Archive for March, 2019

  • Blog
  • March 28th, 2019

NAP TIME

By Joel M. Vance

 

It was 1948 and my parents and I had just moved from Chicago to Dalton Missouri, a flyspeck even on Chariton County which was and is a flyspeck on the Midwest map. Going from one of the nation’s most populous cities to a town of 250 (or 249 when the town drunk was sequestered in the county jail  was culture shock of the first magnitude.

 

Few memories have survived those first days riding the school bus from Dalton to Keytesville, six miles away (although 30 miles on a long loop through the country), but one has endured painfully. It happened in the school gymnasium one night when some sadistic adult organized a boxing exhibition featuring eighth grade pugilists.

 

Heck, I knew all about boxing. I had heard Joe Louis’s title fights on the old upright Zenith radio in Chicago and knew about left jabs, uppercuts, and bobbing and weaving. Surely, even though I was scrawny, I could out quick some country bumpkin, land a few lightning jabs to the jaw, and have my hand held high by the referee. My euphoria lasted about 30 seconds because the country bumpkin apparently had not studied the pugilistic artistry of Gene Tunney and was, instead, a budding Jack Dempsey, the legendary Manassas Mauler who believed in beating opponents to a bloody pulp.

 

He pounded the snot out of me!

 

As memories go, it isn’t much except depressing, and the next couple of years before the 1940s came to an end were similarly forgettable. Possibly the most lasting memory of those two years was when our English teacher, a wizened old lady who had been teaching English since Chaucer was in elementary school, told us that a carousel, mentioned in a story we were reading, referred to a drunken bacchanalia. She pronounced it as carouse-el. The smartassed kid from Chicago raised his hand. “A carousel is a merry-go-round,” I said. Chaucer might have subscribed to her definition, but she didn’t subscribe to mine and she told me to shut up and be quiet. I refrained from pointing out that “shut up” and “be quiet” was redundant because by then even I was smart enough to realize that I was on what the other kids would have referred to as “Birdie’s shit list.”

 

Thus it was that I exited the eighth grade for high school and exited the 1940s for the decade which now, among the eight I’ve been around, is the most personally momentous. To sum it up, in the 1950s I traveled through high school, graduated, traveled through four years of college, graduated with a journalism degree, got my first salaried job, married, and became half of the parents of our first of five children. A whole lot of life experience to cram into 10 years.

 

I also spent six months active duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, learning to shoot antiquated antiaircraft guns at jet airplanes which were faster than the bullets we were supposed to launch at them. I had opted for six months active duty with six years in the reserves, as opposed to two years active duty, with four years reserve time and somehow among the graduates in ROTC (reserve officers training Corps) I got six months. The regular Army did not need troopers who were only going to be around for a short time so they taught us to shoot obsolete weapons and saved the more modern stuff (i.e. rockets) for the two year and more soldiers.

 

The Korean War ended a year after my high school graduation and thus I slipped through the crack between Korea and Vietnam (two members of our wedding party did go to Vietnam and both were seriously wounded in that needless debacle. By the time Vietnam became a matter of death over life for 50,000 young Americans I was in the National Guard and thus escaped having to spill blood for the country. It’s nothing to be proud of, a matter more of luck and timing rather than the conscientious objection of those who burned draft cards or fled to Canada. Most I can say is that I would have gone if called, but I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t have to.

 

The 1950s has been called many things, mostly describing a decade of hibernation when the country snoozed, and the president was a grandfatherly old man who seemed more like one of the guys who hung around the local coffee shop grousing about the lack of rain, and the incompetence of the government, instead of the man in charge of the country.

 

People soon forgot or overlooked the fact that Dwight Eisenhower had been the Supreme Allied Commander of the forces in Europe that ended the war against decency and he didn’t do it by being a doddering old man.  He was elected president in 1952 after having been courted by both parties. He finally came down on the side of the Republicans back in the days when Republicans often were middle-of-the-road moderates as politically different from today’s extremist ideologues as the moon is from the Pleiades.

 

By 1956 I was old enough to vote for the first time and I took great pleasure in casting my ballot for Mr. Eisenhower (no longer referred to as General Eisenhower, but only as Citizen Eisenhower), one of 30 and one half million voters who felt as I did that the old man had done a pretty damn good job for his first four years and deserved a second term. Ike won despite having suffered a serious heart attack in his first term, and despite sticking with tricky Dick as his running mate.

 

If there was a downside to Mr. Eisenhower, it was that he was saddled with Tricky Dick Nixon a, glowering and menacing politician who foreshadowed the radical right of today.  Tricky Dick had been a leader in the witchhunt for communists in the government, a political travesty spearheaded by the evil Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was the McCarthy hearings, televised in the mid-1950s that first tilted me toward the Democrats and to the liberal side of the political fence. It was impossible to watch the glowering Senator and his repulsive little sidekick Roy Cohn (who, ironically and appropriately, also later was a lawyer for today’s incarnation of McCarthy, Donald J Trump), and not imagine there was a better way to direct the country.

 

Politics in the dawning years of the 1950s was as remote from most of us callow teenagers as quantum physics. The only President for most of our lives had been Franklin Delano Roosevelt and when we thought president, we thought FDR. When he died and Harry Truman took over for the remainder of FDR’s fourth term and then unaccountably and unpredictably won reelection in 1948, Chariton County was confused, bemused and amused. The county was, and is, an admixture of Republicans and Democrats— mostly Democrats (to give you an idea of how confused Missouri was in 1956, it was the only state that went for Democrat Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower).

 

But even the Democrats were tentative when it came to the home boy in 1948, Harry S Truman. His blunt language and good old boy image left most Missouri Democrats defensive. His allegiance to Tom Pendergast, a powerbroker machine boss from Kansas City, left Democrats uneasy out in the heartland (i.e. Chariton County). The Republican minority labeled Truman a political hack and an embarrassment to the state, and the Democrats were mumbling “okay, he’s a crude bastard, but he’s our crude bastard”. When Harry threatened to lay knuckle bumps on Paul Hume, a music critic for the Washington Post, who had panned the singing of Truman’s daughter, Margaret (with good reason– she was no threat to replace Renata Tebaldi on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera) Republicans were overjoyed, and Democrats were embarrassed. Coarse or not, Truman could be deadly accurate with his profanity— he called Richard Nixon “a shifty eyed God damn liar.”

 

Harry Truman’s motto about accepting responsibility as president was “The buck stops here”. By contrast, Donald Trump’s motto seems to be “The buck stops in my bank account no matter who I have to cheat to get it”.

 

My college years, 1952 to graduation in 1956 are a jumble of memories, many involving trips to the beer joints favored by University of Missouri collegians— especially The Shack, one time hangout of Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey, and Andy’s Corner, owned by two redhaired rowdy graduates of my high school, Keytesville.

 

Political considerations barely registered on me during my college years, including a course I took in political science mostly because I thought it would be easy (which it should have been). That the instructor was perhaps the dullest lecturer in four years didn’t exactly excite my interest in politics. He may have been a Democrat because, as far as I can remember, he never gave credit to Eisenhower for negotiating a truce in the Korean War, instituting the interstate highway system, or supporting the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court ruling to end school segregation. I squeaked through the course with the lowest grade I got in any course en route to a diploma.

 

The highlight of college was meeting my wife, Marty, one time Macon high school cheerleader, queen of something or other, and perennial candidate as the most popular girl in her high school. As a confirmed GDI (those of us who abhorred frat rats and gloried in being God Damn Independents), I was entranced by the fact that Marty had first pledged and then abandoned the Tri-Delta sorority, and was living in a rooming house as a female GDI.

 

To quote Johnny and June Carter Cash in their anthem to romance “Jackson”: “We got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout.”  We blind dated in March got engaged in May and were married in September. Despite the fact that both sets of parents thought we were out of our barely post-adolescent minds, we’ve endured together for 62 years and counting and if there were any way to make that happen I’d opt for another 62 years.

 

The 1950s has been called a 10 year nap. It was the decade of conformity, the years after the tumult of World War II and before the even more tumultuous 1960s. Even my parents had spent a more dramatic decade as children of the roaring 20s. They were no strangers to speakeasies, living as they did in Chicago, the bullet riddled domain of Al Capone. By the 1930s and especially in the 1940s when I came along the country had tamed and was ready for a 10 year nap.

 

It was unspoken but expected that a young girl would marry, become a homemaker, and have children. Her spouse maybe would go to college, get a degree in something that fitted him for a salary paying job and he and his homemaker wife would buy a ranch style home, possibly in a suburb, and live out their lives. If a girl did go to college, it was to become a teacher. Those girls who didn’t go to college became beauticians. All in all, if you were a girl, it wasn’t much to look forward to but none of us knew any different.

 

Although Marty would’ve been a fine beautician, she would’ve been an even more inspirational teacher. Our parents were correct that she should have finished college, but we were young, impetuous, and immune from reality. That our marriage has worked for so long is mostly because of Marty’s forbearance and immense common sense. She has been the best teacher that five kids could have had and the proof of her teaching potential is that she has been a living example of how a good person can make the life of another person immeasurably better—the person, in this case being me even more than the five kids, because she didn’t have as much to work with.

 

Ten years later than 1950 I might have become a counterculture rebel, a disciple of Jack Kerouac, on the road, sucking on a joint and looking for trouble. Instead, the only joint I knew about was Andy’s Corner, a decrepit roadhouse south of the University of Missouri campus which served cheap beer and the only road adventure was getting there from my dorm and back again in someone else’s car— I didn’t have one and Marty and I would not have one until after we were married (we took a honeymoon trip to the Lake of the Ozarks in an Oldsmobile Super 88 borrowed from her father, the shop foreman for the Macon Oldsmobile dealer).

 

The decade of the 1950s occurred before most people living today were born and represent, at most, a chapter in their school history book, not a living experience. Maybe it was a 10 year nap. Maybe it was a decade when the country slumbered, largely without war without deprivation without any of the ills that seem to pervade the nation today. There were large problems that would surface in the 1960s and beyond and some would be somewhat solved, many still exist today.

 

It was the decade when the nation slept according to people who weren’t there. It was a decade when Marty and I lost innocence, the decade when we gained responsibility.

 

I think I’ll take a nap.

 

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  • Blog
  • March 22nd, 2019

LEMONADE WITH YOUR MACHINE GUN, SIR?

By Joel M. Vance

 

Just when you thought politics couldn’t get any crazier—wait, wait— it’s a waste of time to think that, because it’s a given that politics always will get crazier, especially in today’s environment where the political climate has heated up far more drastically than the actual weather climate.

 

For example the Texas House has passed a bill legalizing lemonade stands run by children. Thank God, we finally are saved from those streetcorner speakeasies run by shady five-year-old mobsters. And, the United States Secretary of State believes that it is possible that Donald J Trump has been sent by God to protect the Jewish people from their enemies— especially the Iranian menace. Now, if we can only get God to protect the American people from Donald Trump and idiots like Mike Pompeo we also might be saved.

 

 A Missouri legislator, Andrew McDaniel, a representative from the Missouri Bootheel, has introduced a bill which would require male Missourians between the ages of 18 and 34 to acquire within one year an AR 15. That this came on virtually the same day as a massacre of 50 New Zealand Muslims by a nutcase using an AR 15 is horrifying enough. Perhaps McDaniel meant the bill as an ironic joke, an attempt to spotlight the prevalence of automatic weapons in our guns saturated culture, but if it was a joke it was in poor taste to begin with and given the coincidence of it with the New Zealand massacre, it is a farcical disaster. If it wasn’t a joke, it’s a frightening reminder of just how bottomless the degradation of the political process has become.

 

McDaniel also introduced a companion bill to require all residents who are legally allowed to own a handgun and who are more than 21 years old buy and keep one. It even includes a tax credit to be used toward the purchase of the gun.  McDaniel claims that he intends the bill as a joke to call attention to what he considers too many government mandates. As a joke it ranks right up there with jokes about the Holocaust. The joke, if any, is that voters would be stupid enough to elect a clown like McDaniel.

 

McDaniel, from Deering, is a Republican—no surprise there. He is or was a deputy sheriff in Pemiscot County and among his other duties in the Missouri legislature he is on the crime prevention and public safety committee. Doesn’t that make you want to sleep well tonight? Among bills he has introduced is one to designate July 20 as Mormon War Remembrance Day. The Mormon war, in case you want to look it up, was an1838 conflict between anti-Mormons and Mormon settlers in northwest Missouri which resulted in governor Lilburn Boggs issuing an executive order demanding the Mormons leave Missouri or be killed.

 

Perhaps we can expect Donald J Trump, the Executive Disorderer In Chief, to use Boggs’ precedent to issue an executive order mandating that all southern border immigrants immediately leave or be killed. Don’t count it out. Trump already is mumbling about authorizing volunteer border patrolees and there are no doubt are plenty of AR 15 toting militia types who would be more than willing to shoot a few Guatemalan or Ecuadoran refugees in the name of Ammurican values.  Statistics, which many equate to damn lies, indicate that almost 100% of hate crimes are committed by American citizens, not by immigrants, illegal or otherwise. The Hatemonger in Chief warns us that rapists and murderers and dope peddlers are invading the United States from the south. His words are eerily similar to those used by the New Zealand shooter in his so-called manifesto, posted online for all to read before he started pulling the trigger. When the president of the United States begins echoing a mass murderer, it’s way past time to worry about the health of the nation’s political system.

 

Understand, I am a gun owner, with a dozen of different gauges, calibers, and uses. I believe in the legitimate ownership of guns, both for hunting and for target shooting (which can be challenging and great fun). No one should object to a background check unless they have something to hide. No one should be able to buy a gun from other than a licensed gun dealer. I’m ambivalent about having to register guns, although along with everyone else, I have no quarrel with having to register my automobile. But gun registration does seem to be an intrusion into privacy, although if it proves helpful or useful in the prevention of gun related crime, I would have trouble arguing against it.

 

A few days ago the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Remington can be sued over how it markets the semi automatic that was used to kill 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. It seems to me that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent— why couldn’t you for example sue an auto manufacturer? Cars kill far more people than guns do. I suppose the argument is that cars are not manufactured with murder in mind whereas guns can be considered to have a purpose only to take life. Still, it’s a troubling court ruling and one, I’m sure, that makes gun manufacturers queasy.

 

Donald Trump, the White Nationalist Enabler in Chief, says that he doesn’t see any rise in white nationalism, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” he said. In other words, no big deal to Trump. On the other side of the world a deranged white nationalist said that Donald Trump is “a symbol of white identity and common purpose.” He added that he didn’t see Trump as a leader, an opinion that, whatever else anyone thinks of the nutcase, a thinking person can agree with.  He is not, in the traditional sense of the word, a leader— he is an agitator and if he leads in anything it is to urge the mob toward the gallows to lynch yet another innocent citizen. He leads by fear, not by hope, inspiration or aspiration. He leads in the same sense that the devil leads the gullible toward temptation and sin.

 

Trump is unlikely to outlive his description of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville a year ago as “very fine people” except in the narrow minds of his white supremacist followers. The New Zealand murderer also opined that “taxation is theft” and one is reminded that Donald Trump has done his level best to minimize his tax obligation by devaluing his assets at tax time, but also inflating them when he applies for bank loans, making himself at various times poor or rich depending on what he wants out of the situation.

 

The Missouri bill, one would hope, has absolutely no chance of passing— McDaniel himself admits it has no chance of passing.  It probably will not make it out of committee hearings. But the Missouri legislature, a cesspool of mentally challenged and unaccountably elected representatives, is capable of almost any legislative indignity.  After all they installed a bust of Rush Limbaugh, the epitome of hate incitement, among the fellow busts of deserving famous Missourians. Limbaugh predictably has reacted to the New Zealand shooting by suggesting that it was a liberal who did it in order to call attention to himself. He smirkingly qualified the idea by saying that it was “…. An ongoing theory that the shooter himself may in fact be a leftist who writes a manifesto and then goes out and performs the deed purposely to smear his political enemies, knowing he’s going to get shot in the process.” And then he dives right in by adding “You know you just can’t— you can’t immediately discount this. The left is this insane. They are this crazy.”

 

It’s tempting to say “No, Rush, you are this crazy.” But Rush is not crazy—he knows exactly what he’s doing which is to stir up the lynch mob to a killing frenzy. It’s what he does. It’s what Trump does. It’s what they do and they will keep doing it as long as they can get away with it.

 

They are the spiritual heirs of such historical rabble-rousers as the 1940s version of Rush Limbaugh, ordained priest Father Coghlan, who bombarded radio audiences with such quotes as “When we get through with the Jews in America,  they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” H.L. Mencken who was a bit of a demagogue himself, summed up demagoguery by saying “The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

To prove that Missouri’s legislators are not alone in their overwhelming ignorance, New Zealand senator Fraser Anning blamed not the mass murderer, but his victims saying, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” So, even New Zealand, an oasis of tranquility in a world of unease, has its spokesperson for racial and religious intolerance.

 

Let’s just take it as a given that this elected official is a dangerous nutcase and give thanks that he lives thousands of miles away from me and you. But he is symptomatic of far too many of those who supposedly represent the common good. We have a president who claims that we are being invaded by dangerous criminals from Central America and Mexico, many of whom are women and children, including babies in arms. It’s difficult to visualize a two-year-old toting an AR 15 intent on massacring defenseless southwestern citizens.

 

Sometime, if you’re in a mood to rub your nose in offal, check into Facebook and see some of the postings in response to such outrages as the Sandy Hook massacre. More than one anonymous cancer cell in the human gene pool has claimed that it never happened. And there were those who claimed that the brave student survivors of the Parkland high school bloodbath were paid actors. Already, there have been postings, in support of the New Zealand gunman, lauding him as some sort of defender of the right… The extreme far right where lurk the dangerous crackpots who are a danger, not just to their many and fantasy enemies, but to society in general.

 

I’ve always had a yen to visit New Zealand for its outdoor glory. It is from what I know as close to a pristine environment for an outdoor person as anywhere in the world, saved from exploitation by the mere fact that it is so far from anywhere else—protected by its very isolation from the inroads that have desecrated so much of the natural environment, for example, in the United States. (Today comes the news that the Trump administration plans to lay bare millions of acres of wildlife habitat for oil and gas exploration). Daily there are news stories about yet another erosion of environmental protection. If we thought James Watt and Anne Gorsuch were environmental threats (and they were), in the immortal words of Al Jolson, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Ryan Zinke was so egregiously corrupt as director of the Department of Interior that he was forced to resign but it only meant that Trump shuffled another environmental heathen into the post and nothing has changed. Nothing will change until the entire band of brigands is booted out into the obscurity they so richly deserve.

 

New Zealand has the kind of hunting and fishing that outdoor types daydream about, well aware that they never will afford to experience it. Some few blow their retirement budget on a dream trip so they can spend their retirement years in semi-poverty reliving the experience. Possibly a few people actually emigrate to New Zealand to live and hunt where there are no bag limits and, for example, you can hunt in national parks. It would be a fitting sort of justice if Fraser Anning were forced to emigrate to someplace, say, like Somalia, a Muslim country, where white folks in general and especially white nationalist types are not among the most popular immigrants.

 

And wouldn’t it be nice if he’d take Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump along with him?

 

 

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  • Blog
  • March 15th, 2019

CRUNCHING THE SWEET GRASS

By Joel M. Vance

          Is it singular ….or are they plural? 

            Doesn’t matter—just say, “I love molasses.  They’re good.  Er, it’s good.  Never mind, just pass ‘er here!”

 

            There are few kitchens left where molasses reside(s), fewer still where the country sweetener was home processed.  The first time I saw molasses being made was more than 40 years ago.  It was a steaming day in September and an antique molasses mill shuddered and groaned as it pressed the sap out of sorghum stalks.  A haze of insects hovered over the sap vat, occasionally falling into it to drown in bliss.

 

            Yes, your grandma’s molasses likely was part insect.  Yellowjackets were especially fond of the saccharine sap and often committed insectival suicide, doing a one and a half gainer into the burbling syrup.

 

            Technically sorghum is not molasses which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets…but trying convincing the farmer who has been making “sorghum molasses” just like his daddy and grandfather did.  Sweet sorghum is an introduced grass, brought here from Africa to extend sugar production farther north than sugar cane which grows only in warm climates.

 

            But the chemistry of sweet sorghum is such that it doesn’t crystallize into sugar so the sap from the stalks becomes a viscous syrup—sorghum molasses or, as Missourians are wont to say “’lasses.”  Making molasses has many similarities to making maple syrup.  First you start with a thin sap and you boil that until it reaches syrup consistency.

 

            Traditionally you’d pour sorghum syrup over fresh, hot cornbread or scratch biscuits (“scratch” biscuits are from raw materials and the term comes from historic boxing where a scratched line denoted the starting position at the beginning of a bout).  Sorghum-drizzled biscuits on a frosty November morning, coupled with country-cured ham and eggs still warm from a hen’s bosom is a country dish hard to beat. 

 

BASIL, BELL PEPPER AND JACK CHEESE CORNBREAD

            This comes from my friend Jim Low who loves to cook in a Dutch oven, another old-timey culinary exercise. 

Ingredients:

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped fresh basil (optional)

1¾ cups cornmeal

3 eggs

1¼ cups flour                                                 

1 tablespoon sugar

2 ounces diced red bell pepper                                  

1 tablespoon baking powder

1½ cups grated pepper jack cheese                            

 ½ teaspoon baking soda

1⅓ cups canned or frozen corn, drained                                

1½ teaspoon salt

½ cup unsalted butter, chilled and cubed                  

1½ cups buttermilk

1 pound bacon, fried & crumbled

 

Preparation:

            Melt one tablespoon butter and sauté onions until tender.  Set aside to cool.  In a large bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar.  Add seven tablespoons of butter and rub into the flour/meal mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal.  In a small bowl, whisk milk and eggs together.  Add to dry ingredients and stir until blended.  Fold in cheese, corn, peppers, basil, bacon and onion.  Transfer to Dutch oven.  Bake in a 12-inch Dutch oven at 400° for 45 minutes. 

            The “Three Up / Three Down = 325 Degrees” Rule: For a 10” Dutch oven, you’d have 13 coals on top and 7 underneath. Some cooks prefer “two up / two down,” or 12 on top and 8 below. A good rule of thumb for the total number of coals or briquettes is to double the number of the oven size and then use the “three up / three down” principle.

            Oven Size Number of Coals

 

10”                12 – 13 on top with  8 -7 under

12”                14 – 15 on top with  10 –   9 under

14”           16 – 17 on top with  12 – 11 under

 

 

           Two briquettes provide 25 degrees of heat; add briquettes on top or bottom to adjust heat.  To estimate the temperature of your Dutch oven, use your open palm near the oven counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, ….” (a count of: 6 – 8 seconds = 250 – 300 degrees, a “slow” oven; 4 – 6 seconds = 350 – 375 degrees, a “moderate” oven; 2 – 3 seconds = 400+ degrees, a “quick” or “sharp” oven.  For baking bread, rolls, cakes, etc., use the “two-thirds” method. That is, work with heat on top and bottom for two-thirds of the cooking time, the remainder of the time with heat only on top to finish baking.

           Preheating the oven for 10 minutes with the lid on will help prevent sticking.

 

Charcoal Placement

 

            Under the oven, space the coals evenly around the outer edge of the

oven with only one or two coals in the center.  On the lid, again, space

the coals evenly around the

outer edge with a couple of coals on each side of the handle. 

 

            Another country dish, especially during World War Two when sugar was rationed, is moonshine—white lightnin’ to George Jones fans. I don’t have a recipe for that, but once did smell a jar of white lightnin’ offered as evidence in a trial I was covering for the Montgomery, Alabama, Journal and the smell alone nearly knocked me on my butt. I don’t know if the active ingredient was sorghum or not but neither the judge nor I was inclined to find out. As a matter of fact he told the defendant, “The worst punishment I could think of would be to make you drink it.”

 

            Related to milo, a more familiar Missouri crop, sweet sorghum is one of two varieties raised in the Show-Me State: sweet and grain.  Audrain County where I used to work is the state’s top producer of grain sorghum with 1.3 million pounds in 2007, well ahead of second place New Madrid in the Bootheel.  Other producers are scattered all over the state: Livingston, Mississippi, Callaway, Boone, Jasper, Shelby, Pemiscot and Monroe.

 

            In 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri ranked seventh nationally in grain sorghum production, behind No. 1 Kansas (twice as much as second place Texas), Louisiana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma.  Those states produce virtually all the sorghum raised in the country.

 

          But those figures are for what you feed to cows, not hungry families.  Sweet sorghum is the source of syrup and also, if researchers at the University of Missouri have their way, a source of biofuel.  The drawback is the tall grass’s intolerance for cold weather.  Gene Stevens, an agronomist with the University Extension Service in Portageville, says, “It can yield as much ethanol as corn with less nitrogen and water; returns nutrients to the soil; and uses less energy in the ethanol production process.”

 

          The problem with sweet sorghum for biofuel is mechanical—equipment to harvest and process the stalks efficiently.  “The infrastructure for corn already is in place,” Stevens says.  Sweet sorghum has about four times the energy yield of an equivalent amount of corn, the current sweetheart plant of the ethanol industry.  It produces about eight units of energy for each unit used to produce it—in other words, a very energy-efficient source of fuel. 

 

          The current drawback, of course, is that there’s a whole lot more corn than there is sweet sorghum—that and the fact that corn has a much wider range than does sorghum.  Unless machinery can be invented or developed to do to sorghum what a cornpicker does to corn, the dream of a sorghum-fueled car may not pay off.  Just have to keep eating sorghum ‘lasses instead…..

 

          Today few farmers still mill and bottle their own sorghum ‘lasses, but one communal farm in northeast Missouri has thrived on it as a cash crop.  Sandhill Farm describes itself as “an egalitarian intentional community.”  It has been in existence since 1974 and is a remnant of hippie counterculture. The farm’s web site sandhillfarm.org has photos and information about the plant and syrup making process, as well as the other products raised and offered by the commune.

 

          A quart of sorghum went for $11 when it was available, making the 800-gallon/year crop worth more than $35,000.  It has been Sandhill Farms biggest single income source but currently it is\are unavailable through at least 2019.  Completely organic, Sandhill Farm sorghum avoided whatever perils lurk within processed sugar and had been widely available in Missouri supermarkets. The gathering and processing had become a social event (as traditional sorghum millings were), with friends and neighbors gathering to help out.

 

          Sorghum processing is labor-intensive.  The stalks in the field have to be beheaded and stripped of leaves.  Then they’re cut with a machete (what oldtimers call a corn knife) and left to cure in the field—the starches in the stalk convert to sugar over several days of curing. The cured stalks go through a mill or press which squeezes the juice into a vat which then is cooked down to syrup consistency, bottled and sold or used at the Farm. 

 

            Sorghum is African in origin, considered one of the top five cereal grains in the world, along with wheat,  It came to this country via slaves in the early 1600s and has been a source of country sweetener since the mid-1800s. Sweet sorghum is hardy and grows in environments hostile to other row crops especially hot and dry areas. The ability to endure harsh conditions makes it far more viable as a source of biofuel than corn— anyone who has driven by a cornfield in fierce summer weather and seen the plants spikey and burned brown by the harsh sun knows what drought can do to corn crop.  Sweet sorghum also needs less water than corn and less fertilizer.

 

          Sweet sorghum and grain sorghum are two different crops. Grain sorghum, far more common, is grown on an estimated 100 million acres worldwide.  Many confuse molasses from sweet sorghum with the molasses made from sugar cane an entirely different sweet syrup.  Sugar cane goes through three boilings to arrive at what is known as blackstrap molasses which is considered a health food. And while it may be good for you, blackstrap molasses is a far cry from the more agreeable flavor of sweet sorghum molasses.

 

            At its peak early in the last century the country produced 20 million gallons of sorghum syrup annually, but now the figure is a million gallons, most in southern states—Missouri is not among the eight leaders, although Iowa is.  Texas and Florida are warm enough that farmers can raise two crops a year and sweet sorghum is such an agreeable crop that the first crop actually seeds the second, a self renewal almost unique in today’s intensive agriculture.

 

          Having said all this about sorghum lasses, I have to confess that I don’t much like it (them) and when it comes time to decorate a biscuit, whether made from scratch or from a can that you bang on the edge of a counter until it explodes, I use honey. Honey has medicinal uses also. I recall from my croupy days as a sickly little kid my mother mixing honey with a little bourbon whiskey as a throat soother.

 

         It may have been a folk remedy, not endorsed by the American Medical Association, but I no longer suffer from croup.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • March 8th, 2019

HUNTING FOR YESTERDAY

 

 By Joel M. Vance

7

                It was the noon break from an unsuccessful pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on a camp stove.

 

                This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cutbanks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of my tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.

 

                Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.

 

                I used my spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a Tyrannosaurus relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.

 

                And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.

 

                A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a watermelon.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps rifle bullet or possibly even earlier to a Sioux hunter’s arrow.

 

                Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, it was the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871. 

 

                But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear the path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.  A stampeding herd of bison would instantly reduce a new barbed wire fence to a rancher’s bad dream.

 

                By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow and arrow or perhaps from a single shot trade musket.  At least in that case it would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of a European interloper who left it to rot.

 

                But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.

 

                As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.

 

                No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.

 

                Charlie held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  The artist in Charlie appreciated props (he once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.

 

                I mostly forgot about the skull, back in the reality of work and far from the gully  where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me a watercolor painting.  The painting is of our skull in a snowdrift with a sprig of dormant prairie grass poking through an eye socket.  Cold weather seemed to trigger the artistic impulse in Charlie. After another snowstorm he came in the office with a chalk drawing of a woolly mammoth which he had captioned “the new Ice Age dawns”.

 

                The framed bison painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.  The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”

 

                Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  From millions, market hunters and thrill shooters nearly wiped them out.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.

 

                For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as the thrill shooters of the bison.  Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that pioneers slaughtered in numbers to rival the tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.

 

                Now there are 18 states with declining populations of greater prairie chickens, but Kansas is tops among six states with a population sizable enough to be hunted.   I hunted prairie chickens for more than 20 years, off and on, until I finally killed one in north-central Kansas.  It smacked of shooting one of the last bison and having done it, I’ll stick to hunting pheasants from here on out.

 

               As a sporting outing, it was far from other prairie hunts I’ve taken where bagging a bird involved walking endless miles. It was more in the spirit of European driven pheasant shoots where gunners are stationed comfortably armed while beaters flush birds—normally pheasants— over them and they take passing shots. That’s basically what I was doing, minus the beaters and an obliging servant to load my gun for me. I stood beside a telephone pole waiting for an influx of prairie chickens coming to feed near dusk. They sailed over the distant swales, visible hundreds of yards away, heading for the field where I lurked.

 

                  Prairie chickens fly far swifter than they appear to be doing. I missed several shots before I finally connected and watched with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness as the bird catapulted into the crop stubble 30 yards from me. I picked it up, smoothed its feathers, and realized that my decades long  quest was ended. Even though it was a trophy long sought after, I gave no consideration to having it mounted because to me a mounted bird no matter how dramatic the acquisition is no more than an artificial representation of the real thing and no more than something else to collect dust. Better to admire my memories than some stuffed creature.

 

                Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves.  Once Kansas entered into the pheasant war, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks just below South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.

 

                 Bison did not become extinct and exist today in carefully managed herds, but no longer do they roam freely across the diminishing stretches of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie. The estimate is there are some half-million bison in North America, up from a low of an estimated 1000 animals in the late 1800s. That is less than one percent of the population that existed when the first wagon trains rumbled across the Western states.

 

                I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.

 

                And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull

 

                It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.

-30-

 

 

 

 

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  • March 1st, 2019

no fish were harmed in the writing of this blog

By Joel M. Vance

 

The great movie “A River Runs Through It” was on television the other night and, as usual, I had to watch it. But, as usual, I waited for the closing credits in order to yell at the television set when the disclaimer at the very end popped onto the screen “No fish were harmed or killed in the making of this movie.”

 

“What’s the matter with you people!” I screamed, amid a flurry of epithets. “What if Jesus, instead of feeding the multitude with the loaves and fishes, had caught and released the fish, leaving only loaves?” According to Matthew in the Bible Jesus fed a multitude of 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. Ignoring the fact that they must’ve been awfully big fish, Jesus also said and according also to Matthew, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

 

Today, the politically correct mantra—not according to either Jesus or Matthew— is “catch and release”. It’s considered the sporting thing to do. And even if the honorably stupid disclaimer in “A River” were not enough, the producers felt obligated to add that Norman MacLean, the author of the book from which the movie was made, and his family ate the fish they caught, but that today’s fly fisherman release the fish they hook and land.

 

As I was simmering down from my outrage at the movie’s disclaimer, I remembered the words of Norm Strung, my late friend, mentor, and hero who lived on the banks of Cottonwood Creek, a trout stream outside Bozeman, Montana. Norm once invited me to fish in his little stream for brook trout. I said something about whether I should release the fish I caught and Norm said, “keep ‘em. We eat ‘em.” And keep them I did, and we ate them. They were delicious.

 

I have nothing against the concept of catch and release, except when it is carried to the extreme. We are predator animals and fish are prey. Fish constitute the healthiest wild food available to us predators and there is nothing more agreeable to the human digestive system than a fish diet. Ignore for a moment, the reality that all too often fish are contaminated by human waste product and therefore are not as healthy as fish that have not been poisoned by mercury, pollution or any of the myriad contaminants with which we have adulterated the natural world.

 

Understand, I have no quarrel with the concept of catch and release. There are circumstances under which not keeping fish to eat is admirable and necessary. If a fish population is imperiled there is an obvious need to conserve. Years ago, my wife, Marty, and I rafted the Grand Canyon and fished along the way. Somebody hooked a humpback chub on a fly. It’s an endangered species, not really an edible fish anyway, and we immediately released it. But a teenager on the trip caught a large rainbow trout and Norm Strung (the very same eat ‘em Strung) baked the fish at our gravel bar campsite that night and we all shared in eating it and no one gave passing thought to the idea that the proud kid should have released the fish. It was delicious.

 

For me the highlight of the “River runs” movie was near the end when the Brad Pitt character is fly fishing, hooks a mammoth rainbow trout, manages to hang onto it as he is washed through a series of rapids, and returns triumphantly holding it up, to show his father and brother. The balletic symmetry of the fly line as he lays out a long cast is beauty to behold. It even was the illustration for the movie’s promotional posters.

 

But Brad Pitt had nothing to do with that memorable cast. It was dubbed in by Jason Borger, the son of famed fly angler Gary Borger. Brad Pitt may be able to charm the ladies, but Jason Borger charms the fish. Anyway, I have been a fly fisherman since my teenage years when my father, for some reason, (a lifelong angler, he tended toward casting reels armed with 20 pound test braided line) acquired a Shakespeare fiberglass fly rod and a desire to learn how to use it.

 

Fiberglass long since has been supplanted by carbon fibers and other exotic materials far superior to fragile fiberglass. Traditionally, anglers used split bamboo rods that today cost more than the national debt and now are far more suited to museums than they are to rough handling on blue ribbon trout streams. You are most likely to see an angler armed with a bamboo fly rod gently releasing the fish he hooks and also using barbless hooks to boot.

 

I learned to fly fish after a fashion, using that fiberglass pole that had all the resiliency of a reinforcing rod. Let’s say that over the years more than 90% of the fish I have caught have been bluegills or other sunfish or occasionally largemouth bass. That is my father’s legacy. There is a photo of him on the shore of the Macon Lake with his fiberglass rod pitching a popping bug to the edge of the shoreline weed bed. He was fishing for bluegills. I came to trout late in life and with better equipment but bluegills remain my favorite fish, both on the end of a fly leader and sizzling in a frying pan.

 

It’s not difficult for me to catch and release trout because I’m not overly fond of them for eating. Salmon, however, are a fish of a different flesh color and one of my long held dreams is to fly fish for salmon in Arctic waters where they proliferate. I have caught salmon but always on casting rod and reel. I did fish for Atlantic salmon in Maine on one of the legendary salmon rivers there where anglers sit on bankside benches like substitutes on an athletic team waiting to go into action. The active angler has a certain amount of time to fish before returning to the end of the bench and the first substitute angler jumps into action. My time in the water, while it was exhilarating, was fruitless—although I did see a silvery fish leap clear of the water in midstream, a sight to set my sweetbreads thumping.

 

And I did partake of a glorious Atlantic salmon dinner at the home of Jim and Sylvia Bashline who had caught the fish during one of their many trips to Canadian salmon waters. Jim invited me to loft a fly into the fabled trout waters of Spruce Creek, a few feet from their home in Pennsylvania and I made one cast. A hefty trout (Jim scattered food on his stretch of stream which did tend to keep the trout at home) smashed into the fly at the end of Jim’s borrowed rod and, as if I were setting the hook in a 12 pound channel cat, I snapped the fly off. “Well,” said Jim, “Time for a before dinner cocktail.” And that was the end of my fly fishing on one of the fabled chalk streams beloved by equally fabled angling writers. Back to bluegills for me.

 

Fly fishing can become as complicated as quantum physics if you let it. My dad was content to learn enough about it to place a popping bug delicately enough to tempt a bluegill (and there is nothing delicate about bluegill fishing–a bluegill in the mood will hit anything thrown in the water short of a concrete block). But the Salmonid family angler can become so consumed with the arcane aspects of the sport that he or she will learn enough Latin insect names as to become qualified to conduct a Catholic mass.

 

My guru along those lines is the late John Voelker (whose pen name was Robert Traver), a wonderful writer and author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout angler from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (known as a Yooper) whose advice on choosing a fly was that he invariably used “a little bitty brown thing.” That attitude puts a hex on Hexagenia and the myriad of other Latin names for insects. Limit me to one all purpose fly, from bluegills to tarpon and I’ll choose a woolly bugger. The most delightful variation of this universal bug imitation is the charmingly named Bitch Creek nymph.

 

Once I spent an entire day drifting the Madison River casting a Bitch Creek nymph, letting the current carry it theoretically past thousands of trophy trout. I caught exactly one fish–a whitefish with a mouth turned down, looking remarkably like a muddy Missouri River sucker. If only I had one of those little bitty brown things!

 

Some trout anglers claim you only need a number 12 Adams while others swear by a Royal Coachman as the go-to fly of choice. My late friend, lefty Kreh, possibly the greatest fisherman in history, invented what has come to be called Lefty ‘s Deceiver, a fly so versatile it will catch everything (including, in my case, my right earlobe).

 

All these flies have one thing in common.  They have hooks. Some purists use barbless hooks which allow easier catch and release than barbed ones. And that brings us back to “A River Runs Through It” (the movie, not the book) which the producers in their wimpy disclaimer were quick to assure us did not use hooks in the fishing scenes; instead they carefully tied fishing line to the lower lip of the supposedly hooked trout under the watchful supervision of the Humane Society.

 

Obviously us fish eating anglers have been doing it all wrong. Instead of using a fly line tipped with a barbed hook, we could have been learning to lasso fish.  So, in a sort of piscatorial rodeo, we could cast a lovely fly line over a feeding trophy trout, gently tighten the loop around its lower jaw, carefully (without in any way injuring the fish or offending the Humane Society) play it to the net, admire its sleek symmetry, murmur an apology to Norman MacLean, and offer an uplifted middle finger to the Humane Society.

 

And then take the fish home and eat ‘im.

 

 

 

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