Somebody to love

If you ever loved something, you know it’s impossible not to talk about it constantly. New shoes. New boyfriend, baby, house. New pet.

I just might be more obsessive than most when I latch on to something that interests me, and now, the thing that I have latched on to, has literally latched onto me.

Raphael, cuddling.

Python regis. The Royal Python.

Oh yes. One python in particular. His name is Raphael and he came to be my little darling completely by accident. My son Christopher took him from a friend, who was going away to college and his parents, apparently, weren’t willing to dangle mice above a reptile at regular intervals.

So Christopher took him, placed him at my house and thus he became mine.

I had to warm up him a bit, I admit. I’ve never been afraid of snakes, and in fact, I used to save garter snakes from the family cat when I was a teen. I also enjoyed spying occasional rat snakes or racers in the fields next to our home. More recently, my last house seemed to be a particularly suitable environment for garter snakes because there were bunches of them. I would show them to the children for an instant nature lesson.

But snakes are objectionable to a lot of people, for several reasons, but most seem to have a visceral reaction, and I think it’s because we’re just not used to the way they move.

They’re not like mammals, dogs, kitties, that sort of thing. They’re not even similar to most other reptiles. I mean, iguanas and the like are a little startling, but they’ve got legs and stuff, so there’s no slithering, sliding, wrapping. Also, the no eyelids thing can unnerve the more fainthearted among us.

Lots of women scream at the sight of even a photo of a snake; my own mother won’t have anything to do with him for fear she’ll start having snake-borne nightmares.

But snakes — if I may modify a quote from Finding Nemo, are friends — not foes. And once I’d been around him a bit, I have to admit, a little bit of a maternal instinct kicked in and I knew I had to care for this innocent little creature who needed help.

Today, Raphael definitely knows me. People ask me this all the time. But how do you know, they ask.

Well, when I pick him up he reaches toward me and takes a good helping of my scent. You may know snakes “smell with their tongues.” They actually use them to grab scent particles then transfer them inside their mouths to something called the Jacobson’s organ, where the actual smelling takes place.

So he sniffs me, then calms right down when he’s in my arms. He sleeps there contentedly in the evening when I’m watching TV. He permits me to touch and stroke his head, which he shied away from when he first arrived.

To quote my son Tras, “He may have a little brain, but it’s like 90 percent love.”


Seize the day

Not long ago, I helped to organize the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which brought together talented published authors, writers who wished to learn from them, and appreciative readers who sought to immerse themselves in writing at the longest running conference for women in the nation.

But I’m not going to talk about that today.

I bring it up, though, because it was this conference — and the book written by acclaimed author Bonnie Jo Campbell  — which led me to hunker by the size of a busy road yesterday morning, in the polar conditions of autumn which bore down upon the Commonwealth, and pick two giant mushrooms the approximate size and weight of my head.

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Back in the spring, I dove into Once Upon a River, which tells the compelling story of a young girl driven by circumstance to live by her wits and considerable outdoors acumen along a semi-wild river near Kalamazoo, Michigan. The author, Campbell, was due to appear at our conference in the fall.

It was shortly after reading this book that I practically became Bonnie Jo Campbell’s sister — yes, it’s true. But that’s a story for another day.

This day, I point directly to Once Upon a River as my first exposure to Calvatia gigantea or the giant puffball mushroom, which our heroine harvests and dines upon as she literally lives off the fat of the land.

Giant puffballs growing wild. And edible? I had my doubts. But she could shoot the eye out of a buck — and attract any male who may or may not be a card-carrying member of the NRA — so I tended to trust her on the issue of free-range fungus.

Fast forward to yesterday morning.

Driving home after taking my son to school, I spied on the side of the road, two large, round white shapes which could have been:

A) used diapers chucked from a car traveling the adjacent New Circle Road (a local bypass);

B) Styrofoam blown out of the back of a pickup used for who-knows-what unholy purpose; or

C) actual, bonafide giant puffball mushrooms.

I slowed down for a closer look. And then I drove home and, like most people in 2013, posted about my discovery on Facebook.

Were they these fabled things that me, a girl raised in semi-rural conditions, had never observed, let alone ingested? Were they something that I could harvest, like dandelion leaves and poke sallet, and eat from the side of the road and call it actual food?

Or were they some other, more nefarious form of fungus, intent upon poisoning me with their plump charms — the deadly I Will Kill You in Horrible Seizing Agony mushrooms, which present identically to the giant puffball shroom?

At home, I applied mascara and pondered. I would never know what they were, I thought between eyeliner applications, unless I stopped for a closer look.

As you can see in the photos, they’d already been munched by some resident fauna, and I flicked one off before pulling them up. (A slug! Eww!)

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They came out of the ground easily and they really are surprisingly heavy! Maybe not as heavy as my head (filled with all these brains, you know) but pretty hefty for something that goes by the name of puffball.

I put them in a plastic bag, braced myself against the buffets of passing cars, popped myself back into the Prius, and off to work I went.

But were they actually edible? I got confirmation from Bonnie Jo herself, via Facebook, that I did indeed have two gorgeous puffballs on my hands and I should prepare them with lots of butter and invite all my friends.

At this point I wasn’t sure I was going to convince a Doubting Husband that I brought something home from the side of the road that we can actually eat. But, gamely, I cooked one of the things up last night, and as I mentioned earlier, documented the whole process on Facebook for the entertainment of my far-flug friends.

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Yes, from Kentucky to Rhode Island, and North Carolina to Texas, people were following  the Great Potentially Death-Inducing Mushroom Saga, hoping I presume, that I would live to cook another day.

I won’t doubt that there were some expecting I would experience violent vomiting at the bare minimum, with seizures, coma, and death a distinct possibility.

No such luck, you guys!

This is the mushroom I prepared, shown here cleaved in two on the cutting board in my kitchen:

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Cubed and ready for the sautee pan:

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I assure you I did not fail to eat some of these cubes, atop my spaghetti, but I did fail to take a picture of it. Doh!

Since nobody touched the things except me — despite the fact that they were drenched in butter, olive oil, garlic and salt — I put the remainder in a bag and tossed them in the freezer. The Internets told me I could.

I am here to report that I am in fact alive. Although for all I know I’m a zombie, Walking Dead in the wake of my mushroom induced-death, getting my just desserts for daring to eat something that wasn’t purchased at the grocery store.

And if you ever see any giant mushrooms that resemble severed heads along the road, you too can take them home and cook ’em up. They’re delicious — especially around Halloween.

I’ve eaten squirrel

Way back in the 1980s, when Madonna was new and Lady Gaga was only a noise you made in the privacy of your own bathroom, I was the editor of a weekly newspaper.

It was a turbulent time in my life; at 23 I had aspirations of big-time journalism but was hampered by things like having to write on an electric typewriter and supervising an editorial staff of two, which included myself. The job was enlivened by the fact that I was presiding over the sole publication of the town where I was reared, and by spending much of a summer covering a grisly murder trial, the defendant in which was a member of my high-school graduating class.


None of that has anything to do, however, with the fact that during this year, 1986, I consumed fried squirrel.

One of the things I miss desperately about being a reporter is all the interesting and unexpected things you get to do. In no particular order, among other duties both savory and unsavory, I’ve —

• Interviewed and photographed Cheryl Ladd

• Toured a dairy farm

• Covered a wedding between two carnival workers, on a Tilt-a-Whirl

• Profiled an all-senior citizen jazz band

• Interviewed a World War I veteran

• Written about a pet cemetery

Any one of these items would make an interesting blog post, and of course each made an interesting story published in an actual newspaper. Since my foray into television, I’ve also profiled a llama farm, the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and ostrich burgers, as well as written scripts on subjects ranging from Melungeons to a Kentucky Derby winner.

Of course, along the way, you attend a lot of meetings of planning and zoning commissions, city councils, school boards, and just plain boreds. You wait outside in the hall during a lot of executive sessions, and you go to bed after four-hour meetings that end at midnight, and then get to work by 7 a.m. to write three stories based on that meeting for publication that afternoon.

But you also get to eat fried squirrel.

Rodents aren’t the only thing I consumed in the name of rural journalism; I once was the delighted recipient of a pound of home-churned butter. The lady who churned it had served as a “correspondent” for a neighboring town’s weekly for — oh, I don’t remember now — maybe 50 years, and I was profiling her and her little homey column. For those of you not raised in rural areas, local papers often published news from little communities about who’s visiting who, births and deaths, and other ordinary occurrences. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, when such goings-on were actually news.

The reason the butter was memorable (in addition to it was incredibly delicious on toasted homemade wheat bread) was that I was able to gaze upon the actual cow who produced the milk that made the butter, as I sat on the front porch interviewing the gracious correspondent. Her husband also plowed using draft horses, an incredible sight to see.

As was the plate of squirrel.

The squirrel actually was tied, metaphorically speaking, to the World War I veteran, whom I heard about from a representative of the local VFW (or Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post. The local post provided a watering hole for veterans, and did good works, too, like getting a WWI vet a hearing aid he couldn’t afford. They thought I might want to “write up” the donation, which I did — but I was much more interested in meeting him. This event is now more than 20 years ago, but even in the 1980s it was still far, far removed from a conflict that ended when women didn’t even have the vote. Hells yes, I wanted to interview him!

Which I did, and duly published the story of our meeting, which mainly was conducted via writing the questions on my pad, since he was stone deaf and hadn’t yet received the hearing aid. Yet he recited, from memory, in German, a poem he learned after the war, where he spent a few years doing something with German industry.

And then, I was invited to the VFW Post to dine on squirrel.

It was, as I have mentioned, fried, so I can report it was delicious — inasmuch as anything batter-dipped and deep-fried is. It also, as I always report when relaying this tale, tasted like nuts. I absolutely am not making that up. Nuts. Yes, indeed, fried squirrel tastes like nuts.

That’s just the sort of education rural journalism will provide, along with murder trials, meeting movie stars, politicians — and other celebrities, like butter-producing cows grazing in the pasture off the front porch, and Great War vets who will recite poetry for a rapt audience of one, in a tiny town in rural Kentucky.

Grab it by the business end

There are at least two Lexington businesses I refuse to patronize, based solely on the names. They could be marvelous purveyors of their chosen products and I’m doing myself a vast disservice by sticking my nose in the air, my fingers down my throat and braying loudly for the world to hear: “There is no way on God’s green earth I would ever buy a Big Ass Fan.”

Not that there’s any danger of me needing any  large, energy efficient industrial ceiling fans or commercial ceiling fans — but as I find out on their website, they now deal in residential ceiling fans. So perhaps there is cause for concern. But no matter: I restate. It would be a cold day in hell before I would blythely purchase anything so crassly named. Not because I’m a prude, mind you — ask anyone I work with, or my husband for that matter and you’ll learn I’m apt to curse like a sailor if the occasion warrants. No I just object to the reality-TV shaped world around us, which has led us to the conclusion that Big Ass is a perfectly good name for a serious company.

I’m certainly not the first person to notice Big Ass — they’ve garnered world-wide attention with their audacious marketing, which is apparently paying off in sales. Cretins the world over are responding. What, I ask, is next? Where do you draw the line? Cool as Shit Air Conditioning Inc.? Fuckin-A Furnaces?

No — the secret to successful vulgarity is strictly in naming your company with the business end in mind. See Butt Rubb BBQ, a restaurant near my home. Clearly, in order to capture the public’s imagination, you’ve gotta keep the behind in mind.

Despite my nearly 10 years as a vegetarian, I now enjoy barbecue and eat it semi-regularly, thanks to a husband who grew up in Owensboro, Ky., the middle of a barbecue-obsessed region of the state, Western Kentucky.  Oh I started slowly … deigning only to eat chicken in my vegetarian-to-omnivore transition years. Which is why my family still hoots about the time, at an elementary-school sports banquet catered by another local barbecue restaurant, I heartily dove into the “chicken” barbecue. The thing was, I was pregnant, uncomfortable, bored, and starving —  to hell with vegetarianism today, I gotta eat. On and on I went about the deliciousness of this chicken barbecue. On the way home, Claire tentatively asked, “Uh, Mom you know that was pork barbecue, right?”

But I digress.

My problem with naming your product Butt Rubb Barbecue is the ridiculous statements you end up making …

“What’d y’all do last night?”

“Oh, I got some butt rub.”

You see the problem.

“What’s this charge on your expense account here, Bob? Big Ass what?”
“It has nothing to do with my trip to Bangkok, Jim. Just go stick your nose back in your spreadsheet and keep it out of my ass.”

I blame reality TV, which has made the nauseatingly outrageous antics of the side-show segment of the population as common as dirt. But I also point a finger at politics where in places as composed and deferential as Wisconsin, people are flipping the bird at one another as a matter of course.

I can’t say that I’ve come to any conclusions about all this. I’ve completely neglected to mention the restaurant that has caused me to make abundant sour faces for years, Hooters, which coyly uses an owl in its logo design like we don’t know what the thrust of the place really is. I only know that in Lexington, at least, if you want to achieve international success and/or a really sweet level of notoriety, just come up with a name for your business that is guaranteed to make you the butt of lots of jokes.

Don’t worry, though: in this climate it definitely won’t come back and bite you in the ass.