Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville

Writers and Readers Flock to St. Francisville in February
By Anne Butler

A mecca for creative souls ever since John James Audubon painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the St. Francisville area in 1821, this little rivertown now harbors artists, musicians, designers, authors, and even talented rock painters who relish its peaceful atmosphere and stimulating environs. And for the past ten years the slow cold month of February has been enlivened by the Writers & Readers Symposium, now sponsored by A Celebration of Literature and Art, that draws interested readers and writers from a wide area to hear published authors of all genres speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic fans. This year’s symposium is slated for February 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at beautiful Hemingbough Conference Center just south of St. Francisville, LA. Sure to be a popular addition is a separate but related Writers Retreat.

Featured professionals presenting at this year’s Symposium of Writers and Readers are Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley; award-winning memoirist Melissa Delbridge; novelist Deborah Johnson ; and Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who will also lead the Writers Retreat.

debra johnsonBorn in Missouri, raised in Nebraska, resident of San Francisco and then Rome for many years, award-winning novelist Deborah Johnson lives in Mississippi now, setting for her riveting novels The Secret of Magic and The Air Between Us, which won the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction for its insightful take on human nature and endearing cast of characters. The Secret of Magic won the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and was a finalist for the Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Johnson found inspiration for this book while researching the United States’ first African-American Supreme Court justiceThurgood Marshall and one of his NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s first civil rights causes of the postwar era, a black veteran purposefully blinded when a policeman used a billy club to punch out both of his eyes.

melisssa delbridgeMelissa Delbridge, recently retired as archivist at Duke, is the author of the witty and wise Family Bible, called “a gritty coming-of-age story set on the banks of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with everything one expects of the Deep South: incest (some willing, some not), guns, bourbon, insanity, Jesus, fast women, cheating men. But Melissa Delbridge explodes and exploits these clich├ęs into something startling and new, and in spite of the horror aroused by some events, it’s a hell of a fun ride. Delbridge’s ability to bring such joy to her readers through narratives that contain so much quiet sorrow is a true testament to her understanding of what it means to persevere.” Said another reviewer, “Reading it was like going to a reunion. Family Bible took me home.”

Peter CooleyAlso presenting at the Writers and Readers Symposium will be Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley, Midwest native with a doctorate in Modern Letters from the University of Iowa (his Writers’ Workshop dissertation was a book of his own poetry) who has lived for a number of years in New Orleans, where he is Director of Creative Writing at Tulane University. His poems have been published in more than 100 anthologies and over 700 magazines. His nine books of poetry include Divine Margins, A Place Made of Starlight, The Astonished Hours, and most recently Night Bus to the Afterlife dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Besides having taught at universities across this country and abroad, he has also had the challenging opportunity to present writing workshops “in a mental hospital, a prison, in pre-schools, grade schools, high schools, and to the elderly, the socially disadvantaged, and the illiterate.” If he can hold the attention of such diverse audiences, surely he can captivate a group of rapt readers and writers anxious to hear about his meticulous approach to his demanding craft.

rheta johnsonBack by popular demand for the Writers and Readers Symposium is award-winning journalist and accomplished author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who has covered the South in all its glory for four decades. Following years as an intrepid reporter for newspapers both large and small in iconic southern locales like Birmingham, Memphis and Atlanta, Johnson began writing columns syndicated nationally to hundreds of papers including the Advocate, columns celebrating what Encyclopedia Alabama calls “seemingly average southern people whose stories she elevates to the universal.” It is precisely this fond look at our foibles and fascinating off-the-wall places and people that won Johnson the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting as well as the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1991.

Johnson also writes books. In 1989 she published Good Grief, The Story of Charles M. Schulz, the authorized biography of the creator of “Peanuts.” Other published books, moving memoirs of life with husbands, dogs, and assorted other characters, include Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana; Dogs Buried Over the Bridge; Hank Hung The Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts; and Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming. The titles alone promise warm and witty and sometimes heartbreaking recollections of experiences that resonate with readers who grew up in the South. We know those people. We ARE those people! And Johnson vividly captures a time and place to which we can all relate, for she sees beyond the surface to the very soul, with love and laughter and, yes, more than a few tears. On those rare occasions when she turns her searing glance to contentious contemporary issues, her columns are cut-to-the-bone honest, like it or not. Johnson and her handsome husband Hines Hall, retired Auburn history professor, divide their time between Fishtrap Hollow and The Pass in Mississippi these days.

After individual author presentations, Writers and Readers Symposium participants are treated to lunch and homemade desserts, followed by a panel discussion led by lively local writer/artist Carolyn Thornton. Tickets for the symposium, $55 in advance or $65 at the door, are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com or through OLLI at LSU. For additional information, contact oliviapass@bellsouth.net.

Those participating in the Writers Retreat (preregistration required; separate fee) led by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a workshop welcoming both fiction and nonfiction authors including beginners, will get together for a wine and cheese reception at Hemingbough on February 18 from 5 to 7 p.m., then enjoy both breakfast and lunch during the actual workshop February 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular.

Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday). In January Oakley features programs called “12th Night Tea” for mothers and daughters on January 7th (preregister by calling 225-635-3739), and “Breaking the Chains” on January 14th, an examination of the 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion plus a look at slavery on this particular plantation. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from January 9 through January 22 presents a special well-researched slant to its house tours debunking the inaccurate myths repeated all too often on historic home tours.

The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Come Home for Christmas in St. Francisville

CIC posterCome Home For Christmas in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler

The theme of St. Francisville’s popular annual holiday parade is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and visitors the weekend of December 2, 3 and 4 will indeed experience that warm and welcome homecoming feeling as they enjoy this small town’s safe and family-friendly celebration called Christmas in the Country.
The whole weekend is packed full of fun, with spectacular seasonal decorations, musical entertainment throughout the National Register-listed downtown, breakfast with Santa, caroling and window-peeping, contemporary house tours, living nativity and even a symphony concert. Sparkling lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the entire picturesque little town into a veritable winter wonderland.
Mayor D'AquillaSt. Francisville’s jovial mayor Billy D’Aquilla, just elected to serve an unprecedented ninth term in office, lights the town Christmas tree Friday evening, Dec. 2, with a welcoming reception, choral performance on the front porch of Town Hall by Voices in Motion at 5:30 p.m. and fireworks beginning at 6 p.m. Local shops as well as vendors in Parker Park downtown offer twilight shopping until 7. Hemingbough is the setting for the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s St. Francisville Chamber Series presentation Holiday Jazz, beginning at 7 p.m. and featuring the jazzed-up seasonal favorites performed by pianist Willis Delony and friends, plus a dessert reception (tickets available at Bank of St. Francisville; 225-635-6397).

runSaturday, Dec. 3, begins at 7:30 a.m. with a prayer breakfast at United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed by Christmas on the Run, relays for life benefitting the American Cancer Society, with 1-mile Fun Run at 8 and 5-K at 8:30 a.m., both starting from Parker Park on Commerce Street (www.stfrumc.org).

Children won’t want to miss the Women’s Service League Breakfast with St. Nick at Jackson Hall of Grace Episcopal Church; there are three seatings at 8, 9:15 and 10:30 a.m. Reservations are encouraged, and advance tickets ($8) may be purchased online at www.womensserviceleague.com ). The Service League also has its usual fresh wreath and cookbook sale on Ferdinand St. throughout the weekend.

A Saturday house tour (10 to 4) benefits the wonderful parish library and showcases some unique contemporary homes. Tickets ($25 in advance, $30 day of tour) may be purchased at the library, The Conundrum bookstore, or online at www.brownpapertickets.com. Sponsored by Friends of the Library, featured homes exhibit a variety of architectural styles and include Charles and Kate Seal’s classic southern home with sweeping front gallery, Chip and Connie Hunter’s home filled with vintage touches and French influence, David and Angie Ray’s traditional home in The Bluffs golfing community, and Finney and Peter Couhig’s intriguing West Indies-style home.

Parker ParkSt. Francisville’s oak-shaded Parker Park overflows with children’s activities, music, food and crafts vendors all weekend including Friday evening, and there will be entertainment throughout the historic downtown area. Dynamic Laura Lindsey gathers children under the tent in the park for Christmas storytelling at 11:30, and the Fugitive Poets perform from noon to 2. New this year in a little town gone crazy for rock painting/hiding/finding is a fun activity sponsored by WF Rocks under the tent at 12:30 Saturday, with guidance by talented Alaine Dibenedetto and her sister Angie in dotting/painting fun rocks which will travel to St. Jude Hospital to spread some joy. The group has brought out the creativity in residents of all ages and even has specially designed T-shirts, one of which will be provided free to finders of a dozen marked rocks hidden around town on Sunday. At 2:30 p.m. the West Feliciana Middle School choir performs under the park tent.
From 10 to 4 on Saturday, Oakley plantation house in Audubon State Historic Site presents Colonial Christmas cooking demonstrations in the outside kitchen, followed from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. by candlelight tours plus period music and wassail. In town, Saturday evening entertainment includes Twilight Shopping and music from 4 to 7 p.m., a Community Sing-Along at United Methodist Church on Royal Street from 6 to 7, a Live Nativity inside First Baptist Church on US 61 from 6 to 8, and “Peep into our Holiday Homes” to admire Christmas decorations in participating historic structures (also 6 to 8 p.m.).

floatThe popular Christmas parade on Sunday, December 4, begins at 2 p.m. and traverses Ferdinand and Commerce Streets. Sponsored by the Women’s Service League, the parade features gaily decorated floats, marching bands, and of course Santa Claus riding atop a vintage fire truck. This year’s theme is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and there are not one but three grand marshalls being honored this year, all specially recognized award-winning local educators: Heather Howle, Terrance Williams and Janet Lathrop. Prior to the parade, the Angola Traveling Band from Louisiana State Penitentiary performs in Parker Park beginning at noon Sunday.

The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items. A variety of quaint little shops and galleries occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way; visitors should not miss a single one.

The town’s longstanding popular anchor stores have been joined by a number of smaller boutiques offering a wonderful variety of wares—antiques, collectibles, original artworks, upscale and affordable clothing, housewares, decorative items, jewelry, books and children’s playthings-- to remind visitors how timeless is the excitement of small-town Christmas shopping at this exuberant celebration of the season.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Fruitcake Weather in St. Francisville


Fruitcake Weather in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler

            Fruitcake Weather. That’s what beloved southern author Truman Capote called it in his wonderful Christmas Memory, when the first wintry winds blew down pecans to be shelled and when annual visits to the local bootlegger surrepticiously supplied the secret kick to the dozens of fruitcakes made by Capote, then an orphaned child, with an elderly relative whom he described as “still a child.”  The Christmas memories may have come from their home in rural Alabama, but all across the South and especially in St. Francisville, Louisiana, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas were always special, and every old home’s gleaming mahogany sideboard groaned with the weight of homemade fruitcakes to which, every time anyone passed by, another little dash of brandy was added.
            So as the holidays approach, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to…food, desserts especially, rich holiday traditions gleaned from old family receipt books and tattered treasured clippings. Back in the era of Capote’s childhood, recipes were like antiques…they had to have provenance, so you could tell whose they were, where they came from, where they were served, who cooked them and who enjoyed the consumption. They were like old friends or family with familiar backgrounds, and you could tell by the name of the contributor whether the recipes would be any good or not.
In Plantation Recipes and Recollections compiled by Violet Pate, elderly keeper of the history of the oldest established black Baptist church in the St. Francisville area, she records the details for Oyster Dressing, noting that it was cooked for 30 years for Mrs. Lois Lester of Waverly Plantation at Bains by Violet Glover, who happened to be the charming grandmother of Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden from whom he obviously inherited his brilliant smile. Even in the early days, its location right along the Mississippi River assured St. Francisville a bountiful supply of fresh holiday oysters shipped upriver by prosperous merchants as Christmas/New Year’s rewards for loyal patrons.
Early cookbooks came in all sizes and shapes. That whirlwind master marketer Marcelle Reese Couhig, familiarly known as Nootsie, hit the jackpot with beloved recipes like the internationally appreciated Asphodel Bread, on index cards in actual boxes, still sold today by descendants at their local bookstore. Her typically casual recipe for French 75 is below, reprinted from the Women’s Service League Feliciana Favourites cookbook, treasured compendium of offerings from all the good cooks of the area, first printed in 1981; an updated version, with all new recipes (but no contributor names), has just been released to fund worthy community projects undertaken by this volunteer group.
            Every local church and charity had its fundraising cookbook over the years. St. Francisville’s earliest residents being mostly English, the holiday recipes were heavy on Anglo influences…Charlotte Russe, Floating Island, Plum Pudding brought to table flamed by such liberal doses of brandy that wide-eyed children feared their grandmother would go up in smoke, mincemeat pie with plenty of hard sauce (see recipe below) to make it palatable, fruitcake so frequently doused over preceding weeks that visible fumes arose, much to the delight of tipsy great-uncles (didn’t every family have one?). The vintage cookbook published by Grace Episcopal Church, whose congregation first came together in the 1820s, included a recipe for “Old English Plum Pudding” said to have been brought from Liverpool “more than a century ago and age has not lessened its popularity.”
And eggnog. Lots and lots of eggnog. At Catalpa Plantation, as described in Audubon Plantation Country Cookbook with wonderful vintage images and lots of history accompanying the actual recipes, the late grande dame and gracious hostess Mamie Fort Thompson was quoted as insisting that in making the eggnog served at Catalpa’s famous Christmas parties, you could use half an eggshell as your jigger to measure the bourbon. She strongly recommended using the larger half!
Of course today our kitchen shelves groan under the weight of contemporary cookbooks from all over the world, from notable chefs (especially our wonderful Louisiana ones) and famous restaurants. And in St. Francisville itself we even have restaurants lending new influences to our holiday menus…Oriental, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Cajun. But there’s just something about those old cookbooks full of recipes as warm and welcoming as treasured old friends, and holiday visits to the St. Francisville area impart the same feeling.
Still, there’s  lots to do in St. Francisville besides eat. Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation (check locally; it has new owners), plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).  
In November Oakley features programs called “Forgotten Lives” (a quarters tour with emphasis on experiences of plantation slaves) November 6 from 12 to 4, and “Deck the Halls” on November 26 from 10 to 3, allowing visitors to “adopt a mantle” to decorate with period greens for Christmas. And as decorations go up throughout the historic downtown area of St. Francisville in preparation for Christmas in the Country the first weekend in December, the little rivertown becomes a sparkling winter wonderland.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

MAMIE THOMPSON’S FAMOUS CATALPA EGGNOG

6 eggs, separated; 6 tbsp. sugar; 6 jiggers bourbon; 1 half-pint whipping cream, whipped; 3/4 cup milk (optional); nutmeg.

Beat egg yolks until very light. Add sugar. Beat. Beat egg whites, then gently fold into yolk mixture a little at a time. Pour bourbon over, to sort of cook the egg whites. Mix. Add whipped cream, folding in gently. If too thick, add up to ¾ cup milk. Refrigerate until very cold. Top with sprinkling of nutmeg.
VIOLET GLOVER’S OYSTER DRESSING

6 jars oysters, chopped; 10 slices bread, toasted and softened with milk; 1 stick butter; ½ cup onion; ½ cup celery; ½ cup bell peppers; salt and black pepper; 1 teaspoon Tabasco.

Drain oysters and save juice. Cook onions, celery and bell peppers in butter until tender (about 10 minutes of stirring so they won’t burn); add chopped oysters and toasted bread, then salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce. Pour ingredients into baking dish and cook in oven for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
GRANDMA’S HARD SAUCE (from Oil & GAStronomy)

1 stick real butter, softened; 2 cups confectioners sugar; brandy.

Beat butter, gradually adding sugar until creamy. Add brandy one tablespoon at a time to taste. Taste brandy. Add brandy to taste. Taste brandy. Add brandy to taste. Goes well on hot apple pie, mincemeat pie, or on a spoon. Grandma is always in a wonderful mood after making this recipe.
FRENCH 75

1 quart gin; 3 bottles champagne; 1 pint lemon juice; 1 cup sugar.

Chill gin and champagne for a couple of days in the fridge. Use one large chunk of ice in the bowl. Make it yourself in a plastic something in your freezer. Pour sugar over ice, then all the rest of the liquids. If you like it sweeter, make a simple syrup, but watch you don’t spoil your dinner. Serves approximately 25.