Imagine roasted broccoli bathed in melted citrus butter or succulent roasted chicken with a tangy twist. I’m drooling already! Don’t be afraid to add fresh herbs such as earthy rosemary, which would also play nicely with the acidity of the citrus. Experiment — Meyer lemons would add a sweeter flavor, while grapefruits pair perfectly with rosemary, which happens to be readily available throughout the Southern winter. Rosemary salmon with grapefruit butter? Yes, please. This recipe is an invitation to let your creativity sizzle. You can’t go wrong, no matter how ya slice it.

Salmon with Citrus Butter

Ingredients

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound salmon with skin attached, cut into 4-ounce filets

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh herbs for serving

Citrus Butter

1 stick salted butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon lime zest

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons fresh orange juice

Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon lightly with salt and pepper.

Place the salmon skin side up in the skillet and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then flip and cook for 2-4 more minutes depending on the thickness of the salmon.

Meanwhile, place all the ingredients for the butter in a small bowl and mix until thoroughly combined.

Once the salmon is almost done cooking, reduce the heat to low and add a couple tablespoons of the citrus butter to the skillet, basting the salmon with the butter as it finishes cooking for about 2 more minutes.

Top with fresh herbs of your choice (I used cilantro). Serve immediately.  OH

Jasmine Comer is the creator of Lively Meals, a food blog where she shares delicious, everyday recipes. You can find her on Instagram @livelymeals.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Coffee with God

Faith beneath the stars

By Jim Dodson

Every day between 3:30 and 4 a.m., I take a cup of coffee outside to an old wooden chair beneath the sky where I sit, look, listen, think and pray.

If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s something I’ve done religiously for at least two decades, regardless of season and weather, bitter cold or bright summer night. Fog, rain, snow or sleet — almost nothing keeps me from my early morning rendezvous with the universe.

I call it coffee with God.

Between you and me, it’s probably the only time in my day when I can be assured, with the faith of a mustard seed, that I and the world around me are reasonably OK.

Between God and me, you see, it’s something very personal.

After sipping coffee and eyeballing the night sky for a bit (I’ve seen several shooting stars over the years, probably a few UFOs, too), I listen to an app on my smart phone called “Pray As You Go,” a daily scriptural meditation produced by the Jesuits in Britain.

That puts me in the mood to chat with God about whatever is on my heart or mind.

Sometimes it’s worries about the state of the world, which always seems to be coming apart at the seams and can clearly use as many healing prayers as it can get. The news out of Israel this year has been like watching the Old Testament come to life. It’s eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth until everyone is blind and toothless, as Mahatma Gandhi supposedly said. Dear God, I ask, will we ever learn to give peace a chance?

Sometimes it’s thoughts and worries about our far-flung children that occupy my coffee time with God. One of them is always up to something that tends to keep the old man up at night. The good news is, they’re all smart kids with very good hearts. I have faith they’ll figure it out in time. They may even learn that praying is good for the soul and usually works wonders. Some atheists even pray — just in case.

Most of my morning prayers, however, are focused on simple gratitude.

I give thanks for my amazing wife, our good-hearted kids and the possibly undeserved good fortune I’ve enjoyed in this life. I often give thanks for other things great and small, including, but not limited to, unexpected blessings, birds at the feeder, good Samaritans, golf buddies, wise book editors, phone calls from old friends, rain for my garden, our crazy young dogs, our cranky old cat, afternoon naps and people who say thank you.

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic and priest, said that if your only prayer is “thank you,” that will be enough.

I rarely ask God for stuff, except maybe a little help finishing a book or finding patience with idiots who run red lights or drive too fast through the neighborhood. The world is moving much too fast. The truth is, I probably need to slow down, too.

Critics of faith like to say there’s no such thing as a personal relationship with God.

They argue that we human beings are simply a collection of random molecules floating aimlessly through a cold and empty universe. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s simply not the case. I can’t, frankly, think of anything more personal than a relationship with a divine source whose name is different in every language but the same in loving spirit.

This probably explains why I’ve naturally felt God’s presence since I was a little kid growing up across the rural South. In the absence of playmates, I spent most of my time alone outside immersed in nature, looking at birds and bugs, taking hikes through the woods, building forts, watching clouds pass overhead, listening to the love songs of the bullfrogs and the crickets, reading adventure stories on hot summer days beneath shady trees. I never felt alone for an instant. In fact, I felt accompanied by a large and loving presence that clearly cared for me and probably kept a sharp eye on whatever funny business I was up to.

Maybe this is why Jesus was so keen to have little children come near him. As we age, we lose that sense of natural wonder.

It also may explain why, as an adult, I’ve never been terribly keen on public praying, even the lovely prayers and familiar creeds we recite at church every week. They’re written by other well-meaning people and meant, I suppose, to help us catch God’s ear.

Between us, I don’t think God has a hearing problem.

Besides, as Jesus advises in Matthew 6, when you pray, go into a dark closet, shut the door and pray in secret, for God sees you and knows your heart and will openly reward you.

With coffee in hand, I like to think of my early mornings outside beneath the stars — which are always there, even if you can’t see them (kind of like God) — as my own great, big private prayer closet. No need to even shut the door. The world at that hour is normally so dark and quiet that I can whisper to God about anything on my mind. And the strangely wonderful thing is, God whispers back.

One of the worst things that’s happened to faith and prayer across the ages is the unholy marriage of religion and politics. Both are manmade institutions that thrive on telling people what is the correct thing to believe, and what isn’t. Often, when the two get together, all hell can break loose for anyone who dares to believe differently. Near as I can tell from many years of whispering to and being whispered to by some large and loving divine source, God is probably not a member of any particular denomination, sect, tribe, religion, political party or NFL booster club.

I happen to be a follower of Jesus, but find deep inspiration and comfort from the prayers of every faith tradition, a reminder that we’re all just ordinary folks down here on an ailing planet trying to help each other find the way home.

One of my favorite books is called Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love by Stephanie Dowrick. I found it a decade ago in a London bookshop and have probably purchased half a dozen copies since to give friends who regularly pray — or ought to.

It’s a marvelous collection of prayers from every spiritual tradition.

One of my favorite prayers comes from the ancient Bhagavad Gita: “Whichever God you worship, I will answer your prayer. Whatever path you take, I will welcome you.”

Funny how similar that sounds to Isaiah 41: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. From wherever you come, I will lead you home.”

Easter arrives on the last day of March this year, a month named by the Romans for the God of War. Easter’s message is one of rebirth and forgiveness.

I pray it’s time we forget war and find peace at last.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

In Good Taste

In Good Taste

When Winter Gives You Lemons . . .

Make savory salmon with tangy citrus butter

Story and Photograph by Jasmine Comer

Years ago, I had a culinary revelation — citrus fruits reign supreme in the depths of winter or when it simply won’t go away in March. How could a season so dark and chilly yield fruits so bright and tangy? How could such vivid sweetness thrive in a season painted in shades of gray? I had always associated lemons with summer and my seasonal childhood fav — ice-filled fresh lemonade. Nature never ceases to amaze me and, while I can’t explain why things are the way they are, I do know that every savory dish needs a dash of acidity. When I was preparing this recipe, I was reminded of a book by Samin Nosrat called Salt Fat Acid Heat. Nosrat believes that if you can master those four elements, you can master the kitchen. The trick? Balance — that delicate dance of flavors and textures. When done right, balance creates unforgettable meals, the kind your senses recall at their very mention. This recipe reminds me of that profound truth.

Salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, salted and seared, then basted in citrus butter, creates a melody of acidity and fat — and, of course, salt and heat —  that will delight your tastebuds. Even though this recipe is specifically for salmon, the citrus butter would also add a rich, zesty flavor to any type of vegetable, or even your favorite poultry or fish. Imagine roasted broccoli bathed in melted citrus butter or succulent roasted chicken with a tangy twist. I’m drooling already! Don’t be afraid to add fresh herbs such as earthy rosemary, which would also play nicely with the acidity of the citrus. Experiment — Meyer lemons would add a sweeter flavor, while grapefruits pair perfectly with rosemary, which happens to be readily available throughout the Southern winter. Rosemary salmon with grapefruit butter? Yes, please. This recipe is an invitation to let your creativity sizzle. You can’t go wrong, no matter how ya slice it.

Salmon with Citrus Butter

Ingredients

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound salmon with skin attached, cut into 4-ounce filets

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh herbs for serving

Citrus Butter

1 stick salted butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon lime zest

1 teaspoon orange zest

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons fresh orange juice

Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon lightly with salt and pepper.

Place the salmon skin side up in the skillet and cook for 3-4 minutes. Then flip and cook for 2-4 more minutes depending on the thickness of the salmon.

Meanwhile, place all the ingredients for the butter in a small bowl and mix until thoroughly combined.

Once the salmon is almost done cooking, reduce the heat to low and add a couple tablespoons of the citrus butter to the skillet, basting the salmon with the butter as it finishes cooking for about 2 more minutes.

Top with fresh herbs of your choice (I used cilantro). Serve immediately.  OH

Jasmine Comer is the creator of Lively Meals, a food blog where she shares delicious, everyday recipes. You can find her on Instagram @livelymeals.

 

Almanac March 2024

Almanac March 2024

March is a giggle of wild violets, a squeal of flowering redbud, a tea party in the making.

The earth is awakening. As purple blossoms spill across the softening landscape, cottontail rabbits follow. Mingling in sunny patches, they graze on heart-shaped leaves and tender grasses, feast on the freshness of this fragrant spring morning.

In the distance, a pregnant doe plucks clusters of crisp buds from magenta-studded branches. Munching to the tune of chattering squirrel, counter-singing wrens and white-throated sparrow, the deer hears a different kind of music: laughter. One ear back and one ear forward, she pinpoints the source, gently flicks her tail, resumes her browsing.

The children arrive skipping, bare feet in cool grass, eyes bright with life and color. Their pleasure is unmeasured; their vision is clear: wild violet shortbread.

Between cartwheels and somersaults, they gather purple flowers, linger in the sunlight, bask in the welcome, dewy warmth. As they dream up tea and cookies, guests of honor arrive on the wing: bluebird, robin, purple martin, warbler, swallow, towhee, killdeer. The old tabby is near. Early honeybees embrace early dandelions. Her ruby-throated highness takes her throne in a luminous redbud.

Soon, a heap of hand-picked violets becomes a spread fit for a court. Among wild giggles, the children don crowns, wriggle their toes in the soft grass, sink their teeth into the delicate sweetness as the birds sing spring is here.

Spring’s greatest joy beyond a doubt is when it brings the children out. — Edgar Guest

Eye on the Sky

The days are growing longer still. Daylight saving time begins on Sunday, March 10. All the better for soaking up the soft and radiant magic of spring, which officially begins with the vernal equinox on Tuesday, March 19.

According to Scientific American’s “Sky Spectacles to Watch in 2024,” you’ll want to gaze due west at sunset on Sunday, March 24, when Mercury will appear directly above the sun at twilight. Positioned at its “greatest eastern elongation” (greatest distance from our sun), Mercury will be about 19 degrees from the star that gives us life. A little wink from a tiny, not-so-faraway planet that isn’t always easy to spot.  OH

Nectar, Etc.

“The first day of spring is one thing,” wrote the late poet and author Henry van Dyke, “and the first spring day is another.” Such is the day that the earliest eastern tiger swallowtail glides across Carolina blue skies.

The first broods of our official state butterfly are on the move. With a wingspan up to 5 1/2 inches, this eye-catching swallowtail is recognized by its black and yellow tiger stripes and three-lobed hindwings. Most females have a low row of iridescent blue markings on their hindwings. However, they can also occur in a dark color phase, causing humans and male tiger swallowtails alike to mistake them for a different species.

Want to take a closer look? Attract swallowtails to your own garden with native pollinator plants they won’t be able to resist. And if you’re looking for suggestions, check out North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s list of native trees, shrubs and flowers here: ncwf.org/habitat/native-pollinator-plants.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Razor

A clean-cut remembrance of a gentle soul

By Tim Swink

It was on the front steps of the YMCA in a steel mill town, where I’d rented a room, that I first met him. I had followed a pretty girl who’d come south for a two-week stay at the coast back to Northeast Ohio. I was smitten. I ended up staying until the end of August, when I returned home to begin my fall semester at Guilford College.

Picking up work on a construction site as a carpenter’s helper or a laborer, the summer job for many college guys down South? No problem. But the problem here was being able to walk through the barbed-wire fences that surrounded worksites without a union membership card. After being unceremoniously asked to leave, I realized that this was a steel town where the world was hard, as were its men. Manpower Temporary Services became my employer, assigning me jobs nobody wanted to do.

After a day’s work for Manpower, I’d sit on the front steps of the YMCA, waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up so we could spend the evening together. It was on those granite steps that I first saw him. Back then, he was labeled “gimp-legged” since he walked with a very bad limp. I later learned that his leg had been crushed in an incident while working in one of those steel mills, leaving him disabled, with a meager monthly check and a room at the Y. Later on those evenings, when my girlfriend would drop me back off, a dread would fill me. As I entered the lobby and could hear shouting and curses echoing up and down the halls, I’d run up the stairs, two at a time, to my third floor room and immediately lock the door. When the noise would die down late in the night, making way for me to tiptoe down the hall to the communal bathroom, where I’d finally wash up.

The Y was a daunting place, where rough men with rough lives resided. But there was one exception: “the man on the steps.” He had a kind, gentle nature. A contradiction in the given environment. A wounded man, physically, against a backdrop of hard men and their hard living. Through evening conversations at the Y, I came to know him. I don’t recall what we talked about. And I don’t recall his name. I wish I did. He deserved that. But I felt a connection with him and I can still see him to this day, just as he looked when he’d gaze up into the soft twilight glow. He’d fixate on jets that periodically streamed across the sky. One day I heard him say to himself, “Man, I’d give anything to be on that jet, going wherever it’s going. It wouldn’t matter. Just outta here.”

During one of our evening talks, I rubbed my hand across my stubbled face and mentioned that I’d either lost or forgotten my razor. The next evening, there on the steps, he reached into his pocket and extracted a worn razor and held it out to me saying, “Here. Take this.” I resisted, but he insisted. “You need it more than I do, to stay handsome for that pretty lady.” Looking down at the razor, I noticed he’d colored the base of the handle red — to identify it, I assumed. You had to protect what was yours in the YMCA.

As I type this piece, a used razor with a red handle sits on my writing desk. A simple gesture that said so much. A remembrance of a kind, gentle man from so long ago, who wanted me to stay handsome for the pretty lady who later became my wife. The kind, gentle man who just wanted to fly away. To anywhere. I hope he did.  OH

Tim Swink resides in Greensboro and is the author of three novels: Curing Time, Madd Inlet and a sequel to Curing Time, Where the Flowers Bloomed, released in February 2024.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Spotlight on Juan Fernandez

Remembering an icon of the Greensboro theater scene and beyond

By Billy Ingram

“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”   — Tom Stoppard

I’m not remotely the right person to pen this. We weren’t close friends. I never met his wife, Lana, and hadn’t seen the guy in 50 years. But when I heard that former Page High School classmate Juan Fernandez (class of ’74, best ever!) passed away, I couldn’t let that tiptoe by unnoticed.

Let’s wayback to the 1972–73 school year, significant in part because the Vietnam War ended, 18-year-olds gained the right to vote, Bob Fosse’s Pippin debuted on Broadway and McDonald’s started serving breakfast (except on Sundays). It was also the year Page High junior Juan Fernandez, whose family moved here from Connecticut just a year earlier, unknowingly, but with an air of inevitability, began his journey as the first Black actor in Greensboro to be consistently cast in leading roles in both amateur and professional productions.

In 1973, Juan and I were both cast in Li’l Abner, a big, splashy musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, featuring one of the funniest scripts (by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) and wittiest scores (Gene De Paul with lyrics by the immortal Johnny Mercer) the Great White Way ever mounted.

At Page, as directed and choreographed by Louis Hrabovsky and Frank Holder, the show featured a 22-piece orchestra recruited from the Greensboro Symphony, costumes sewn by UNCG’s theater department, and over 50 student hoofers and belters crowding the stage. This lavish but innocently sexy, fully integrated production of Li’l Abner was an unusual theatrical manifestation for a high school at that time. More importantly, during those weeks and weeks of rehearsals in the role of Marryin’ Sam, Juan Fernandez morphed from gawky teen into a dynamic performer possessing an unmistakeable brilliance comparable to any of the mid-’70s Broadway superstars I sat in awe of. And I saw ’em all, baby. Juan absolutely demolished that Li’l Abner audience on opening night.

And 15-year-old me hated him for it!

Li’l Abner was a genuine hit, largely due to Fernandez’s infectious performance. Standing ovations, sold-out crowds every night and, in the first and only instance I’m aware of, the show was held over for an additional weekend, then booked into War Memorial Auditorium for a short run. After Abner, Fernandez dazzled local theatergoers in musical productions of Showboat, Shenandoah, Godspell and Flower Drum Song, to name but a few. His range was astonishing. Livestock Players Musical Theatre, Greensboro Youtheatre, The Broach, Carolina Theatre, Barn Dinner Theatre . . . there wasn’t a stage Juan Fernandez couldn’t rob of every last laugh or teardrop, often inhabiting pivotal roles previously portrayed primarily — if not exclusively — by white actors.

“I met Juan when he was 16 and auditioned for Sweet Charity,” says Carole Lindsey-Potter, choreographer and director for Livestock Players during the years Juan Fernandez was active there. “He got the role of Daddy Brubeck, which had the best song in the show, ‘The Rhythm of Life,’ and he brought the house down.” Lindsey-Potter recalls being the first North Carolina theater group to get rights to Pippin, a musical that saw Fernandez cast as Leading Player in the Livestock Players’ 1974 production —  “his most memorable performance.”  He was what they call a triple-threat performer: “He was a wonderfully talented actor, singer and a natural dancer. Barbara Britton cast Juan as The King in The King and I in 1976. This was long before nontraditional casting here.”

Actor-director and Page alumni Charlie Hensley notes that Fernandez “was a terrific performer and a wonderful man, always at ease on stage.” What he recalls most is Ferndandez’s star turn as Daddy Brubeck in Sweet Charity. “He went on to perform ‘The Rhythm of Life’ hundreds of times after that, all over the world. He was also amazing as the lead in The King and I with Shannon Cochran.”

Obie- and Theatre World Award-winning star of stage and screen Shannon Cochran (see my April 2023 column) recalls that staging fondly. “When Juan and I did The King and I together, I think he was very conscious of the essential misogyny written into his role and went out of his way to be gallant and attentive to me. I couldn’t move easily in a hoop skirt, but he was always there with a pad or pillow for me to sit on during breaks, always helped me off the floor — our lowly heads weren’t supposed to be higher than his! — and, additionally, he was a divine dance partner! ‘Shall We Dance’ was a dizzying, thrilling ride in his arms. Such a class act with a genuinely strong stage presence.”

Greensboro’s theater scene has spawned a multitude of African-American Broadway stars — Deon’te Goodman (Hamilton), Avilon Trust Tate (The Wiz), Chris Chalk (Fences), J. Alphonse Nicholson (A Soldier’s Play)  — who surely couldn’t have known that Juan Fernandez was first to break the color barrier onstage locally. Universally loved. Universally respected.

“I worked with him once at The Broach. He was such a nice guy and good actor,” director Michael Lilly says. “I had tried to get in touch with him about a year ago in Wilmington about a project but never got a response. Then someone said he had moved to Costa Rica. I recall hearing he was not well.” Charlie Hensley remarks how, “We usually touched base a couple of times a year, I remember thinking on his birthday recently that he’d been quiet for a while.”

After high school I hadn’t much of an opportunity to interact with Juan Fernandez, having gone away to college, summers spent out of state or touring before relocating to Los Angeles in 1978. Happily, he and I connected on Facebook before his passing last year, allowing me to finally tell him how envious I was of his ability to command the audience in Li’l Abner.

True, Juan Fernandez strut from life’s stage into the wings far too soon, but it’s the actor’s lot to leave the audience wanting more. One wonders if he ever considered or was even aware of his legacy, the trail he blazed. Unlike almost every other artistic pursuit, after the curtain falls and stage lights go dark, theater leaves behind little more than a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. In the case of Juan Fernandez, the ripples he created will reverberate well into the future, lifting and inspiring not only those he came in contact with, but also performers who, decades later, unwittingly followed his lead to achieve a level of stardom that generally skirts the first player the spotlight shines upon.  OH

Make no mistake, Billy Ingram was a showstopper as Evil Eye Fleagle in Li’l Abner, but it’s worth noting that Juan Fernandez wasn’t anywhere onstage during those scenes.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

An Unlikely Visitor

The rare sight of a western tanager

By Susan Campbell

In the Sandhills and beyond, western wanderers can occasionally be found soaring overhead, perched in the treetops or even at a feeder. Birds have wings and so they can (and do) end up anywhere. One of the most exciting parts of watching birds is that you never know who might show up.

Some birds are quite prone to vagrancy. Whether this condition is a result of wandering, getting lost or blown off course, we cannot usually say. Species that are long-distance migrants are, not surprisingly, at risk for mishaps en route. Though studied a great deal, very little about migration is understood. The fact is birds do migrate and most individuals are successful at it, allowing their genes to be passed on to the next generation.

This is not to say that those birds that end up off track are bound to stay lost forever or perish as a result of a wrong turn along the way. In fact, it’s believed that these out-of-place individuals, in some cases, represent the beginning of a range expansion for their species. Records have been kept long enough that we have documented bird populations moving into new areas of the United States.

A species that has been observed in the winter more and more frequently, well outside of its normal range, is the western tanager. This small but colorful songbird is found in the warmer months throughout most of the western U.S. in a variety of wooded habitats. They head for Mexico and Central America come fall. However, in the early ’90s, one showed up at a feeder in Wilmington and stayed — not just one winter but returned for two more. It fed on suet, shelled seeds and fruit. Since then, more than a dozen other individuals have been documented along the southern coast of North Carolina. What does this mean? It is probably too soon to tell. But bird lovers in our southeastern counties are keeping their eyes out for westerns each year.

It has been more than a decade since the first western tanager appeared in the Sandhills. But this winter, a male western tanager once again turned up in a Pinehurst yard. The hosts, being bird people, realized they had something out of the ordinary at their feeders. It was tricky seeing the necessary field marks on him given his secretive nature. All tanagers molt twice a year and happen to be drab from early fall through early spring, so identification is a bit tricky when these birds do appear in the East. Unlike our more familiar summer and scarlet tanagers, westerns have noticeable barring on their wings and are brighter yellow on their underparts. 

Interestingly, there was also a western tanager in Apex (outside Raleigh) this season. It, too, was a male, but he arrived with lots of orange and red on his head and face already — clearly an adult bird. Like the Pinehurst tanager he was rather shy at first, but within a few weeks, settled in and began strutting his stuff several times a day, enjoying mealworms and bits of fruit from the big platform feeder.

Though sightings of western tanagers are rare, it pays to be prepared with binoculars and a good field guide should something “odd” show up. The unusual is always possible, whether you are visiting a large wildlife refuge, local park, a McDonald’s parking lot or even in your own backyard.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.