Christmas Country Captain

Although I was born in Ohio, I’ve spent most of my life in the South, specifically South Carolina and for the last 20 years Virginia. I know that doesn’t officially qualify me as a Southerner — darn it — but to the depths of my soul I feel more Southern than Midwestern.

I have lots of Southerners in my family tree, some of which I’ve written about on this blog, and my research interests lie almost entirely in the antebellum South. I subscribe to Garden & Gun and The Bitter Southerner, for goodness sake, but I know none of this matters.

Like I said, I was born in Ohio and true Southerners are sticklers about these things. But despite my shortcomings, I’m a big fan of Southern cuisine, particularly Lowcountry and Creole food.

For a few years after college, I lived in Charleston, South Carolina, which is famous for its Lowcountry cuisine — shrimp and grits and that sort of thing. Because I worked as a newspaper reporter and then a police officer while I lived there, I could never afford to eat at Poogan’s Porch, 82 Queen, or any of those iconic Lowcountry restaurants.

You might expect that to be followed by, “So, I bought a copy of ‘Charleston Receipts’ and learned to make shrimp and grits!” but I wasn’t much of a cook back then. Thinking about it, I don’t remember cooking anything fancier than the occasional holiday turkey before age 40.

Thinking about it further, I don’t think I really started cooking, at least not anything interesting, until I was laid off from my marketing job in 2009. After that, as a freelance writer, I had more time to cook. Working at home, I could start dinner at 3 p.m. instead of arriving home at 5:30 or 6, hungry and with no interest in cooking for two hours.

So, except for the money thing, I guess losing that job wasn’t a complete loss. Huh.

Enough on that. What I’m really blogging about today is chicken country captain, the dish I’m making for Christmas dinner on Sunday. I’ve made it a couple-three times before, including for Christmas two years ago. Hopefully, no one minds the repeat.

Country captain is an old recipe, originating during the Colonial period. It found its way to the Lowcountry from British-occupied India. According to the “Food Lover’s Companion,” country captain is “said to have taken its name from a British army officer who brought the recipe back from his station in India.”

Generally speaking, country captain is a slow-cooked stew consisting of chicken, onions, peppers, celery, tomatoes, raisins or currants, slivered almonds, and curry powder and other spices. It’s served over rice.

The list of ingredients is about 8 inches long, but don’t be intimidated by that. It’s not difficult to make. It doesn’t have to be all that expensive either. For example, the recipe I use calls for three pounds of chicken breasts and two pounds of thighs, but I’m using all thighs.

Thighs are less expensive and better tasting, in my opinion, anyway.

It calls for two-and-a-half cups of white wine, so I bought a $6 bottle of Pinot Grigio. That should work fine. That said, my wine advice: Don’t buy anything for cooking that you wouldn’t want to drink the rest of.

Onions, peppers and celery are relatively cheap, and it’s likely most of the spices are already in your pantry. My recipe also calls for a pound of breakfast sausage, and you can go as plain or as fancy as you want with that.

It serves 12 to 16 people and freezes wonderfully, so the 20 bucks you might spend results in several meals, depending on the size of your family.

There are many recipes out there for country captain. The one I use was created by native Southerner and celebrity chef Alex Hitz. It ran in House Beautiful magazine a few years ago.

As he puts it, it’s been “revved up … for today’s foodie palates.” To be honest, this is the only country captain I’ve ever made (or eaten), but I don’t plan to switch recipes. It’s perfect.

Happy Holidays and happy eating!

Chicken Country Captain

(Serves 12 to 16)


1 pound bulk pork sausage, mild
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon salt, divided
2 teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) salted butter, divided
3 cups medium-diced white or yellow onions
1 cup medium-diced red bell pepper
1 cup medium-diced celery
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1½ tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
1½ teaspoons dried thyme
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
¾ cup flour
2½ cups tomatoes, peeled (I use good-quality canned ones)
5½ cups chicken stock
2½ cups white wine
½ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 cups golden raisins
4 cups cooked rice
¾ cup snipped chives
1½ cups toasted slivered almonds
½ cup chopped parsley


  1. In a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat, brown the sausage, fully breaking it up, and then drain off the excess fat. Reserve.
  2. Wash the chicken breasts and thighs and pat them dry. Place them in a mixing bowl and toss with 2 teaspoons of the salt and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper.
  3. In another large, heavy skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the chicken and sear it in batches on both sides until it is brown on the surface but still raw inside, about three minutes per side. Remove chicken from the heat, let it rest for at least five minutes, and then cut it into approximately 1½-inch chunks and reserve it in a bowl. Do not worry that the chicken is still raw on the inside, as it will finish cooking later.
  4. In a large, heavy stockpot over medium heat, melt the remaining 8 tablespoons butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the onions and sauté for three minutes, until they start to get soft. Then add the peppers and celery, and sauté for another three minutes. Add the garlic, the remaining tablespoon of salt, the remaining teaspoon of pepper, the dark brown sugar, and the curry, thyme, cumin, and ginger and continue to sauté these ingredients until the onions are translucent, approximately four to eight more minutes. Add the cooked sausage, then the flour, and stir the mixture thoroughly. It will become very thick.
  5. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, wine, lemon juice, vinegar, and raisins and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to simmer for five more minutes.
  6. Add the chicken and simmer the mixture for five more minutes, until the chicken is completely cooked through, and then turn off the heat. Stir in the cooked rice, chives, almonds, and parsley and serve it with buttered crusty French bread.

Making a Memory (Jug)

When I was in Santa Fe, NM, in November, I went to this neat antique shop called 136 Grant. It’s located on Grant Avenue, not too far from the Santa Fe plaza and right around the corner from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

136 Grant is housed in the historic Pinckney R. Tully House, which was built by its namesake in 1851. While the Tully House looks like brick from a distance — and I apologize for not having taken a close-up photo — it’s actually adobe, painted to look like brick.

Pinckney R. Tully House

Brick wasn’t easy to come by in mid-19th-century Santa Fe. After all, New Mexico had only just become a U.S Territory in 1846 and the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched from Missouri to Santa Fe, was a far cry from a modern-day highway.

If you travel around Santa Fe today, you might see a row or two of brick at the roof line of some New Mexican Territorial-style structures. It’s there for ornamental purposes and to protect the building, at its most vulnerable point, from erosion.

Without ready access to brick but wanting that Eastern look of home, some 19th-century Santa Feans did the next best thing: tediously faux painted the entire home with brick-red paint and white, brick-sized rectangles. It’s pretty amazing, really. Even from about 12 feet away, the Tully House looks like brick, although you can’t miss the adobe’s rounded corners.

Again, sorry I didn’t take a photo.

136 Grant has a friendly staff and a lot of different vendors. Most of the items in the shop are very different from what you’d see in an East Coast or Southern antique shop. For example, there were lots of Native American items, including pueblo pottery, jewelry and silver work. One thing they did have that seemed typically Southern to me, however, were a few memory jugs.

If you’re not familiar with the memory jug, it’s basically a jug (or jar), covered with clay or mortar that has all kinds of crap stuck into it. That might sound crude, but hey, look at these photos and you’ll probably agree. And I say “crap” with affection because I like memory jugs.

There are some really great examples of memory jugs on the Internet, including here on this artist’s website.

There are different theories as to the origins of the memory jug. One is that they were used in Southern, African-American burial traditions to mark grave sites. Everyday items, once owned by the deceased, would be pressed into clay or mortar that had been spread on the jug. The items used were thought to be useful in the afterlife, sort of like the stuff buried with Egyptian mummies.

Another theory, albeit still involving mourning traditions, is that memory jugs evolved out of Victorian sentimentality and a passion for collecting. As described on this website, “Saving mementos of loved ones has universal appeal … the odd button, a single earring or other bit of jewelry that reminds one of the deceased relative.”

Memory jugs are a little on the tacky side, but I’ve always liked them, and seeing the ones at 136 Grant inspired me to make my own. So, one day when I should have been working on a big writing project for a local magazine, I went to the hardware store, bought some pre-mixed mortar and made a memory jug.

I didn’t have any old family mementos to press into the mortar, but I did have a good bit of what I’d describe as “junk jewelry”: broken and orphan earrings, costume jewelry and that sort of thing. I also had an amber-colored beer bottle that I’d found in an old trash dump in the woods near my house.

My memory jug.

Back before there was city trash pickup, people would just pitch their trash over the hillside. Even when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, my grandparents in Southeastern Kentucky would pitch the trash over the hill. It’s just what you did.

That said, I love sifting through old trash dumps for bottles, broken pottery and other items. You do have to be careful though. Wear sturdy shoes with thick bottoms, to protect your feet from broken glass, and avoid dumps in warm weather, when ticks and snakes are out and about.

But back to my jug. After spreading the mortar on the bottle, I pressed bunches of junk jewelry into the sides until it was nearly covered. Then, I waited for it to dry, which took several hours.

In the end, I’d made a memory … and a memory jug.


A brief history of the swastika

A brief history of the swastika

A few months ago, I bought a vintage, sterling silver bracelet at a local antique shop. On it are stamped a number of symbols, including four tiny swastikas. Now, before anyone starts posting ugly comments about me being a Nazi — because I’m not — let me briefly explain the history behind the swastika.

After reading this article, hopefully you’ll understand why I bought the bracelet, as well as why I’m torn about whether or not to wear it.

In addition to arrows, feathers and other symbols, my silver bracelet is stamped with four swastikas.

According to scholars, the origins of the swastika — also called the “whirling log” — go back about 6,000 years. And apparently they’re all over the place, if you just pay attention. As Dottie Indyke writes in this article in the Santa Fe Collector’s Guide, “… anyone who looks at art or architecture, no matter how casually, will eventually see the symbol.

“The Navajos, Tibetans and Turks incorporated the swastika into their rugs. Arizona’s indigenous Pima and Maricopa people wove them into their baskets and painted them onto their pots. In Asia the emblem is found on everything from clothing to political ballots to the thresholds of houses.

One of the swastikas, or whirling logs, stamped on my bracelet.

“Swastikas are carved into the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia Museum of Art and many ancient Buddhist and Mayan temples. At Albuquerque’s KiMo Theater, built in 1927 and recently restored, swastikas adorn the proscenium, entryway and the building’s exterior. Elsewhere in New Mexico, they are evident in the architecture of the Shaffer Hotel in Mountainair and the Swastika Hotel in Raton (now the International Bank).”

According to Indyke, the swastika is “one of the oldest symbols made by humans,” and it originated with the Sanskrit word for well-being, or literally “good be” — a far cry from what it commonly represents today.

Based on my limited knowledge of Native American jewelry making, I think my bracelet is Navajo, or at least made in the Navajo style. I say this because its shape and style are identical to one I bought directly from a Navajo silversmith.

The swastika bracelet is not signed. It might have been made for the tourist trade and maybe for the Fred Harvey Company. The Fred Harvey Company ran a chain of hotels and restaurants in the American Southwest from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

The company was famous for its waitresses, who were called “Harvey Girls.” Fred Harvey also had curio shops, and one of the things they sold was Native American jewelry.

My bracelet dates to sometime before 1940. How do I know this? As Indyke tells it, after Adolph Hitler hijacked the swastika for his own evil purposes, several Native American tribes formally decided to stop using the symbol.

“In 1940, in response to Hitler’s regime, the Navajo, Papago, Apache and Hopi people signed a whirling log proclamation,” Indyke writes.

“It read, ‘Because the above ornament, which has been a symbol of friendship among our forefathers for many centuries, has been desecrated recently by another nation of peoples, therefore it is resolved that henceforth from this date on and forever more our tribes renounce the use of the emblem commonly known today as the swastika … on our blankets, baskets, art objects, sand paintings and clothing.”

Thus, back to the reason I’m reluctant to wear what is otherwise a beautiful silver bracelet: I don’t want anyone to catch sight of the tiny swastikas and think I’m a Nazi or white supremacist. On the other hand, wearing the bracelet — assuming I’m not assaulted in the process — could result in some interesting, enlightening conversations.

Readers, what do you think? Should I wear it or not?

Also, on this blog there are numerous photos of whirling logs/swastikas used in architecture.

Who do I think I am?

A few days ago, I sent off for the AncestryDNA kit. It was Cyber Monday and they were running a 30-percent-off special, so I figured, “Why not?” Actually, my sister Theresa told me Ancestry was running the special and offered to pay for half of it, making the offer even more attractive.

Considering Theresa and I shared a womb, as two thirds of a set of triplets — the other’s a boy — it can be assumed that we have the same ethnic background. So, no need for two tests. What a bargain!

With lots of English and German surnames in my genealogy, I suspect my results will be pretty boring, but I’m hopeful there will be a surprise or two. One mystery I hope will be unraveled is the rumored “Black Dutch” ancestry on my maternal grandmother’s side.

My mom’s family, at least back to the early 1800s, were from eastern Kentucky, particularly Knox and Whitley counties, near the town of Barbourville.

When I was growing up, Granny always told us her family was Black Dutch. I never knew exactly what she meant, and still don’t really, as there are so many explanations for the term. Depending on the source, Black Dutch has been used to refer to German gypsies, Melungeons, Sephardic Jews, Native Americans, mixed-race people and others ethnic groups.

Theresa saw a photography exhibit at the Smithsonian many years ago about German gypsies and she said the people in the photos looked a lot like my mom and her siblings.

Granny, Allie Arizona Miles, is in the center, front. Her parents are on either side. Allie’s siblings, Ike, Julie, Vida and Ethel (although I might have the order wrong), stand behind them. Circa 1915.

My Granny, Allie Arizona Engle, was the daughter of John Jefferson Engle and Louisa Melinda Warfield. John Engle was descended from Melchor Engle, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the mid-1700s.

You can read more about Melchor here at

Being the only known German surname on my mom’s side of the family, I suspect the Engles are the source of the Black Dutch story.

Another family history mystery I’d like to solve through DNA testing is that of what my great-great-grandpa, John Wesley Miles, was up to in the late 1800s. I blogged about him a while back, and you can read that here.

To paraphrase, in about 1880, John left his wife and young son in Kentucky, saying he was headed out for a sack of cornmeal. He didn’t return for about 20 years.

josephine bill sidney claudie.jpg
Maybe some Native American ancestry comes from Josephine Lee, first wife of John Wesley Miles. She’s pictured here, standing behind her son, Bill, and his wife, Sidney. Sidney is holding my great aunt, Claudie. Circa about 1900.

The story I always heard was that he had a Wild West adventure, heading to Oklahoma, Texas or Arkansas. There, he was rumored to have started a new family before eventually returning to Kentucky, toting a sack of cornmeal like nothing ever happened.

I’d like to find the descendants of that other family in Texas, Oklahoma or wherever they are.

Also, John Miles claimed half-Native American ancestry, so I’d like to know if there’s any truth to that. The alleged Native American ancestry also might have come from someone else, or might not exist at all. Hopefully, DNA will shed some light on that.

So, that’s it for now. I haven’t even got the test kit yet, but when I send it off and the results come back, I’ll be sure to let you know what it says. I’m hoping for surprises, scandal and intrigue, but I’ll settle for not boring.

The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’

The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’

A few weeks ago, while researching something entirely different, I stumbled across the story of Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence. Widely known in the 1860s as a “redeemed slave child,” Fannie was a poster child for the abolitionist movement.

Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence, a redeemed slave child, five years of age, as she appeared when found in slavery. Van Dorn, photograph artist, 285 Fulton St., Brooklyn. (Library of Congress)

At this point, you might be thinking, “Slave child? Isn’t that little girl white?” No, despite her fair complexion and light brown hair, she’s not. In the mid-1800s, when Fannie was born to a mulatto slave mother and a white slave owner, she would have been described as an “octoroon,” or someone who is one-eighth black.

At the time, terms like quadroon, octoroon and quintroon were used to describe people who were one-fourth, one-eighth and one-sixteenth black. Regardless of how white Fannie appeared or how little African ancestry she actually had, she was considered black.

Fannie, posed in prayer. R.S. De Lamater, photographer, Hartford, CT. (Library of Congress)

You can find many carte-de-visite photographs of Fannie online, including on the Library of Congress website. In the photos, the cherubic child is photographed in various poses, among them kneeling to pray while clad in an angelic, white nightgown.

Because these photos were used as anti-slavery propaganda, this was all about strategy — not only the sweet, innocent pose, but also because Fannie appears to be white. The thinking was that one might be more apt to support the cause, emotionally and monetarily, if one could imagine that praying child as one of their own.

But who was Fannie?

There’s an entry on about Fannie, written by a Rick Lawrence, who may or may not be a relative (he didn’t respond to my message). According to Lawrence, Fannie was born in 1858 in Rectortown, Fauquier County, Va.

Fannie’s mom was said to be a slave named Mary Fletcher and her dad was reportedly Fletcher’s owner, Charles Ayres. Ayres, who went by the middle name “Rufus,” was a white lawyer and farmer.

As described by William Page Johnson II, who wrote an article about Fannie and her family for the Historic Fairfax City newsletter in 2015, “Like many slaveholders, Rufus, who was unmarried, took full advantage of the relationship and had at least three children by his slaves Mary Fletcher, Jane Payne, and Ann Gleaves.

“However, unlike most slaveholders, he acknowledged them and provided for them in his last will and testament.”

In November 1859, that will came into play when Ayres was killed by a neighbor. An article headlined “Fatal Affair” in Richmond’s Daily Dispatch states that Ayres was “shot and instantly killed” by James Phillips, and that “the difficulty between them originated about the location of a road.

“Ayres struck Phillips with a cowhide, when the latter drew a pistol and shot Ayres, killing him on the spot.”

A subsequent article in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser describes a more drawn-out incident, involving multiple locations and an additional suspect or two, but the end result is the same: Ayres is dead.

(Both of these articles can be found in the Library of Congress newspaper archive, Chronicling America. Just search for Virginia, the year 1859 and Ayres.)

After Ayres death, the aforementioned slave women and the children Ayres fathered with them were freed. Unfortunately, because of laws at the time, that also meant they had to leave the state of Virginia. Because Mary Fletcher was married to another slave and had other children who were not freed upon Ayres’s death, she chose to remain enslaved.

But during the Civil War, in 1862, Mary Fletcher, Fannie and several other slaves, including others named in Ayres’s will that remained in slavery, escaped. There’s a long, detailed description of the escape in Johnson’s story, but in short, the group flees to Union territory.

Fannie and Catharine Lawrence, her adopted mother. Photograph by Renowden, 65 Fulton Av., Brooklyn. (Library of Congress)

What happens to Fannie’s mom after this is uncertain — Johnson includes some theories in his article — but Fannie ends up being adopted by a Civil War nurse named Catharine Lawrence. Lawrence was acquainted with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Lawrence takes Fannie, who’s about 5 years old at the time, to New York. There, she’s baptized by Beecher as “Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence.” It was at this point that Fannie’s “career” as a “redeemed slave child” began.

According to Johnson, before baptizing Fannie, Beecher held her up to his congregation, declaring dramatically, “This child was born a slave, and is redeemed from slavery!” upon which there was an “audible gasp from the astonished, and equally horrified parishioners, who assumed the child to be white.”

Johnson goes on to write that Beecher told his congregation of the terrible fate awaiting Fannie, had she not been adopted by Lawrence. Because of Fannie’s “near-white complexion,” Johnson writes, “Fann[ie], and others like her, were in danger of being abused by their white masters, or worse, being sold as Fancy Girls, a 19th century euphemism for light skinned slave prostitutes, which were then common in New Orleans.”

Or as Beecher put it:

… Look upon this child. Tell me have you ever seen a fairer, sweeter face? This is a sample of the slavery which absorbs into itself everything fair and attractive. The loveliness of this child would only make her so much more valuable as chattel; For while your children are brought up to fear and serve the Lord, this one, just as beautiful, would be made through slavery a child of damnation.

It was an effective ploy, albeit for the good cause of ending slavery.

A little drummer girl. Kellogg Brothers, photographers, 279 Main St., Hartford, Conn. (Library of Congress)

Sometime shortly after that, photos of Fannie were taken and widely distributed. As Johnson tells it, the pictures were “wildly popular in the North, making Fannie the most photographed slave child in history.”

While Johnson doesn’t say Fannie was abused or neglected in any way, he describes the tactics Beecher and Lawrence used as “exploitive.”

According to the Find A Grave entry, Lawrence raised Fannie “as her own child.” This is supported by the 1865 New York census, which shows a 6-year-old Fannie living in the town of Schoharie with Lawrence and her older brother, Henry Lawrence, a farmer.

Find A Grave also states Fannie married while in her teens and had two children. Johnson’s research led him to this quote by Lawrence, which supports this and also suggests the marriage was not a good one:

The little one that I adopted and educated, married one whom I opposed, knowing his reckless life rendered him wholly unfit for one like her. When sick and among strangers, he deserted her and an infant daughter and eloped with a woman, who left her husband and two small children.

Fannie is believed to have died sometime before 1895. Her burial site is unknown, although it’s believed to be somewhere in New York.

You can read Johnson’s article, in its well-researched entirety, here. It includes a lot more information about Fannie and her family, including the story of her older sisters, who also were brought north and adopted, but to even less happy endings.

And here, you can read an NPR story about other children who were photographed for anti-slavery campaigns.

Walk (and eat) your way across Santa Fe

Walk (and eat) your way across Santa Fe

If we hadn’t walked to the Bataan Memorial Museum, we wouldn’t have eaten “Santa Fe’s Best Hot Dog.” It’s that simple: when you walk instead of drive, you’re more likely to stop at a take-out window for Chicago-style hot dogs smothered in green chiles and cheese. Or see the world’s biggest raccoon, eating pears.

OK, maybe I’d better stop at the pear-eating raccoon and back up.

One year, for our annual trip to New Mexico, my sister, Theresa, and I decided not to rent a car. Unlike past trips, we wouldn’t spend our days driving through the Land of Enchantment, stopping to take photographs, chase tumbleweeds, bird watch, visit ancient ruins and eat green chile cheeseburgers at roadside diners.

Nope, that year we decided to do something more relaxing: hole up in Santa Fe for a week. We’d visit our favorite restaurants, shops, museums and galleries, and the ones we’d meant to see on past trips. We’d experience all “The City Different” had to offer, and we’d do it all on foot.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

So, in late November of that year, Theresa and I flew to Albuquerque. We caught a shuttle to the Inn on the Alameda and by lunchtime we were sitting at our favorite Santa Fe bar, Del Charro Saloon, eating green chile cheeseburgers.

We discovered Del Charro a few years years ago. Although not completely devoid of tourists — obviously, we were there — Del Charro feels like Santa Fe’s equivalent of “Cheers.” It’s a few blocks from our hotel and most everything on the menu is less than $10. The house margarita is a steal at $7, and because you’re walking, you can have [almost] as many as you like.

El Santuario de Guadalupe

Over the next week, Theresa and I walked to the historic rail yard and farmer’s market. We shopped for vintage western wear and visited El Santuario de Guadalupe, one of several old, adobe churches in Santa Fe worth seeing.

We walked to the Bataan Memorial Museum, dedicated to the Filipino and American soldiers who made the “Bataan Death March” during World War II. It was on the outskirts of downtown, but we figured if 75,000 soldiers could walk 60 or 70 miles under torturous conditions, we could walk to a museum two miles away that honored them.

Chicago Dog Express

En route, we discovered Chicago Dog Express, home of the aforementioned “Santa Fe’s Best Hot Dog.” (And indeed, they are.) On the way back, we stopped at a corner grocery store, Kaune’s, that sells local foods at prices far less than gift shops on the historic, tourist-infused plaza.

Quick travel tip: When looking for local edibles, skip the gift shops and head to a grocery store or farmers market.

We went to the Spanish Colonial Art and International Folk Art museums on Museum Hill. For full disclosure purposes, because Museum Hill was two miles away and we had a full itinerary that day, we cheated and took a $1 city bus instead of walking.

We walked Canyon Road, a mile-long arts district where you can buy everything from Peruvian folk art to a $137,000 Mary Cassatt painting. We ventured onto Garcia Street, a historic neighborhood with an array of New Mexican Territorial-style homes.

We discovered this tiny chapel on a hillside, outside the tourist district.

We walked down East Alameda Street, turned left on a gravel road and crossed a well-traveled gully up to Cerro Gordo Road. There, on a hillside sits a tiny chapel built in 1928 as a tribute to San Ysidro, patron saint of farmers.

We went to the annual Winter Spanish Market — now held in Albuquerque — where artisans sold retablos, colcha embroidery, straw appliqué, tin work and other examples of traditional Spanish Colonial art. We shopped for Native American jewelry at the Palace of the Governors and visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

The Palace of the Governors, where Native Americans from all over New Mexico sell handmade jewelry, pottery and other artwork. Prices are usually more reasonable than the shops, plus you’re buying directly from the artist.

We sat on the plaza, listening to three old hippies sing classic rock songs. We also walked the labyrinth at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and stopped for bizcochitos, the New Mexican state cookie, at three separate bakeries.

And while walking to the plaza one night, we saw the biggest raccoon on the planet, eating pears. It was round as a barrel and seemed much more interested in gobbling pears that had fallen from a nearby tree than in the pair of tourists looking at it. We watched the hungry raccoon for a minute or so, then ambled off toward the plaza.

It was near-Christmas, after all. The plaza was strung with lights and just a short walk away.

Santa Fe plaza, decorated for the holidays. If you were there, you’d also smell spicy pinon wood, burning in fireplaces all over the historic district.


Here’s the recipe I use for bizcochitos. It makes about two dozen of the anise-seed sugar cookies. There are many variations — some people use wine, others orange juice, some whisky or brandy, and some spell it “biscochito.”


1/2 cup vegetable shortening, lard or unsalted butter or margarine (I use lard.)
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. aniseed (or 1/8 tsp. anise seed extract) (I prefer seed.)
1 tbsp. brandy
1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1/4 tsp. cinnamon for dredging


Preheat oven to 350 and have 2 ungreased cookie sheets ready. Combine the first 5 ingredients in the food processor and blend until the shortening and the sugar are creamed, about 5 to 10 seconds, stopping once to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With a fork, mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Still using the fork, add the shortening mixture from the processor and keep blending until no loose flour appears in the bowl and the cookie dough begins to draw into a mass.

At this point, you can either pat out 2 1/2-inch rounds, just under 1/4 inch thick, or you can chill the dough for 15 minutes and then roll it out onto a lightly floured board with a rolling pin. Rolling out enables you to cut fancy shapes if you like. A quick method is to place a tablespoon of dough on the board and flatten it into a circle with the bottom of a glass or cup.

However you shape them, dredge one side of the bizcochitos in the cinnamon sugar and arrange close together on the cookie sheet with the sugared side up. Bake 10 minutes or until the cookies turn a pale blond. Cool for 5 minutes in the pans, then transfer to a cooling rack. Cookies cut thicker than 1/4 inch will be softer, once baked, than thin cookies. The dough can also be baked at 375 for 15 minutes, in which case the cookies will be browned and crisp. Store in a cookie jar or paper bag, where they will keep for at least a week.

(A version of this article also appeared in WalkAbout Magazine in 2013.)

The Lynchburg Zoo

The Lynchburg Zoo

If you walk to the center of Lynchburg’s Miller Park today, between the Aviary and what’s called the “fireman’s fountain,” you’ll find a flowerbed. The contents of this flowerbed aren’t remarkable — one small tree, a few clumps of hostas, other common plants — but what is noteworthy is its border.

At first glance, the rectangle of flagstone slabs, connected with heavy, iron staples, looks like overkill. After all, it’s only corralling foliage and mulch. But what a lot of people don’t know is that in its previous life this flowerbed was a bear pit.

The old bear pit at Miller Park.

Yes, you read that correctly. There were once bears at Miller Park, along with deer, monkeys, snakes, birds, alligators, wolves and other wildlife. During the early part of the 20th century, the City of Lynchburg operated a zoo at what was once known as “City Park” and later named for local philanthropist Samuel Miller.

It’s difficult to say exactly when the zoo opened. There is, however, mention of it in the Nov. 22, 1899, edition of the Lynchburg News.

A story headlined “Bears for the Park” reports that “two fine bears” just arrived in Lynchburg aboard a Norfolk & Western freight train. The bears were acquired by the city from C.N. Otey, said to be a “well-to-do business man of Wytheville.”

The article further explains that prior to that time Otey had kept the bears as pets.

Why Otey relinquished the bears isn’t stated, but the 1900 U.S. Census might offer a clue. At the time, the 42-year-old Otey was a bartender and married father of six. Otey’s brother and father-in-law also live in the house.

That said, one can imagine Otey’s wife of 15 years, Ella, thinking something had to go. So Lynchburg got two bears.

In “The History of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1786-1946,” author Philip Lightfoot Scruggs writes that the zoo “was initiated through a buck deer being given to E.C. Hamner, chairman of City Council’s committee on parks.” The year isn’t mentioned.

Cover of an early 20th century Lynchburg annual report. (Lynchburg Museum System)

Over the years, the City of Lynchburg’s Committee on Parks reported annual expenses and other statistics related to the zoo. For example, the city’s 1900 Annual Report lists the following expenses were incurred in 1899:

Food for animals — $414.48
Addition to green-house and monkey house — $156.08
Bear pit — $942.20
Fencing — $189.11
Parot [sic] house — $125.14
Winter quarters for monkeys and birds — $110.60
Animals and birds bought — $129.68
Eagle house — $83.85

The Committee on Parks reported in 1902 that former Lynchburg citizen Randolph Guggenheimer, then a resident of New York, had donated money to build the Aviary. Hamner said the building would cost $2,500 “without the heating and painting,” and would “enable us to take better care of the small animals and birds during the winter, and also enables visitors to see them.”

In his book, Scruggs describes the Aviary as “especially interesting” and said its “most fearsome” feature “was a great rattlesnake which so impressed younger visitors that they were likely to think of the aviary as a snake house.”

In 1902, Hamner also reported that the zoo had the following animals in its collection: 13 monkeys, three bears, seven parrots, two ferrets, two cockatoos, 35 guinea pigs, 20 rabbits, five owls, four groundhogs, two caracaras, 60 pigeons, six fantail pigeons, two Australian doves, three silver pheasants, two falcons, three white turkey, four peafowl, six deer, one badger, one coati, three red foxes, three gray foxes, six raccoons, 50 squirrels, two gophers, one turtle, one wolf, five alligators, 100 goldfish and four guinea fowl.

Donations — “animals presented,” as stated in the 1902 report — also were noted. Among these were two cockatoos, donated by Louis Lazarus, and two alligators and a turtle, donated by W.B. Bigbie.

One can imagine the stories behind these donations. Perhaps, Bigbie brought two tiny alligators home from a trip to Florida in a shoebox, only to have them grow too big for the family bathtub. Something had to be done with them, so off they went to the zoo.

Deaths also were reported. In 1904, Park Superintendent R.C. Driver said the following animals had died or had been killed by dogs: “three monkeys, nine deer (killed by dogs), five raccoons, three black-snakes, one peafowl, sixteen rabbits (killed by dogs), thirty guinea pigs (killed by dogs), two ducks, one falcon, two American eagles, one buzzard, three groundhogs, two silver pheasants and one sea-dove.”

The zoo was a popular local attraction. In 1903, Hamner said the Aviary “has now become the main point of attraction and a source of enjoyment for both young and old.” He added, “As the zoological department is constantly growing, so the number of people who visit the park is increasing, and even in wet weather the crowds are large.”

Hamner also noted that the local Knights of Pythias built a squirrel enclosure for the zoo, where the children could “feed [the] animals from their own hands.” This, Hamner added, “can give the little ones much pleasure.”

Sometimes, however, this didn’t work out so well.

Lynchburg newspaper, Aug. 30, 1918.

In 1921, the zoo was closed. As reported in the publication The Playground in 1924, “In 1921, the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, abolished the zoo at Miller Park in order to supply recreation facilities which would serve a larger number of people and permit active participation in recreation activities.”

Photo from 1922 Lynchburg annual report of what was formerly the zoo’s elk and deer paddock. (Lynchburg Museum System)

The Aviary eventually became a public library, among other things, and is currently operated by the city’s parks and recreation department as an events venue. At some point, the bear pit was filled with dirt and plants.

Because it’s been almost 100 years since the zoo closed, photos and personal accounts of the zoo are hard — perhaps impossible — to come by. Sometimes, I forget that people didn’t always walk around with cameras in their pockets.

Also, those who would remember going to the zoo, even in the early 1920s as young children, would be pushing 100 years old today.

There are secondhand accounts, though, if you ask around. For example, Doug Harvey, director of Lynchburg Museum System, remembers his aunt, Lillian Burnette Tweedy, talking about the zoo.

“[She] told us that she rode the street cars from Floyd Street to the park for a nickel to see the bears,” Harvey said. “This was about 1917.”

And Lynchburg native Don Bobbitt, posting on the Facebook group Living in Lynchburg, wrote the following:

I remember, as a child visiting an aunt, and she had a collection of those pictures you looked at through a viewer. I was fascinated by how amazing the old Miller Park was, with exotic flowers and plants and animals, and people dressed in their Sunday finest, walking around. There were dozens of them. But alas, she and her kids are long gone. Perhaps someone has a set of these?

Perhaps someone does. One can hope! And if I find copies, you’ll be the first to know!

Thanks to Doug Harvey, Wayne Fitzgerald and Don Bobbitt for your help with this article.

Richmond Road Trip: Research and Doughnuts

Richmond Road Trip: Research and Doughnuts

Recently, I drove to the Library of Virginia in Richmond to do some research for a couple of projects I was working on, including a story I posted last week about the Mamie Feimster murder.

Because road trips are no fun by yourself, and because having someone to yell directions at you from the passenger seat also is a plus, I invited my sister, Theresa, along.

Neither of us had ever been to the Library of Virginia before, so the first thing we had to do was get Library of Virginia cards. It was easy — and free, always good — and took just a few minutes.

After that, we were directed to a research room, where I used my card to request some records. While Theresa watched videos on her smart phone, including this one of a cute monkey eating a watermelon, I did some research.

First, I looked at papers from the Virginia Penitentiary, where I hoped to find information about Lythia Brown Buckwalter, who murdered Mamie Feimster and was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

I heard she escaped sometime near the end of her sentence, but I didn’t find any evidence of that.

Admittedly, I later discovered that Buckwalter served only seven of the 16 years, so I might have been looking in the wrong date range. By that time, however, the records had been re-filed.

I also was getting “hangry” and needed to eat something before I did one more second of research — or ripped someone’s head from their shoulders (not literally, of course).

The other thing I was looking for that day were Lynchburg coroner’s inquests from the late 1800s. A box of these records is in the library’s collection. Inside, I hoped to find mention of the Court Street Baptist Church tragedy, which I blogged about recently.

Alas, I came up empty handed there, too.

After having some lunch in the library’s cafe, Theresa and I thought we’d head over to the Virginia Historical Society, where I had other research to do.

The research concerns William Macon Waller, an Amherst County, Va., slave owner who walked about two dozen of his slaves to Natchez, Miss., in 1847-48. I haven’t blogged specifically about Waller yet, although he was mentioned in this post about the Virginia Dwarf Family, a family of traveling performers he encountered in Wythe County, Va., en route to Mississippi.

Upon arriving at the historical society, however, we learned it would be open for only two more hours that day. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of one of my favorite books, “In the Heart of the Sea,” would be appearing there that evening and so the library was closing at 4 p.m.

Because the historical society charges a research fee and I had a full day’s worth of work to do, I decided it would be better to come back when I could get more bang for my buck.

There were Dale Chihuly sculptures behind the art museum.

With a couple of hours left before we had to head back to Lynchburg, Theresa and I walked next door to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I’d never been there before and admission was — yippee! — free.

We walked around the museum for a while, admiring the artwork and decorative items. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we spent most of it looking at American art from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

We also saw that a Faberge exhibit was opening the next week, giving me another reason to return to Richmond soon.

Sugar Shack Donuts, AKA Doughnut Heaven

On our way out of town, we stopped by Sugar Shack Donuts. Theresa had read about Sugar Shack online and I can never resist a good doughnut. My husband, John, and I have been known to drive two or three hours out of our way to go to Ralph’s Donuts, in Cookeville, Tenn. Ralph’s has an excellent maple-frosted cake doughnut.

We went to Sugar Shack’s original shop on North Lombardy Street in Richmond. The outside is unassuming — a painted stucco building on a crowded corner with limited parking — but inside was a glorious assortment of doughnuts.

According to the friendly staff, Sugar Shack doesn’t post a menu because the offerings change every 15 minutes. That day, there were dozens of different kinds available, among them pumpkin and chocolate cake, “Tastes like a Samoa” (it does), and doughnuts with candy bar and cereal toppings.

Theresa and I each ordered a half-dozen to take home, and somehow, they survived the two-hour drive before I ate any of them. Once home, between me and John, they were gone within 12 hours. Next time, I’m coming home with a dozen.

‘I did it’: The Mamie Feimster Murder

On Sept. 20, 1954, Lynchburg Police detectives J.E. Franklin and W.H. Phlegar were dispatched to 1006 Fourth St., the home of Mamie Feimster, a well-known madam in the city’s red light district.

When they arrived, a petite brunette named Lythia Brown Buckwalter met them at the door. She calmly handed the detectives a Smith & Wesson revolver and confessed.

As reported in the next morning’s Lynchburg News, the 36-year-old told them, “I did it.”

Once inside the house, detectives found the body of Mamie Chittum Feimster on the kitchen floor. The newspaper vividly reported that the 52-year-old woman was “sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood while a bowl of chicken broth cooled on the kitchen table.”

She’d been shot four times.

As reporter Vince Spezzano put it, “From the location of the wounds and the blood, the shooting appeared to follow these lines: Mamie Feimster was in the kitchen and had apparently just removed a bowl of chicken broth from a stove and set it on the table to cool.

“Then she was shot four times — once in the left forearm, again in the upper left arm, once in the back at the left chest and the final shot in the left forehead.”

The medical examiner would later call that last shot “the fatal slug.”

After seeing a blood trail in the stairwell, detectives found the body of a second victim, Tina Thompson, in an upstairs bedroom. Thompson, in her early-to-mid-20s at the time depending on the source, had been shot once.

According to Spezzano’s account, this is likely what happened:

Tina Thompson, in her bedroom, heard the shots and started down the stairs to investigate. Viewing the bizarre scene and the woman with the gun in her hand, she turned and began to run back up the stairs.

As she dashed terrified up several of the steps, a slug caught her in the right upper arm, broke the bone and turned into the right side of her chest, possibly entering her heart or rupturing major blood vessels.

Critically wounded, she lived for enough seconds more to stagger up the remaining stairs and into the bedroom to die on the floor.

Buckwalter was arrested and charged with the murders.

By the time newspapers arrived on Lynchburg doorsteps on the morning of Sept. 22, the case had begun to take on a mysterious air. The day after the murders, Feimster’s will — written three days before the murders on Sept. 17 — was filed at the Lynchburg courthouse.

The will begins as follows:

Be it remembered that I, Mamie Chittum Feimster, of 1006 4th Street, City of Lynchburg, State of Virginia, being of sound mind and memory, but knowing the uncertainty of this life, do make this my last will and testament, hereby revoking all wills and codicils to wills by me at any time heretofore made.

In the will, Feimster leaves everything, after payment of funeral expenses and debts, to her mother.

The Sept. 22 article also pointed to a motive. As Spezzano wrote, “Recently, [Buckwalter] had been having some difficulties with Mrs. Feimster, and possibly with the Thompson girl, and this apparently came to a head Monday.”

Later reports indicate something more sinister might have been happening. On Oct. 15, the day after Buckwalter’s trial began, an Associated Press story ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It described the case as follows:

A story of being cheated, beaten, drugged and kept in fear was told in Corporation Court [in Lynchburg] today at the murder trial of a slender brunette charged with killing two other women.

Further deepening the intrigue, the article went on to say that on the day of the murders Buckwalter met with Commonwealth’s Attorney Royston Jester III and an FBI agent named John Freese.

Among other things, Buckwalter told them she had wanted to break ties with Feimster but “could not get her luggage out” of the house.

In keeping with this, the Lynchburg News reported the following account of Buckwalter’s testimony at trial:

Pausing only briefly once or twice and in a steady, clear voice (except for one tearful moment) the petite brunette told the jury a story picturing Mamie’s house as a chamber of horrors where she was beaten, cheated of her share of earnings, kept in an intermittent stupor with liquor and narcotics, practically imprisoned and followed constantly when she did leave the house.

During her wretched description of existence at Mamie’s which culminated in shooting her alleged tormenters, Lythia said she bought the .38 revolver used in the killings intending to commit suicide.

She said she shot Mamie and Tina because she feared they had found out that she had seen the FBI agent and the Commonwealth’s Attorney and were going to “do something bad to me for ratting.”

Compelling as that sounds, the Commonwealth’s Attorney was having none of it. In cross examination, Jester grilled Buckwalter. Why hadn’t she sought help from law enforcement? Why hadn’t she secreted a letter out of the house, seeking help?

“It didn’t occur to me,” the defendant said, blaming fear and forced drug and alcohol use for the lapse.

Further, the detectives testified that no drugs were found in the home, and a pharmacist said that while he’d filled prescriptions for Feimster, none were for narcotics.

In his closing arguments, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Arthur B. Davies III, who was seeking the death penalty, called the defendant’s testimony “nonsense,” and according to the local newspaper, “attributed the shootings to her ‘malice and ill will which were entirely unjustified.’”

After deliberating for an hour and a half, an all-male jury found Buckwalter guilty of both voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

According to prison records — on microfilm at the Library of Virginia — Buckwalter was paroled in 1961, after serving seven years of her sentence.

Thank you to blog reader Bob Stephens for telling me about this story. A few weeks ago, in response to a story I posted about the “Bawdy Ladies” tour at Old City Cemetery, Stephens told me about being in the Feimster home shortly after the murders.

Stephens wrote that “after the Mamie Feimster shooting, I was allowed to go with a police officer friend of the family into her house on 4th St. It was very tacky, colorful and interesting. The inside was unexpected looking at the outside.”

What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?  

What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?  

A few weeks ago, my sister, Theresa, and I went to Green Front Furniture in Farmville, Va. We go there every so often to look at and occasionally buy oriental rugs, one of the things Green Front is known for.

While I’m personally fond of finding my oriental rugs at antique or yard sales (or on the curb in the historic district), all of my new ones were purchased at Green Front.

This antique oriental rug, “sourced” curbside, now graces my entryway. It was thrown out with other “junk,” including a Griswold cast iron skillet, which I also picked up, re-seasoned and use to fry eggs. What’s that they say about one man’s trash?

In addition to rugs, Green Front sells a lot of furniture and home decor items. You also can find items I’d describe as “gifty,” like jars of Jezebel sauce.

You might ask, “What the Hell is Jezebel sauce?”

Jezebel sauce is a spicy-sweet condiment made from apple jelly, pineapple (or apricot) preserves, horseradish, dry mustard, black pepper and red pepper flakes. It can be used for lots of things, but one of the most popular uses for Jezebel sauce is to pour it over a block of cream cheese and eat it with crackers.

One might wonder why such a wonderful-sounding concoction is named for a biblical queen who, after being an utterly terrible person, was thrown from a window and eaten by stray dogs. I can’t answer that question.

Recently, I saw Jezebel sauce on the menu at Scratch Biscuit Company, a new biscuit restaurant in Roanoke. I’d heard about Scratch Biscuit a few months ago, but finally went there this past week with my friend, Adrienne.

I ordered the Jezebel Biscuit — of course — which consisted of a cat-head-sized biscuit filled with country ham, pimento cheese and Jezebel sauce.

The Jezebel Biscuit: a heavenly mixture of flaky, savory, sweet and spicy.

That biscuit was so good. Not being a food writer, I don’t quite know how to say it any better. Just so, so, so, so good. It was so worth the hour-long drive. Adrienne got the fried Cajun catfish biscuit and also declared it a winner.

Next time, I’ll try the catfish biscuit, topped with Scratch Biscuit’s special “Satan’s Snot” hot sauce. You’re right, “Satan’s snot” doesn’t sound very appetizing, but Adrienne thought it was a good complement to the catfish.

I didn’t buy that $4.50 jar of Jezebel sauce at Green Front, but I probably should have because it’ll likely cost me more to make it than to buy it. I did find a recipe for it, though, in my copy of “The Complete Southern Cookbook,” by Tammy Algood.

This is my favorite cookbook, although I obviously hadn’t perused it enough over the past few years to know it contained a recipe for Jezebel sauce. It’s organized by ingredient, A to Z, and includes many old southern standbys, among them a to-die-for coconut cake and a whole chapter on macaroni and cheese.

Here’s the recipe for Jezebel sauce:

Jezebel Sauce

Yield 1 1/2 cups

1 (5-ounce) jar apple jelly
1 (5-ounce) jar pineapple preserves
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
1/2 T. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper

Directions: In a medium bowl, whisk together the jelly, preserves, horseradish, mustard, black pepper and red pepper. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Algood also wrote my second-favorite cookbook, “The Southern Slow Cooker Bible.” And since we’ve talked a lot about biscuits here, I’ll just go ahead and recommend “Southern Biscuits,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. This book has every biscuit recipe imaginable, along with recipes for things to make out of, with and to serve atop biscuits.

By the way, Theresa and I also go to Farmville to eat at Walker’s Diner, which has a great eggs-and-bacon breakfast and a friendly staff, among other things.

The High Bridge Trail, a great place to bike, also runs through Farmville. Its namesake bridge was built in 1854, and apparently both Union and Confederate troops tried to burn it down during the Civil War.

Farmville also has a few cute antique shops, an art gallery and Longwood University, where the recent vice-presidential debates were held. It’s just an all-around nice place to visit.