County fare

Last Friday night we loaded up the minivan and headed to Lawrenceville for the Gwinnett County Fair. We hadn’t been in several years, and we were overdue for a family outing. This one fit the bill nicely.

Carlton looking down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel.
Carlton looks down on the Gwinnett County Fair from the ferris wheel. Look at ALL the people eating bad food!

I prefer my fairs a little later in the fall — call it a habit formed by 10 years of living in Middle Georgia where the Georgia National Fair in Perry and the Georgia State Fair in Macon hit in October — but as fairs go, the Gwinnett County Fair has all you need. There are rides, both for the kiddies and the astronaut trainees who can withstand whirling G forces. There are animals, mostly pigs and cows the night we went. There are people to watch. How on earth the freak shows can compete with who you see on the midway is beyond me, what with all the piercings and tattoos these days.

And then, there is the food. If you can cover it in batter and fry it in oil, then it will be served to you at a fair. This year we treated ourselves to corn dogs for the kids and Philly Cheese Steak and Italian Sausage sandwiches for the adults.

I am normally a little more health conscious about what I consume, but fried processed meats and potatoes are what you are supposed to eat at the fair. It’s expected. It’s … it’s … well, it’s just plain American.

What I have noticed in recent years, however, is the addition of fried candy bars and other desserts. OK, I’ll give you a fried fruit pie. That makes sense, in a way, and those have been around for years. But who was the first person to put a stick in a Snickers, coat it in batter and deep fry it?

This year’s Holy Grail for Carla was the fried Reese’s Cups. Anyone who has visited her Pinterest board dedicated to all things chocolate and peanut butter will know she has more than a passing interest in this food combination.

So a couple of hours after our grease-infused supper had settled, we joined the line at a vendor advertising fried Oreos, Twinkies, Reese’s Cups and much, much more.

And I’m happy to report that coating desserts in batter, frying them and adding powdered sugar may kill you, but it doesn’t taste half bad. Yes, I know, it is an assault on your pancreas, but it is a delight to the taste buds.

Harris eats a fried Twinkie
Harris enjoys a few bites of the fried Twinkie on a stick. I may or may not have finished it.

We all shared each other’s selections. Carla, of course, went with the Reese’s Cups while Harris chose the Twinkie. Barron, who had gone off with his buddy, Noah, got a to-go box of the Oreos, one of which is still in the refrigerator, a persistent reminder of last weekend’s gluttony.

You can count the calories and fat grams of such food. You can even qualify the great taste with an array of superlatives. What you can’t measure is the amount of damage these foods do to your self-esteem. As I sat on the bench outside of the jungle-themed fun house, my black T-shirt getting coated with the tell-tale evidence of powdered sugar, I couldn’t help but think what an awful nutrition choice this was. I knew I should be resisting it with every fiber of my being.

But I stay pretty up-tight most of the time. I finished off Harris’ Twinkie, which he discarded a couple of bites in, while watching him and Carlton laugh and play in the fun house. I watched their faces light up as they zoomed down the giant slide. I swear I could see their stomach’s rising into their throats as they dipped and swooped on the tug boat. I enjoyed their joy.

So if I ate some food that may shorten my life by a few days, I think I can live with the trade-off. The fair has a way of helping you re-prioritize and savor what’s truly important.

Of course, you definitely want to stay away from the “Guess Your Weight” guy. That’s a definite buzz kill.

What’s your favorite fair food? What’s your favorite part of the fair? Share your secret culinary indulgences from the midway by leaving a comment below.

Boogie-woogie bugle boy

There are many challenges in life for which I believe I am unprepared: landing a disabled aircraft, selecting a paint color for a formal living room, lecturing on physics or attending a baby shower.

The next big life hurdle staring me in the face is being a band parent.

Barron with trumpet
Doesn’t he just look like Dizzy Gillespie?

Last Saturday Barron took possession of a trumpet, loaned to him by my friend, Brian, himself, a veteran of high school and collegiate marching band. Since that time, what could be mistaken for the love-sick mating call of the Canada goose has been reverberating off my rafters as Barron “familiarizes” himself with the instrument.

His brothers take particular delight in how the “music” Barron coaxes from it resembles the sound of flatulence or other bodily functions boys of a certain age find hilarious. Somehow I don’t think Barron’s band instructor will find these noises quite as humorous.

This is completely new turf for me. While I enjoy music, particularly the singer-songwriter, folksy-country variety, I have not an ounce of musical talent. I made it as far as flutophone, for which I earned a B- in second grade. And please, don’t get me started about my singing. I and those misfortunate souls who attended Sunday night church are still recovering from the emotional scars of my singing solos.

I did grow up with musicians in the family. One of my strongest memories of my childhood was my mother practicing her voice lessons to a cassette tape. Now those were some interesting vocalizations. And my middle brother played several instruments, including the baritone saxophone, which he used to sneak up behind me while I was doing homework and blast a fog horn tone in my ear.

But now, I am the parent of a band member. It’s early yet in his career, but after nearly two years with the guitar, a more gentle, soothing sound to be sure, we are entering unchartered waters. I want to be supportive, but I really don’t know what to do. I guess wearing earplugs would send the wrong message.

Here’s what I know about band parents: they work a lot of hours in concession stands. They sell lots of gift wrap and magazine subscriptions. They incur huge dry cleaning expenses. They form tight bonds with other band parents.

Back in the day, I spent most of my extracurricular time in athletic pursuits, not that I had much more athletic talent than musical talent. Everything I know about band I learned from watching my brother, including going to his concerts, which — don’t tell him — I kind of enjoyed.

Barron shows off his new trumpet
Brian’s trumpet has been through enough marching seasons that whatever Barron dishes out shouldn’t phase it. Thanks, Brian, (I think) for loaning it to Barron!

I will never forget the first middle school band concert I attended. After the first selection, the band teacher approached a petite girl with a French horn. He gently took the horn from the girl, removed the spit valve and in full view of the gathering, drained what seemed to be 32 ounces of saliva. Some lessons are best learned through humiliation, I guess.

Perhaps I’m getting the cart before the horse on this whole band thing. Maybe when the fun of blowing loudly at his brothers has worn off and he actually has to practice, Barron may decide to go in another direction.

But if he sticks with it, I’ll be right there, attending every performance, working my turn in the concession stand and selling gift wrap and magazine subscriptions to raise money for the band trip to Washington, D.C., or wherever. I’ll beam with pride as he plays Sousa and Beethoven and whatever else trumpet players play these days.

I have just one question: does anyone know if a trumpet has a spit valve?

What helpful suggestions would you offer a rookie band parent? Share your experiences and thoughts by leaving a comment below. It’s cheaper than therapy!

Commuter dude

I recently changed jobs, and in the process traded a consistent 30-minute commute for a nail-biting daily adventure into downtown Atlanta.

Atlanta traffic
Here’s a clue about my new work destination. It’s also now an all-too familiar view out of my windshield.

Commuting is not a remarkable activity in and of itself. It is a necessary evil for those of us with kids, living the suburban “dream.” And, unfortunately, it is one of those activities that characterizes life in the New South — at least the urban New South.

According to the U.S. Census, Atlanta has the sixth longest commute time — an average of 30.3 minutes — in the U.S., behind such undrivable places as New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago and Los Angeles.

I’ve found that I fall right into that average, depending on what time I leave my house in the morning and the office in the afternoon.

Way back in 2008, Forbes magazine did a piece on the worst cities in America for commuters. No surprise to anyone who has ever been stuck on one of Atlanta’s “thoroughfares,” Atlanta ranked no. 1 on the list of worst cities for commuters. The reasons? Back then, Atlanta was the fastest growing city in America, and infrastructure improvements could not keep up with growth.

Also, the public transit system does not reach out into the suburbs sufficiently to be a convenient alternative to driving. The growth and urban sprawl conspire to put more people behind the wheel because there is simply no alternative.

My new commute is 23.7 miles, one way. If I leave the house in the vicinity of 7 a.m., it’s at least 45 minutes. If I leave before 6:30 a.m., it’s a half hour. This is a no brainer. I’ve latched onto a schedule that has me leaving the house at 5 a.m. (I’m up at this time any way) and arriving at the gym near my office when it opens at 5:30 a.m. That puts me behind my desk and ready to work at 7 a.m., without the stress of fighting traffic.

The afternoon has been a more difficult  puzzle to solve. If I leave between 4 and 4:30 p.m., my commute is about 45 minutes. Departing the office anywhere near 5 p.m., and it’s upwards of an hour. I’ve tried multiple routes already, but the only sure-fire solution is to hit the door before 4:30 p.m.

Atlanta traffic 100 years ago
What a difference 100 years make. This is Peachtree Street, circa the turn of the last century. Now that’s a commute!

It’s taken me 10 years as an Atlantan to get to experience what most Atlantans deal with from day one. It’s early yet, so I have no right to complain, but what the experience is teaching me about life in the New South is enlightening:

1. Time is our most precious resource. Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it give you back the time you spend in your car. Time is a zero sum game. The more time I am in the car in the afternoon, the less time I am spending with my boys or talking to my wife.

2. Transportation must be functional. I used to want a pickup truck. Not anymore. Now I want to replace my 2001 Volvo V70 wagon with the most fuel-efficient car on the market. I’d even drive one of those solar-panelled, sailboat-looking things if it was reliable.

3. Sleep deprivation is deadly. My wife says I don’t get enough sleep. Well, if she is correct, then I need to make some changes. Tooling down the back roads of Gwinnett County while in need of some shut-eye will get you into a ditch. Nodding off while fighting the hordes on the Connector or I-85 will get you killed.

4. Mental health is on the line. Nothing tests your true state of mind like a commute. If you are calm and at peace, it’s no big deal. You’re willing to let someone cut in, you drive safely and patiently, and you make it to your destination in one piece. If you are already amped up before you get behind the wheel, look out world! Road rage will spill over onto your co-workers or family. Serenity now!

5. The Golden Rule applies. Hey, we’re all just people out there trying to get where we’re going. It’s not a race. The most basic of all rules governing human interactions can save lives during a commute — or at least save your sanity.

See you on the highways!

Do you have an awful commute or are just minutes away from the office? How do you cope with commuting? Share your pain or brag by leaving a comment below.

Selling encyclopedias

I was already hungry when I took my seat on the seventh pew on the right of the Decatur Presbyterian Church.

John T. Edge and Charles Reagan Wilson
John T. Edge, left, and Charles Reagan Wilson discuss “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” Sept. 1 at Decatur Presbyterian Church.

After a long day fighting the crowds at Dragon*Con with the boys, Carla and I were enjoying a night out, so naturally I dragged her to the Decatur Book Festival and the panel discussion of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” Hosted by the 24-volume epic’s editor, Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and co-editor of the original “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” the five presenters were luminaries in the field of Southern scholarship:

  • John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of several books, including “Fried Chicken: An American Story.” In addition to serving as editor of the encyclopedia volume on “Foodways,” he also serves as general editor of the book series “Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing” (volumes 1, 2, and 3 of which are available from the University of North Carolina Press.)
  • Ted Ownby, professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of “Subduing Satan: Recreation, Religion, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920” (UNC Press).
  • James G. “Jimmy” Thomas, associate director of publications at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and managing editor of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” series.
  • Larry J. Griffin, is the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences research professor at Georgia Southern University. He holds appointments in the sociology and history departments and directs the university’s American studies program. He edited the volume on social class.

After a brief introduction of the New Encyclopedia by Wilson, who said a new encyclopedia was needed to update the existing “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” because “It’s a new south,” Edge led all of the panelists in making a brief introduction of the “Foodways” volume.

I snapped a few photos and scribbled some notes, all the while my stomach reminding me that all I had consumed during the day was a solitary doughnut, a banana and a chicken sandwich.

Foodways cover
The “Foodways” volume by John T. Edge will evoke plenty of memories as well as provoke your appetite.

Edge talked of yams, lunch counters, ways to cook an opossum and the subject of his volume’s cover photo, okra. Okra is, perhaps, the most Southern of all vegetables, at its best when fried. My mind quickly set on the most recent batch of fried okra I’d had, a different take on the traditional dish served up at Miller Union near the Georgia Tech campus in downtown Atlanta. Miller Union sliced its okra longways and cooked it in a batter that was light on grease allowing the okra to crunch a little on its own. It had good flavor and was satisfying even as one of four options on my vegetable plate.

In fact, it was the second fulfilling helping I’d had of fried okra this summer. The first was a wonderful side dish accompanying the family dinner of ribs we ordered from Lilburn’s Spiced Right Barbecue. It was sliced the more typical way into little nuggets, but the flavor of the batter and consistency of the okra was wonderful.

As each of the panelists took their turn, my note taking dropped off as I fiddled with my new iPhone. There were powerful and humorous anecdotes shared by each of the other panelists, but I stared into space, contemplating the humble okra plant.

fried okra
No. 246’s fried okra satisfied my lecture-induced craving for this Southern delicacy. I normally don’t find photos online of people’s meals very appetizing, but take my word for it, this fried okra was amazing.

The reward for Carla’s patience at the panel discussion was dinner at No. 246 in downtown Decatur. Although it’s not intelligible from the name, the restaurant is actually Italian. So naturally I was shocked to see fried okra listed as an appetizer.

“I don’t care what else we get, but I’ve got to have some okra.”

It did not disappoint.

If I save my pennies, I might be able to someday acquire the entire 24-volume set of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” and I will continue to follow Edge on Twitter, lapsing into drool at his posts on dining and cooking experiences across the South.

But most importantly, I think I experienced what is meant to be the point of his volume on Southern foodways: Southerners have unique cuisine that connects them and evokes strong memories of shared experience.

So as the season for fresh okra winds down, you better not waste any time in getting you a heapin’ plate of it.  You’ll be glad you did.

Do  you like okra? How do you prefer it, in gumbo, fried or prepared some other newfangled way? Share your love/hate relationship with okra by leaving a comment below.