Monthly Archives: June 2010

Breaking Through Concrete: Mississippi Delta

| June 25, 2010

Knowing people on a southern road trip is especially important on Sunday. That’s when the food spreads across tables like an edible flea market.

After the Hoxie situation, we had caved and slept in our first motel, the Scottish Inns of Jonesboro, AR. We wake up with a shower and head straight for Memphis and a good friend, Ellen Rolfes. There we whip up a Kansas-City-farm egg scramble with dill, spinach, and garlic shoots. We brew Sumatra coffee. Ellen, who has packaged and published numerous books celebrating southern food and its storytelling power, has buttery biscuits, a fruit salad, and an orzo dish of shrimp and dill and feta. We feast and talk, the French Open finals playing in the other room.

Highway 61 through the Delta is all about blues, corn, and soybeans.

Meanwhile, about a hundred miles south via Route 61 (aka The Blues Highway), Dorothy and Owen Gradey-Scarbrough attend church before sitting down to their own Sunday Supper. We find them after the meals have settled.

Dorothy and Owen stay beside Country Road 32, a half-mile and one left turn out of downtown Shelby. They live in a simple one-story ranch house with similar homes on either side. Yellow-green coco grass covers the front yards with the greater landscape a mono-color green of soybean or corn. This is the Mississippi Delta, home of the Harvard of high-tech agriculture research stations, Leland’s Stoneville, and to the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease in the nation.

Dorothy believes one of the answers to these communities’ health issues lies in the backyards and side-yards and churchyards. Behind the Gradey-Scarbrough’s house lives part farm, part folk art installation. On one acre, Owen and Dorothy raise rabbits (in cages suspended over a compost pile), chickens, and a few goats that climb up and down the upturned baptismal tub that welcomed both Dorothy and Owen into the church as infants.

Dorothy and Owen’s old baptismal tub acts like a podium for their goats.

Peaches, plums, apples, and pear trees offer occasional shade and their trunks support a series of life-size hip-hop celebrities (50 Cent, Beyonce, Eminem) on wood paintings salvaged from a shuttered juke joint. There are rows of okra, butter beans, squash, cucumber, spinach, watermelon, grapes, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, basil, sage. And, of course, tomatoes.

“Back in the day, you could find tomatoes out there in the cotton fields,” Owen says. “You just go pick you some tomatoes, brush it off and eat it right there. We used to pick okra in the middle of the cotton field. They’d just grow wild. Now they’re spraying this stuff and killing it out. I used to like walking through those fields.”

Dorothy and Owen, like most Delta residents over the age of 50, grew up on sharecropper farms. They chopped rows of cotton for twelve hours a day and made $3 to $12 for the work. The families never got ahead. That’s just how it worked until they started leaving for city jobs in the north.

“There was no option but to work in the fields,” Dorothy says. “That’s why a lot of people left the south – to get away from the fields.”

“To get away from this,” Owen holds out the hoe he’s been leaning on. “I did. Moved to New York and didn’t come back ‘til I met this lady.”

Listen to Owen Gradey-Scarbrough describe growing up on a farm.

Dorothy has been backyard gardening for almost twenty years. In a town as small as Shelby, people notice and people listen to someone as strong, proud, and rooted as Dorothy, especially when she speaks through the ten churches in town. But even the churches hesitated back in the mid 90s.

“The churches weren’t ready (for farming/gardening),” she says. “Our minister said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re getting away from?’ I said we’ve already gotten away from it. It’s been a lost art. I tell them now it has nothing to do with sharecropping. It’s for you. It can save you money and can make you money when you sell at market. This isn’t working in the fields. This is bettering your family and your health. People are getting into it.”

Frank Simpson and Dorothy Gradey-Scarbrough at Dorothy and Owen’s backyard garden.

And Dorothy’s ripples reach outside of Shelby. A national leader in the urban farm movement, Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power organization, has christened Dorothy and her MEGA operation (Mississippians Engaging in Greener Agriculture) as the first ROTC program in the country. What began as a gift of chickens from Heifer International to Dorothy and Shelby has become the next satellite demonstration garden for a national movement aimed at teaching individuals about backyard and community gardening.

We meet Richard Coleman, the County Supervisor, at his ranch house in town. The family crowd is just leaving from their Sunday supper – a big one since there was a birthday.

Richard shows us his plot out back – about 120 feet by 50 feet and full of okra, squash, butter beans, peas, tomatoes. “I just sit indoors in an office,” he says. “I didn’t know what sweat was. So it’s a two-fold thing for me – it provides vegetables for my family and a pastime for me. I’ve already lost ten pounds this season.

“You have to travel to Cleveland south or Clarksdale north to get what you need and that gets expensive, just with gas bills. It’s no comparison to get it right here.”

About twenty yards away, a smaller plot of the same produce thrives in a small square amid the coco grass. A dozen kids stay cool in a large inflatable pool nearby. Sean Jefferson walks over.

Sean’s 32 years old and lives in the trailer next to Richard’s home. He works at Nature’s Catch, a bass-raising plant in Clarksdale, 20 miles north. His wife and four kids stay in the trailer with his mom and step-dad. “My grandfather used to raise food. I was about 11 or 12 when I had my first garden. I try to grow one every year. I usually just shovel it out but this year I tilled it. It cost me about $7 or $8 for seeds plus one bag of fertilizer. I grew it all from seed except for the tomato plants – bought those at a nursery.”

He tends to it every day. Comes home after work and chops a little bit, does it all by himself.

Sean Jefferson gardens just like his grandfather taught him.

We visit a few other gardens. Louise, Dorothy’s sister, shares a long row with two other gardeners. She describes some of the local lingo – “choppin’” means weeding down the rows with the hoe. “Rippin’ and runnin’” means staying busy and getting things done. Nearby we see the Shiloh Baptist Church’s garden where members of the church work a rotational schedule to grow produce that’s available for pick-up from the church fridge.

And our final stop takes us to Cornelius Toole’s rambling property down in Mound Bayou, five miles south of Shelby. It’s like the backyard, down-home version of Stoneville’s “Big-Agriculture” experimental research station.

Maybe an answer to the Delta’s and the nation’s food deserts lies somewhere here among Toole’s mad-farmer-scientist laboratory of tilapia tanks, hand-built backyard irrigation pipes, chicken coops, greenhouses, and one huge, faded-green John Deere sinking into the weeds.

Dorothy at one of the experimental greenhouse operations on Cornelius Toole’s property.

Breaking Through Concrete: Hoxie’d

| June 25, 2010

“Charles T … HOXIE. Well, I’ll be damned!”

Officer Parnell has our licenses and he’s standing below the brightly lit sign that reads, “Hoxie City Hall.” Next to that sign on the same 50-foot roofline of the small brick building, another brightly lit sign, “Hoxie Police.” Silhouetted against the sky, the water tower ball spells “Hoxie” in the early night.

We had left Kansas City this morning with our sights on Hoxie, Arkansas, 360 miles away. Despite no known relations to the city’s founding fathers, Charlie wants to see if he can get anything free there via the surname on his license. Lewis Lewis burns soybean oil as he barrels between the massive square patches of soybeans and corn in central Missouri. We eat fresh arugula and cheese sandwiches and we float on our backs in the cool, muddy water at a South Grand River fishing access spot.

At the magic sunset hour we hit the Missouri and Arkansas border where the two states seem to be battling it out, bumping into each other to create a folded topography of light green meadows, dark forests, and spring-fed creeks. We drop back onto flat farmland again above Hoxie and pull into town just as the light fades to dark blue.

As my dad would say, “Blink and you’ll miss it.” Hoxie is one of those towns. I love those towns. Wouldn’t want to live in one, but I’ve had great experiences traveling through them.

Charlie is fired up. His name is everywhere – the green town marker signs, the school signs (mascot “Mustangs”), and, right here, on the City Hall and Police Station. We park Lewis Lewis along the side of the building and walk in. Charlie shows the young women behind the counter his license and they think it’s funny. We talk about our trip and they think it’s cool. I use a Flip Video to record the silliness. We leave and walk back to Lewis to cook dinner in the gravel lot.

We eat well, almost entirely sourced from greater Kansas City soil: seasoned pork sausage from Benedict Builders Farms sauteed with garlic shoots and kale from Bad Seed Farm, and spinach from New Roots for Refugees Farm. (Over quinoa from the Andes, and slapped on the backside with some brown water from Kentucky.)

Halfway through dinner, sitting quietly beside Lewis Lewis, nothing moving, Office Blake Lipscomb approaches. He’s got his Mag Light and he asks what we’re doing. Says this isn’t a campground. I can understand that and we apologize. He takes our licenses and asks us to clean up. We meet him in front of the building two minutes later and he’s called in back-up.

Here we go. We just walked into a caricature – the small-town cop who’s a bit on the Young, Dumb, and Excited (YDE) side of life and three guys cooking food beside their big, greasy short bus. I wonder, does Officer Lipscomb see this as a classic cartoon unfolding, complete with all the characters? Or are Michael, Charlie, and I the only ones watching this like a Mystery Science Theater 3000 clip?

He runs our licenses and returns double fired up. He’s got a live one, that’s what his tone and puffed-up body language say. He makes me delete the Charlie video, says we need a “news pass” to video someone.

He asks if I’ve been arrested. No. You sure. Yes. Sure about that. Well, I get where you’re going with this – you have reason to believe otherwise – but I’m fairly certain.

He asks about the Grand Theft Auto. Was that me? Yes it was, in a sense. It was someone with my same name and birthdate who has a laundry list of offenses longer than Lucky Luciano. This has happened before at border crossings. There is some minor factual difference between us, aside from the felonies and such. It’s something like he was born on my birthday but in ’77 rather than ’78. I forget and I wish I knew so I could pinpoint this when it happens again (David Scott Hanson, the legally troubled one, if you’re following the blog, send a comment and include the inconsistent detail we don’t share, please.)

So Officer Lipscomb runs it again and claims it comes up the same. Well, what can I do, it’s not me. Somehow he drops it and moves deeper into the cartoon.

“So you guys are just traaav’lin’ around, huh,” he asks in a failed attempt at accusatory condescension.

I often get annoyed and offended by the blanket characterization of small-town southern cops in Hollywood films. But this guy pulled off the bit better than any LA director could have imagined. It’s always fascinating and kind of sad when people hit their own stereotype right on the head.

We’ve explained what we’re doing already, but I give it another go. Office Lipscomb tells us that the clerk girls who had been laughing with and at us twenty minutes before had been “really freaked out by you guys. Somebody here was really freaked out by whatever was going on in there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have driven nine miles in three minutes to get here,” Lipscomb almost cries.

Finally, Lipscomb disappears into the station, unable to uncover any offenses from the cleanest veggie short bus to ever cross the country. Office Parnell, the good cop, emerges with our licenses. He’s amused by our project and suggests we go to the truck park area behind the Exxon to spend the night.

We do not hesitate at the Exxon, and red line (58-62 mph) Lewis Lewis outta Hoxie.

Vita says… Go on a Long Walk with Susan Robb and Stokley Towles.

| June 24, 2010

Did you know that you can walk from Seattle to Snoqualmie? Join artists Susan Robb and Stokley Towles for a multi-day walk to do just that. Starting in Seattle on Friday July 23 and ending at Snoqualmie Falls on Sunday July 25, this is an opportunity for a 35+ mile adventure in ‘your big backyard.’

‘An unscripted encounter with a place we think we already know,’ as Susan describes, she and Stokley invite you to help form their band of ‘trail tramps,’ a culture that will evolve as the group walks through urban and rural neighborhoods, camps in unlikely places, swims in the Tolt River and watches art films under the stars.

A support van will carry camping gear and related items, freeing you to experience the trails and the art you and your walking cohorts will be a part of. Thanks to Caffe Vita, a generous sponsor of the event, some meals will be provided.

RSVP here is required by July 5, as is attendance at a short (but necessary) informational meeting on July 7 at 4Culture.

PBS = Public Brewing School. Free Class this Saturday at Caffe Vita.

| June 17, 2010

Caffe Vita’s Public Brewing School would like to announce new upcoming sessions where you can further your knowledge of coffee brewing methods including the use of Vita Pour Over, French Press, Vacuum Pot, Bialetti and more.

PBS is a free class which takes place once a month at the Capitol Hill Caffe Vita. Andy Kent, Vita’s lead coffee trainer, has a wealth of knowledge to share about the history of the bean and the best way to brew the perfect cup. All classes from 10am – Noon.

Upcoming Class Sessions:

· Saturday, June 19th
· Saturday, July 10th
· Saturday, July 31st
· Saturday, August 21st
· Saturday, September 11th

To Register Please Contact: // 206.709.4449 *177