Thursday, January 27, 2011

Banjovinate Your Soul

Hillbilly music? Pickin' and grinnin'? For years, the sounds of the banjo have been associated with the music that formed within the Appalachian mountains with the Scottish Irish immigrants known to the rest of the world as bluegrass. But there is much more to the sounds of this instrument and how it wound up so far up on the hills in the first place.

The banjo, or "banjar", "banjil", "banza", "bangoe", "bangie" and finally "banshaw", is an instrument invented by the early African and brought over to America during the slave trades. The instrument had it's start in America playing blues and what would be the earliest forms of jazz known as Trad Jazz which was renamed Dixie in the 60's when modern jazz would evolve.

So how in the world did it make it up to the mountains and become such a prominent
instrument with what we call bluegrass today? Like every other kind of music that came to be within America, you can slap yet another gold star on the black man for throwing his hat into the ring.

During the early 1900's and before we could lay railroad track down with machines, black men did most of the work on the rail roads. These men were called Gandy Dancers and they brought with them their music as well as their instruments to the mountains laying tracks over and through the hills. This would be where the legend of John Henry comes from as well as the song made popular by the Gandy Dancers.

The Sottish Irish settlers had their own music which came straight from Europe. They heard the Gandy dancers and became infatuated with the rhythms of the work songs as well as the sounds of the banjo. And there you have it. The thing that makes America that great melting pot serving up a big bowl of bluegrass music which would later turn into country music.

For whatever reason, bluegrass has been sweeping the nation. It began with the success of Alison Krauss in the early 90's and has been picking up steam ever since launching artists like Cadillac Sky, Mumford and Sons and now the hybrid of rock and bluegrass, the Decemberists.

Like young rock and roll artists, there are now young progressive bluegrass players out there winning awards and leading the way to a new but yet, old style of music.

One of these players is a young man from Tyler, Texas by the name of Matt Menefee. A twenty eight year old kid with lightening fast fingers that you can't even see when he picks his banjo. Me being a kid from the 80's, the only thing I can compare him to would be the insanity of Eddie Van Halen.

Matt grew up in Artesia which is in the Southeastern part of New Mexico. When he was thirteen years old, he moved to Tyler with his mom and dad, Randall and LouAnn Menefee.

His musical influences can be attributed to his grandfather who was a bluegrass guitar picker. His grandfather had a friend that played banjo who would join him on front porch jam sessions which Matt became infatuated with at a very early age. So much so that the word I get down at Cliff's Barber Shop is that Matt didn't care much for school. His priorities were music, music and more music. A priority that paid off getting him a scholarship at Tyler Junior College and another one from Belmont which is in Nashville. He took the TJC gig for a while until Bryan Simpson formed Cadillac Sky in 2002 putting a young bunch of boys on the road and soon signing with the Ricky Skaggs family label.

In 2010, they would hit it big and land an opening slot touring with Mumford and Sons from England who are sweeping the nation as well as the rest of the world. 

It never ceases to amaze me what becomes popular music and when I really like it, It helps me to believe that there is actually hope for real art.

I mentioned in another blog about my best musical experiences. It is rare that a musician will tell you that their best musical experience was on a stage. It's always something that happens on the spur of the moment and is never planned. A spontaneous moment that leads into sheer ecstasy and is very rarely seen by the public. You're about to see and hear one of those moments. An alley jam session between Cadillac Sky, King Charles and Mumford and Sons that someone caught on video just by chance.

Enjoy the jam session and go support some real music.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Deer Camp Venison Stew

In 2009, Hurricane Ike would barrel through Texas and wreak havoc bringing flooding rains and 110 mile per hour winds. Even folks in East Texas couldn't get out the way as the trees in my back yard were almost laying down due to it's strength.

After the storm, I received a phone call from my panic stricken mother that they were without electricity and I had to come immediately to power up the freezer. Not the air-conditioner. Not the lighting. The freezer.

To give you some background, this freezer holds what I would estimate to be at least twenty thousand dollars worth of game that my father has killed. Is the meat worth that? By the time you factor in the leases, the shells, the dogs, the trailers, the training and the time, I'm probably under estimating the number.

Over the years, my mother has become what I would call a highly practiced Doctor of Freezology. As the game came in, she had to immediately figure out new and creative ways of keeping it without developing freezer burn. With such a highly developed skill set as this, I would wager that there may be some quail  in that freezer from as far back as 1975. I joke with my father all the time as I believe that when he dies, she'll freeze him as well. We can take him out over the holidays and sit him up in a chair as long as he's not too close to the fire place.

The issue for most women is what to do with all this meat so when I received a call from Leigh Vickery that she would like to do a father son piece in the paper featuring Homer who also loves to cook, the meal choice was obvious to me.

This is a deer camp stew that uses deer meat. Now I know that some of you are already turning up your nose as you may not care for the taste of venison which is why you probably have so much of it turned into sausage.

However, this recipe uses a lot of herbs and spices that cut through the meat yielding a nice hot flavorful stew for such cold evenings as we've been having lately.

Deer Camp Venison Stew

6 Tbs olive oil, divided in half
2 lbs venison tenderloin cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp ground cumin, divided in half
2 large white onions, cut in 8 pieces each
5 cups of beef stock
3 cups of water
4 cloves garlic, minced
9 medium sized red potatoes, cut in half
4 ears of corn, cut into fourths
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat 3 Tbs of the oil in your favorite stew pot. Stir-fry meat with 1 tsp garlic powder and 1 tsp ground cumin browning your meat. Remove meat from the pot and place to the side. Add remaining oil and add onion and tsp of cumin. Cook until onion is nice and soft. Add all remaining ingredients as well as meat into the pot and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours stirring occasionally. Add beef stock when needed. Serve with flour tortillas.

Note: This is deer meat and it's always lean which means you'll need to stew it more.
You'll want that meat to fall apart and the more you simmer it, the more tender it will become.

I would serve this with a nice Merlot. Milk for you Homer.
Above image taken from the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Photos by Christopher R. Vinn

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The King Took the Music With Him

The tragic death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was felt all over. From the riots in Chicago all the way to Uncertain, Texas where the restaurant at Crip's camp was burned to the ground. The chimney is the only thing left standing to this day.

This story is about music and the battle between North and South. And how the death of one man tore our country apart as well as a modest little record company that was color blind.

In 1957, Berry Gordy wrote a song for Jackie Wilson that hit the pop charts and would plunge Gordy from the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line to the record business. Motown would soon become the first all black owned record company pushing out hits faster than they could cut the records.

Artists like the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five and the Supremes were all breaking new ground while crossing over to a white market. A market that had been taboo for many white kids with the darkness of race records preached against by many a minister.

Gordy had been around the corporate world long enough to learn how things were run within marketing. He knew that the cars he helped put together went through long processes of focus groups before they ever hit the assembly line. He was sensitive to the white market and knew that the real money to be made was in the pockets of white kids. So he made great efforts in determining what records would sell using grueling focus groups on each record they produced.

A well oiled marketing department resulted in the biggest cross over platform for selling records than any other record company had experienced. Gordy had broken new ground not only with how records were made but also how they were penetrated within a market that was nearly impossible to break into.

The clean sound you hear  from Motown is just that. A sound that has been refined to an almost "easy listening" brand of soul music. It's pretty. It's well thought out. It's soul dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit. And most importantly to Mr. Gordy, it was money and lots of it.

In an interview given by Rufus Thomas on the birth of Stax Records, he explains in great detail about the sound of Detroit and how clean it was. But when you crossed that Mason Dixon line and came into Memphis, it was raw. It was big, bold and you knew it was Stax when you heard that bottom sound.

Unlike Motown, Stax Records was an accident. In 1959, Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton opened a recording studio in the old Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue. In 1960, they recorded Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla with their first hit, "Cause I Love You" putting the  studio on the map within the black market. The irony of it all was that Jim and Estelle were about as white as you can get and were soon becoming the talk of the black community.

Pulling in the Mar-Keys in 1961 which was a local high school R&B band, Jim and Estelle scored again with an instrumental hit titled "Last Night." The Mar-Keys, a racially mixed band, would become Booker T. and the Mgs forming the studio band that would back every artist rolling through to record. Artists such as Sam and Dave, Little Milton, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor and Isaac Hayes became the staples of the "Memphis Sound" that was resonating against the clean sounds of Detroit.

Aside from the success of the music being produced in this modest studio, the real miracle taking place was the interaction between black and white musicians pushing each other to the limit on what they could do with the music. Inside the walls of Stax, there were no barriers between race which gave way to the freedom of expression within the studio. The "Memphis Sound" became the doorway to a divided South and historically led to the very first integrated music company in the United States.

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and aside from the rest of the country, Memphis fell apart. The black community raged against his murder and let the world know just how they felt in all the major cities. Chicago looked like some sort of war zone and the soul of Memphis was pulled completely out of the people that lived within her.

Stax Records would never be the same as race relations were undergoing so much friction. To this day, the musicians still tear up just talking about it. All the ground broken between blacks and whites within that studio would be buried along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the dreams he stood for.

In 1960, there was a battle on the Mason Dixon line. It began with the dreams of people that dared to be different. A difference that led them to discover that great things can be accomplished when there are no walls.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Art of Found Objects

An unfamiliar kind of art that really isn't in the main stream of what you might see at the Nasher or some other fine arts museum is sculpting or creating things used from found objects.

One of my favorite artists is a guy by the name of Jon Flaming who lives in Dallas. Jon is an artist of several different mediums and is mostly known for his unusual illustration styles. But for years he's been in and out of barns, abandoned houses and junk yards looking for items that he can make something out of. This kind of art borders on something you might see at Canton Trades Day but Jon has a way of making it a bit more high brow with just a hint of down home thrown in for good measure.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting with a friend of mine here in East Texas who was adamant about me inspecting a barbecue pit being built by Andrew Clyde, a local businessman. Knowing my passion for barbecuing and cooking outdoors in general, my friend used the term "peas and carrots" when describing our common interests and that I should really make an effort to get to know him.

At first glance, Andrew doesn't look like the creative type. In fact, he looks like a guy that
reviews spread sheets all day. And perhaps he does but if you can't find him in his office,
chances are he's in his metal shop creating something from nothing.

The barbecue pit that he designed and created was built using found objects much like
a Jon Flaming sculpture with the exception of being able to spit out pork ribs. I was a little skeptical on how the smoke would flow as well as concerned about the overall size of the fire box. The look of it at the time of construction was like some sort of Frankenstein's monster. Overwhelmed with the size of the entire structure, I became infatuated with trying it out and even though I didn't know Andrew very well at the time, I started to harass him about when he might complete the project.

I was lucky enough to break it in one very cool evening as we slow smoked an entire hog that a friend of ours had captured and cleaned. Once that thing started ginning from the fire box, it laid a really nice consistent flow of heat throughout the unit. The meat was so tender, it fell apart before the knife hit it.

This barbecue pit is more than just a device for cooking. It is indeed a piece of art deserving just as much recognition for the structure as the food cooked off the racks. Like a great artist paints a masterpiece you would hang in a museum, this pit should be parked in the Nasher garden just so art lovers can not only SEE the art, they can EAT from it as well.

Hats off to Andrew Clyde. An artist and great cook all in one.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Baked Creole Red Snapper

Last week, I turned a whopping forty four years of age. This would be the year I would finally break down and get glasses. My eyes have apparently joined a union and have been on strike for the last two years. I thought I could wait them out as I don't believe in unions but wouldn't you know it...I can't see a damn thing.

During some happy birthday wishes from friends, Leigh Vickery, who is currently the food editor for the Tyler Paper, inquired as to what my birthday menu might be. Well, Mrs. Vickery, I'm so glad you asked.

For starters, I placed my big black pot on a hot creole fire from Louisiana. This is a dish I've been preparing for the last twenty years. I used to make it in college when we had more time to sit around and drink beer. Remember that? That thing we called time?

This is one of my favorites but be prepared to cook on it for a while. It's about a 6 to 8 beer marathon.

Baked Creole Red Snapper

1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 medium onions, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 16-oz can whole tomatoes, chopped with liquid
2 medium bell peppers, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
salt to taste
pepper to taste
1 Tbs of sugar
red pepper to taste
1 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
3 medium whole Red Snappers
1 sliced lemon and juice
1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley

Saute onion and celery in oil in large skillet. Add tomato paste, tomatoes, bell pepper, garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper and sugar. If sauce is too thick, add water a little at a time. Cover and simmer 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Rinse and dry fish. Salt and pepper inside and out. Pour cooled tomato mixture over fish in a Dutch oven. Add Worcestershire, lemon juice, lemon slices and parsley. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

This is to be served over wild rice.

Next on the block, we'll head up to Highland Park where Pam Kernie's spinach salad
made the birthday cut. Every time we've ever made this salad, someone will inquire
as to the recipe. The secret is in the sugar and bacon. Two things that always work out well together.

Pam Kernie's Spinach Salad

First, fry up an entire package of bacon. You can do half a pack if you want but we're talking about bacon here. Why would you want less bacon?

Chop up bacon and set aside.

Dressing is as follows:
1/2 cup of sugar
1/2 medium onion chopped fine
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup vegetable oil

Place these ingredients in a blender and let her rip.

Serve over fresh spinach and sprinkle bacon and goat cheese on top.

Last but not least would be the cake and it hails from Tyler, Texas. My father's best friend was a guy by the name of Charlie Dickerson. Charlie was married to Linda Dickerson and this was her recipe. It is my favorite cake and if you're a coffee drinker, it's sure to be yours as well.

Linda Dickerson's Mocha Spice Cake

3/4 cup solid vegetable shortening
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups cake flour
1/2 tsp each: baking powder, baking soda, and salt
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
2 Tbs cocoa powder
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract

Mocha Icing
6 Tbs butter, softened
1 egg yolk
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 and 1/2 Tbs cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 and 1/2 Tbs hot coffee

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-inch round cake pans. Cream shortening with granulated sugar and beat until fluffy. Blend in eggs. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cocoa. Add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Stir in extracts.  Pour in prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes or until the center is set. Set aside to cool.

To prepare icing, cream together butter, egg yolk, confectioners’ sugar, cocoa, cinnamon and coffee until smooth and fluffy. Add another tablespoon of coffee or more sugar if needed to improve the texture. Frost top of each layer and sides of cake.


Happy Birthday to Me!