Fair Winds and Following Seas

USCGC Diligence departs Wilmington

By John Wolfe     Photographs by Andrew Sherman

It’s a cool gray Memorial Day morning, and the tide is nearly full beneath the big white ship moored at the heart of Wilmington, this city on a river. The wharf bustles with last-minute preparations for departure. Sailors in blue coveralls load pallets of provisions up the gangplank; a life-jacketed crew prepares the ship’s small boat for launch as a team of line-handlers surveys the bollards and places fenders over the side.

A few crewmembers are still arriving at the ship. Some come alone, with seabags slung over their shoulders, saluting the flag flying at the stern as they cross the ship’s brow. One petty officer tarries with his family in the parking lot, wearing sunglasses and crisp dress blues, his tight-lipped wife beside him as he hugs his children one more time. This is part of the service. Goodbye is a familiar word in every sailor’s vocabulary. But on this day, it feels a little more permanent.

Their ship is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Diligence, a 210-foot medium endurance cutter with a crew of 74. Commissioned in 1964, it has been stationed in downtown Wilmington since 1992 after undergoing a two-year, $28 million refit in 1990. After it departs it will spend the next two months patrolling the Atlantic, completing its missions of search-and-rescue, marine fisheries enforcement, counter-drug operations and migrant interdiction. To be diligent means to be persistent in application to one’s work, and Diligence lives up to its name: In 2011 it seized 3,000 pounds of cocaine in the western Caribbean, worth $34 million, and three years ago it intercepted three high-speed smuggling boats carrying $60 million worth of cocaine in the eastern Pacific.

This is the sixth cutter to bear the name Diligence, an honor few ships share. The first Diligence was one of the 10 original revenue cutters, built by order of George Washington in 1791 to enforce customs and tariff laws and provide income for the fledgling nation, and sailed from Cape Fear the following year. It famously seized notorious French smugglers, an act which led to the mysterious disappearance of its master, Thomas Cooke, and his son in 1796.

According to Coast Guard historian William H. Thiesen, the next three ships named Diligence were also based out of Wilmington. Diligence II served in the quasi-war with France in 1798 and now has a full-sized replica in the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Diligence III was lost in a hurricane off Ocracoke in 1806, and Diligence IV saw action in the war of 1812.

As of this morning, Diligence is the only cutter named for one of the Coast Guard’s original 10 revenue cutters still serving in its namesake’s home port. But when it casts off its lines, that comes to an end. After this patrol, its new home port will be Pensacola, Florida, where Diligence will be moored alongside three other ships in its class to make maintenance easier as they near the end of their service life. When Diligence is eventually retired, its name will live on. The Coast Guard recently announced plans to build 10 new ships: Heritage-class 360-foot offshore patrol cutters, which will become the mainstay of the oceangoing fleet. The first flight will include WMSM-922 (W means Coast Guard and MSM stands for maritime security cutter), the seventh Diligence, which will carry the name forward. But currently, the Coast Guard has no plans to home port another cutter in Wilmington, although the dock will remain available to visiting ships.

Cmdr. Luke Slivinski is the ship’s commanding officer. Lean and tan, with steady blue eyes and close-cropped sandy hair, he stands on the quay by the ship’s bow, talking to the press and the small group of civilians who have gathered. Even though the ship is leaving, he emphasizes that the Coast Guard will remain: Sector Headquarters for North Carolina will stay in Wilmington, and small boat bases at Oak Island and Wrightsville Beach will continue to stand ready to come to the assistance of mariners.

“The Coast Guard has enjoyed a very special relationship with the city of Wilmington,” he says, and “that close relationship . . . will continue.” Calling Wilmington a “hidden gem in the service,” both captain and crew are sad to be saying goodbye.

Though its home port will be different, the mission of the cutter remains unchanged. Life onboard, Slivinski says, is about how you’d guess it would be spending months at a time on a 210-foot ship with “70 of your best friends.” It’s nothing like a Carnival Cruise, he explains: The work is 24/7, and 16- or 18-hour workdays are typical. The types of missions and activities the cutter gets involved in are rarely scheduled. The Atlantic Ocean can be a harsh place, something they get exposed to quite regularly, and it’s tough to be away from family and friends (and for the younger sailors, cell service) for months at a time.

“But there’s a certain allure and mystique about going to sea,” Slivinski says. “Every day is different — the environment is constantly changing. It never stops moving. And it certainly humbles you, in a way, because you’re at the whim of the ocean and Mother Nature. It’s certainly special for me, which is why I’ve made a career of it.” Working together in tight situations, while stressful, has the benefit of creating a floating family. “That’s what keeps people coming back,” Slivinski says. “It’s not the food, or the long work hours, or the constant motion or seasickness. It’s being part of a group and getting to accomplish some amazing things that no one person could do on their own. The camaraderie that you have on a seagoing ship can’t be replicated anywhere.”

It’s time to say goodbye. The captain goes back onboard, and the only people left on the pier are the families of the men and women on the cutter, waving American flags and homemade signs. A banner saying “THANK U” billows from a window on a nearby building. On the golden river, an armada of local boats floats outside the perimeter made by a Coast Guard small response boat, waiting to wish the Diligence off one last time. The ship’s crew appears on deck, on the bridge, on the fo’c’sle and the fantail, bedecked in blue coveralls and orange life jackets. Gray smoke billows from the stack as the engines warm up. The clouds are parting, the sun is coming out.

One prolonged and three short blasts on the ship’s whistle, a deep baritone bellow that announces it’s getting underway, and 228 years of maritime tradition come to an end as it clears its lines for the final time. The small boats in the river sound a chorus of horns in response; a cheer goes up. American flags wave everywhere. Diligence backs out, pivots to starboard, and slowly gathers way downriver with the falling tide. The Wilmington fireboat throws a sparkling cascade of water skyward as Diligence leads the parade south.

The crowd onshore waves goodbye. No longer will their ship play soaring bugle calls when they raise the flag in the morning or lower it at sunset. No longer will their ship ring eight bells at noon, a naval tradition that dates back to the age of sail, when time was kept with sand-filled hourglasses and eight bells signified the end of a watch, that “all was well.” Part of the heartbeat of Wilmington leaves with this ship.

Diligence, among other things, is the living counterpart to the old gray battleship North Carolina across the river — an active part of our nation’s tradition of service, a tradition as proud and colorful as the rainbow of signal flags she flew from bow to stern, dressed overall on the Fourth of July. The great white ship passes beneath the yawning span of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge for the final time, leaving the city in its wake, and heads out to sea.  PS

John Wolfe enjoys life as a writer and mariner on the North Carolina coast. More of his work can be found online at www.thewriterjohnwolfe.com.


Chip on Your Shoulder

Listen for the machine-gun call of the feisty chipping sparrow

By Susan Campbell

Here in North Carolina, we’re lucky to have so many species of sparrows. As a group, sparrows can be a challenge to sort out. But one, the chipping sparrow, stands out. Even though Chippings are the smallest in the group, do not let their stature fool you! They are tiny — but feisty. And they may be found just about anywhere at any time of the year.

Only slightly larger than a chickadee, chipping sparrows have a chestnut cap and a black eye line, set off against a pale face and white eyebrow. The pale gray breast is unmarked and the back is a mix of browns and blacks typical of most sparrows. Young of the year have a brown, streaky head and pale streaks on the chest and flanks. In winter, all “chippies” will have, more or less, this same muted plumage.

This bird gets its name from its frequent “chip” calls. The bird’s song, however, is a long, staccato trill that is said to have a machine gun-like quality. Males will sing throughout the day, even on the hottest afternoons. They are territorial little birds and so are constantly on the lookout for interlopers. Trespassing is not taken lightly with shoving matches typically followed by a dogfight that gives the unwanted guest a clear message.

Chipping sparrows are found almost statewide and they tend to favor pine forests. However chippies are not fussy when it comes to neither the type of pine nor the abundance of trees. They do require clusters of needles toward the ends of branches as nesting substrate. Come nesting season, a loose cup of stems and fine grasses will be constructed. They almost always incorporate some type of hair in the nest: In the Sandhills, this is often horsehair. But it is a flimsy affair and will barely last the few weeks it takes to raise a brood of three to five young. Energy is directed toward producing multiple sets of young quickly in this species. The approach surely is successful given how well the population is doing in our area.

Chipping sparrows are drawn to feeders if small seeds such as millet or chipped sunflower seed are available. Otherwise they can be found foraging at ground level for tiny grass and weed seeds. Like most of our breeding birds, adults also seek protein-rich insects in summer to feed their voracious youngsters.

So keep an eye and an ear out for these little birds. They are not shy — in summer they can be downright approachable when distracted by family rearing activities. And come winter, chippies will form large flocks. A congregation of 75 to a hundred individuals is not unusual. They may be joined by migrant birds from further north, increasing the local population to astronomical proportions.  PS

Susan would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com

The Naturalist

The Road Home

Well-traveled trails still hold surprises

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Unlike much of the rest of Moore County, State Road 1137 has changed very little since the days of my youth. Running north to south for just over 4 miles and through two different ZIP codes, the weathered two-lane blacktop is still bordered by open fields and pine forest. Interspersed here and there along its route is the occasional ranch-style house and double-wide trailer, all pretty much looking exactly the way they did in the early 1970s.

About the road’s midway point, in a sharp bend that cuts through a patch of turkey oak and longleaf, is my childhood home. It is a modest, single story, red brick house, with tall white columns extending up from the front porch, and a grey tin roof surrounded by a large well-manicured yard of centipede grass and acres of forest. The property sits atop a gently sloping hill in the far western edge of the Carolina Sandhills, near where the sandy, xeric soils of the Coastal Plain meet the densely packed clay-based soils of the Piedmont.

The skies here are wide open and free of light pollution. At night, the stars shine thick and bright and the Milky Way feels so close you can almost reach out and touch it. By day, the sky is the most brilliant shade of blue. On summer afternoons, deep purple clouds mushroom up from the east, and the sound of thunder echoes through the pines. During mid-winter, on those rare days when snow falls from somber grey clouds, one can actually hear the flakes hitting the ground.

The road itself is not much to look at and is easily taken for granted. It is not an especially scenic drive and looks pretty much like any other rural strip of asphalt throughout the Sandhills. The fields and forests that line its border do not reveal their secrets easily. But rest assured, there are wonders here.

Drive its route often enough and pay attention, as I have for nearly 47 years, and you will learn its rhythms. On most winter evenings, as the sun dips over the horizon, herds of white-tailed deer feed in the open fields that border the north end of the road near its junction with Hwy. 211. By day, brightly colored kestrels, North America’s smallest falcons, perch on the power line that cuts through those same fields. Early mornings in spring will find shiny black fox squirrels, the size of housecats, standing upright on the road’s shoulder near grandmother’s house with pine cones clasped tightly between their front paws. Blue flowers from Sandhills lupine brighten the roadside. Drive slowly on moonlit nights in May, with the windows rolled down, and you will be serenaded by the frenetic calls of whip-poor-wills. Come summer, abundant blackberries provide tasty treats for those who know how to spot their thorny shrubs growing beneath the power line cut. Heat lightning dances across the sky on most humid evenings, and fireflies blink on and off beneath the pines. The turkey oak leaves turn a deep burnt umber color in late October signaling the onset of fall. Eyeshine from grey foxes slinking across the road in front of the car late in the night is a common sight this time of year.

Yet, for all its familiarity, the road can still surprise. Just this past January, on an evening when torrential rains had supersaturated the ground for much of the day, the car headlights revealed a miniature marvel not far from the driveway to the house. Hopping out into the steady drizzle with flashlight in hand, I approached to find a 6-inch-long spotted salamander, so named for the brilliant dayglow yellow spots decorating its body, slowly walking across the road. Over all the years and thousands of times driving the road, I have never before observed this beautiful amphibian here.

Spotted salamanders need ephemeral ponds (temporary bodies of water that dry up for part of the year) to breed and lay their eggs. After a few weeks, the eggs hatch into a larval form complete with long tails and a bouquet of gills. When the ponds dry up in the spring, the larvae transform, like frog tadpoles, into terrestrial adults. The adults leave their pond and migrate far away, sometimes up to 1 mile, and then bury themselves underground, where they will remain for a year until the next breeding season’s rains begin and they start the cycle all over again. Considering the fact that spotted salamanders can live 30 years, I may well encounter the adult found near the edge of the yard once again.

My whole childhood was oriented toward animals and the outdoors. The natural curiosity was innate. And, like many kids in rural towns, I longed to get away. Eagle Springs just seemed too small. Magazines, such as Ranger Rick and National Geographic, as well as television shows like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, fueled my daydreams of exploring far-off lands in search of exotic beasts. I wanted to swim with the sharks and catch snakes in tropical jungles.

Fortunately, I have been able to live out most of those daydreams. My work has taken me around the world. I have dived with great white sharks off Mexico and caught snakes in the rainforests of Panama. After two decades of travel, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the natural world and all its wonders, from the exotic to the familiar.

Though I live far from the Sandhills today, I try to get back as often as I can. The last time I turned down the road home, it was just after sunset in late May and the sky was filled to the brim with stars. As I so often do here, I turned off the radio and rolled down the windows. About a half-mile or so from its junction with Hwy. 211, the bright beams of my headlights illuminated a herd of two dozen deer standing in the middle of the field, their eyes glowing a greenish yellow. Many lifted their heads with mouths full of grass calmly staring at the approaching vehicle. Another half-mile down the road and a grey fox dashed across the highway. Eagle Springs seemed anything but small.

Rounding the bend to the old brick house, a whip-poor-will called.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser will be a regular contributor to PineStraw. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.

True South

Girl Gigs

When the going gets tough

By Susan S. Kelly

Like you, I’ve missed a lot of things during the spate of gloom we’ve been living though — truffle fries still sizzling from fry vat grease being at the top of my list. But of all the bust-out activities that we’ve been waiting for, the one I most look forward to is a girl gig. Book clubs, garden clubs, philanthropic lunches, girl gigs all. Meetings that require makeup, a date on a calendar, and lemon squares dusted with powdered sugar and/or marinated asparagus spears sprinkled with lemon zest — lemon is a common denominator in a lot of girl gigs, from iced tea to platter garnish.

But a real-deal girl gig is an out-of-town trip. The only requirement is that you can’t care. About what you eat, what you look like, what you say, when you go to bed, who you share a room with, how much you drink. Females who fit these simple criteria are girl’s girls. Others need not apply.

I have a Yankee friend who was invited on a girl trip to Sea Island. The minute we’d loaded the last cooler and bag into the car into which we were all smushed, she said, “I’m so excited. I’ve never been on a girl’s trip. What do you do on one?” To which my unspoken reply was, Honey, if you got to ask, you got no bizness going. Such an utterance didn’t even warrant a Bless Your Heart.

(This anecdote has nothing to do with aspersions against Yankees. Another Yankee friend comes on a girl trip that eight of us take to Linville every February. She flies in, bringing nothing but a mink coat and four pairs of pajamas. When it’s time for the afternoon segue into cocktails, she takes a shower and changes into a fresh pair of pajamas. She flies back home wearing the same thing she flew down in.)

I’ve been on girl trips of every conceivable stripe: boarding school reunion. Sorority reunion. Enlightenment and educational forays. Hiking trips. Card-playing trips. Et cetera. And plenty where we sit around looking awful, eating things that are terrible for us, and drinking too much. Just like we’ve been doing since March, come to think of it.

A great thing about a girls’ trip is that girls do not have that weird hang-up about sleeping in the same bed together, so you can get a smaller house. What girls do have is food issues, which might be more trouble. Most girl trip meals begin with good intentions (clementines and hard-boiled egg breakfasts, salad lunches, vegetable dinners) and begin instantly deteriorating into daylong noshing on peanut M&Ms, pimento cheese, store-bought guac for hors d’oeuvres mid-afternoon, and whatever-else-is-lying-around-on-the-counter for dinner. This process extends to alcohol as well, though people bring their own chardonnay because chardonnay drinkers are notoriously picky.

It’s helpful to have an IT person along to manage the music and all the people you’re stalking on social media, and because everyone has numerous questions about their computer or cellphone, from font size to getting rid of determined error messages. In one of my girl trip groups, we come from so many different places — Charleston, Atlanta, Greenwich, Charlottesville, Wilmington, Winston-Salem — that the IT person kindly maintains a spreadsheet of what’s happened to whom (child married, grandchild born) so you’re able to consult it and get your facts straight ahead of time.

Usually, the first night of a girl gig means dancing. (During Miley Cyrus’ various shenanigans, my gang went on YouTube for a twerking demo. We’re still working on Bruno Mars moves.) But the real, authentic, non-educational, non-physical girl gig is all about . . . talking. The exchange of vital information and useless trivia, registering of complaints, and confessions ranging from ludicrously hilarious to swear-to-God-secrecy are the soul, the essence, of girl trips.

On one of my annual trips, everyone is tasked with bringing one piece of usable info, which is how you wind up returning home knowing nonessential but conceivably worthwhile minutiae such as smearing baby oil on your legs makes them look shiny, like a model’s, and that Sally Hansen makes a product that makes them look just the opposite: like you’re wearing stockings. You go home with a list of what everyone else is reading and streaming and cooking and buying and where they’re traveling. You find out what internet site to go to order those labels, those shoes, that shower gel, that fan that attaches to your cellphone.

At girl gigs you find out that it’s OK not to know what garam marsala is or understand Brexit. It’s best to stay away from Brett Kavanaugh, but if you need an opinion or help with a decision, there is nothing like a dame. If you want someone to stare at you and say, “No, you cannot use blue sheets instead of white.” Or, in a slipcover conundrum: “I would never use a fabric I can write my name in.” There goes the brushed corduroy you were debating. Or, “The first thing that dates a house is chintz.” “No, it’s your lampshades.” “No, it’s chintz.”

See? Never mind the talking about people, which might elicit gems along the lines of, “She looks like she grew up on a golf course,” or “Anyone over 40 with hair that long is bound to be tough.”

All of which is why girl gigs are empirical evidence of a familiar nugget of wisdom, and possibly the best justification for their continued existence: if five people sit around a table and put all of their dilemmas and distresses, issues and idiosyncrasies, obsessions and obligations in a heap, would you swap yours for anyone else’s?

Nope. Time to go home.  PS

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

Good Natured

Secrets from the Blue Zones

Get a running start on a long life

By Karen Frye

Living to a ripe old age, with clarity of mind and freedom of movement, is what many of the people who live in areas of the world called the “Blue Zones” enjoy. About 15 years ago, their lifestyles were studied by a group of doctors and researchers, with the help of National Geographic, to shed light on the amazing good health and longevity of folks living in these specific areas.

The Blue Zone areas are Sardinia, Italy; the island of Okinawa; Ikaria, Greece; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; and Loma Linda, California, home to a large community of Seventh Day Adventists. The people living in these areas live well into their 90s and beyond. They are active, moving about freely throughout their community, often choosing walking over driving a vehicle. Most of them do not rely on modern day conveniences. They have gardens and eat a healthy diet. They socialize regularly with family and friends and have a sense of purpose and responsibility for their family, community and the following generations. They are healthy and energetic.

The diets vary, but upward of 90 percent are plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans and whole grains. They do eat some meat and fish, but only small amounts several times a week. With modernization arriving to many of the areas in the ’70s, members of the younger generations began following a fast food, processed food, standard American diet. The consequences were alarming. The rate of diabetes escalated, and the life expectancy dropped. The older folks remained vigilant in their way of living, and their health stayed robust.

In all five Blue Zones, beans are a staple of the diet. Inexpensive, versatile and easy to prepare, they contain adequate amounts of protein, fiber and antioxidants. Blue Zone diets use the same 20 or so ingredients consistently. Less variety may keep them from overeating and help keep the immune system strong.

Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower are consumed regularly, protecting the heart and reducing risks of cancer. They use olive oil to finish off dishes instead of heating it to sauté or fry. Add olive oil after cooking for the greatest benefit, by drizzling it over veggies and salads, soups, stews and breads.

Fiber is also a very important part of any diet. Seeds, nuts, whole grains and beans contain adequate amounts.

Reduce the consumption of refined sugar.

Enjoy a little red wine with meals. Red wine contains high amounts of antioxidants.

Remember, it’s not only what you eat for longevity, but how you eat. Dining with friends and family and expressing gratitude are important parts of the longevity lifestyle.

Here’s a recipe from Ikaria, Greece, perfect for the summer.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Mint and Onions

1 pound dried black-eyed peas, or four 15-ounce cans, drained

3 green onions, tops removed and coarsely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 cup chopped mint

1/2 red onion, chopped

1 cup chopped greens (spinach or baby kale)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Fresh dill for garnish

If using dried beans, place in pot with water. Bring to boil; reduce to simmer; cover with lid, tilting the lid so some of the steam can escape. Cook for an hour, or until done. While the peas are still hot, mix all remaining ingredients together in a large bowl, and toss to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. (If using canned beans, just drain, rinse and heat on a stove on medium heat. Mix with all other ingredients until warmed through, 5-6 minutes.)

Garnish with fresh dill if you like. Serve hot or cold. Enjoy!  PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Nature’s Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

The Kitchen Garden

Goo Gone

Okras slime problem

By Jan Leitschuh

Okra has an image problem.

During the blast-furnace days of August, tropical okra thrives, throwing off pods with merry abandon, challenging growers to pick faster before the pods grow too long and tough.

This finger-shaped Southern vegetable is rarely available in grocery stores or supermarkets. You’ll either have to search it out at local farm stands or farmers markets, or grow it yourself (no difficult task).

So it isn’t necessarily a familiar vegetable for many transplants and town dwellers. Lots of people around here still have no idea what to do with the pinkie-sized, ridged green veggie, or how to cook it. And unless you grew up with it, you may not know it as culinary real estate on your dinner plate.

Even for those who do know okra, there may lurk an underlying aversion: slime.

Talk about okra, and a good number of people make that face, wrinkling their noses and calling its texture “slimy.” Okra is rich in a gel-like substance called mucilage. Turns out that slime is actually good for you. It’s healing for an irritated gut, helps with digestion, and it can help lower cholesterol by binding to it. It puts the “gum” in gumbo.

But if slime ain’t your bag, nothing I say — such as okra is full of antioxidants and contains lectin, which is a type of protein that can inhibit the growth of human cancer cells — will turn you on. I get it. My husband is in your tribe.

If you’re a Southern cook and grew up eating okra, well, do your thang, sugah. Pickled okra all the way! Stewed garden tomatoes, onions and okra. Chopped okra in soups and gumbos. Steam it till the slime squeaks.

But if this veggie is less familiar to you and you’re determined to hold your nose and have your “when-in-Rome” encounter, perhaps you’d like to start with a slimeless way of getting to know this stellar hot-weather veggie.

The most delicious cop-out, er, method of consumption, of course, is breaded and fried. Almost everyone likes fried okra, all crispy and salty fried crumbs with a vegetable patina. They are the French fries of the produce world. But if you don’t want to get this fussy/fried, let’s look at other methods of de-sliming this worthy Southern vegetable. High heat and longer cooking time will eliminate the slime factor (but also some of the health benefits).

The simplest way to de-slime okra is to roast it.

Rinse a batch, and dry thoroughly to prevent steam. Cut the stem ends off. Slice pods in half, toss in olive oil and layer in a baking dish or sheet pan. Add salt and pepper. Simple, and so good! Typically, we will toss other veggies in the mix as the garden allows: green pepper slices, halved cherry tomatoes, onions sliced into rings, zucchini or yellow squash slices, green beans and more. Roast (bake) at 375 for 30-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle on a little garlic powder. Add a slice of melon, a chicken breast or a burger and you have a meal.

Or, turn your oven up higher, to 425. Prep a bag of a few teaspoons of garlic salt and shake pods vigorously. Let sit for 10 minutes to draw out moisture. Then add a cup of cornmeal and perhaps some Creole seasonings, shake again. Rest another 10 minutes. Remove pods onto a foil-lined sheet pan, and spritz with cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes, turn pods, bake another 15. Oven-baked crunchy goodness, without frying.

Grilling is another simple method of removing the goo. Lay the pods directly on the grill or skewer sideways for easier handling. Another option is to skewer with small onions and cherry tomatoes. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, perhaps some cayenne pepper. Depending on the heat of your grill, this will take 10-20 minutes. Remove and shake some Parmesan shreds on top. Serve with your grilled chicken.

Searing in a cast iron pan is easy and will reduce slime. Just don’t add so many that the crowding causes steaming — steaming increases slime.

The acid of lemons or tomatoes can cut the consistency down a bit. Stewed tomatoes and okra are classic.

Finally, selection can play a role in low slime — choose small, fresh pods. The smaller the pod, the less slime you’ll get. The largest pods can be fibrous and tough. You can store your farmers market finds in the fridge for a day or two, but too long or too much causes black spots to appear.

Fellow garden enthusiast and neighbor Cameron Sadler of Southern Pines recently shared her okra enthusiasm, and I will pass it along:

Cameron Sadler’s Garlic-Roasted Okra

Get a large sheet pan, and lay your okra on top of it. Okra should be sliced in half, long way. It’s good to use about one clove of garlic per cup of okra. Slice the garlic cloves into skinny slivers, or mash with crusher. Put garlic on top of the okra. I like to melt a stick of butter, then spoon it over the garlic and okra.

Top with sprinkles of some really good salt, pick your favorite one. Stir it around halfway through cooking, so everything is coated. I roast mine for one hour at 350 degrees.  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table.

The Omnivorous Reader

Portrait of “Little Thunder”

Sue Monk Kidd imagines the wife of Jesus

By D.G. Martin

“It could have happened.”

My friend was talking about The Book of Longings, the latest novel from Sue Monk Kidd, the bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees that sold over 8 million copies and appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for 2 1/2 years.

The central character and narrator of Kidd’s new book is Ana, who opens the story with the following, “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.”

It could have happened, just as my friend asserted, but it is a stretch to believe Jesus was married. No, it would be many stretches, and Kidd, the expert storyteller, uses each one to build a rich, complex, and almost believable tale of a woman who became Jesus’ wife.

Although the book is set in the Middle East of 2,000 years ago, the coming together of Jesus and Ana was framed in North Carolina, where Kidd wrote her book. That came as a complete surprise to me. I knew Kidd had deep roots in Sylvester, the town in Georgia where she grew up. Until I learned about her new book, I did not know that she and her husband moved to Chapel Hill a couple of years ago, a place they chose, never having seen, after reading articles about best places to live in America.

Her move to our state solidifies North Carolina’s claim to be a home and refuge for the nation’s best writers.

The book’s story begins in the year 16 A.D. Ana is the teenage daughter of the head scribe of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and, subject to the Roman overlords, the ruler of Galilee. We know this Herod Antipas as the King Herod from the Bible’s account of his ordering the execution of John the Baptist. 

Ana and her mother, father, aunt and servants live near Antipas’ palace in Sepphoris, a thriving city. Ana’s cousin and adopted brother, Judas, has left home to join with Zealots fighting against the Roman occupation. Near Sepphoris is the poor village of Nazareth, where Jesus lives in a less-than-modest hovel with his widowed mother, Mary, and his siblings. 

Unlike most other young women of the times, Ana is well-educated and writes stories of women heroes of the Bible. Although she cherishes her unmarried status, her parents arrange for her betrothal to an elderly, unattractive but wealthy man. She is distraught. When he dies before the wedding, she is relieved. Then her parents push her to become Antipas’ concubine, a position that would provide security for her and her parents.

Meanwhile, she has encountered the young Jesus, who walks each day from Nazareth to Sepphoris to work on a massive construction project for Antipas. The spark is immediate. She appreciates his deep connection to God, or as Jesus calls him when he prays, Abba or Father. He appreciates her education and aspirations to write and promote the place of women.

Their marriage transforms her privileged life into hand-to-mouth poverty in the crowded house in Nazareth, where Ana does not get the warmest of welcomes from Jesus’ brothers and their spouses.

Kidd describes the smells and the constant chores of cooking, milking, feeding, sewing, petty jealousies and resentments that fill the lives of the struggling poor family. Jesus is often gone for long periods to work on projects in other parts of Galilee, sometimes even going as far as the Sea of Galilee to work with fishermen.

Jesus’ search for God leads him to the preaching of John the Baptist. He becomes a follower, and when John is arrested by Antipas, Jesus becomes a leader, leaving Ana alone with his family in Nazareth.

When Ana offends Antipas, she becomes another of his targets. For safety, Ana’s aunt takes her to the great library city of Alexandria in Egypt, where she encounters another set of conflicts and challenges. 

Ana waits and waits for a message from Jesus telling her to return. The message finally comes in the form of a letter from Judas, who urges her to hurry. She arrives in Bethany near Jerusalem just in time for a Passover dinner with Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, but Jesus is not there. He is on trial in Jerusalem. The next day Ana hurries to Jerusalem just in time to watch as Jesus carries the cross toward the execution site. He collapses. Ana rushes to comfort him and say goodbye.

Kidd reconstructs the crucifixion experience in a way more horrible and poignant than any of the four Gospels.

She also offers a surprising explanation of why Judas betrayed Jesus. Many deeply faithful religious people have never understood Judas’ motivation. Was it simply for the 30 pieces of silver? In Kidd’s version, it is not for the coins, but rather his belief that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans would ignite a rebellion against those occupiers, a goal Judas and his fellow Zealots shared, but Jesus rejected, working instead to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God.

“One of the biggest questions in the Christian crucifixion story is why Judas betrayed Jesus,” Kidd says. “I wanted to give him a motivation for his betrayal, to humanize him, too, and cause our thoughts about him to be less black-and-white and more complex. In my imagined version, Judas is Ana’s adopted brother who was orphaned when his father was crucified and his mother sold into slavery after a failed Jewish revolt against the Romans, a historically real insurrection by the Jews of Sepphoris in 4 BCE. I portray Judas as a child consumed with hatred for Rome, as a radical Zealot, and as an ardent disciple who believes Jesus is the Messiah destined to deliver them from Rome. His betrayal of Jesus is a piece of intricate and earnest political theater. It speaks, I think, to the danger of hyper-idealism, how a person overly possessed by a principle can begin to justify almost anything for his cause.”

That Ana’s story continues after Jesus’ death emphasizes Kidd’s and Ana’s belief that excluding and minimizing the role of women in the days of Jesus and today has been a tragic mistake.

For many years, Kidd has been interested in feminist theology and has written “about silenced and marginalized women and the missing feminine within religion. I can only speculate that the premise for the novel bloomed out of that exploration.”

Whether Kidd’s readers are true believers or skeptical inquirers, whether they are strong supporters of an expanded role for women in religious organizations or resisters of change, The Book of Longings will be an enriching and challenging read.  PS

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.


By Ash Alder

Always, always everything at once, and in August you can see it.

Blackberry and bramble.

Rose and thorn. 

Honey and hive.

The sweetness and the sting.

You cannot have one without the other.

August is carefree. Bare feet. Soft grass and ant bites. Sandspurs and sweet peas. Long days and hot nights. Sweet corn and crickets. Sunburn and bee balm. Picnics and rope swings and cool, flowing water.

Cool, flowing water . . . the one true remedy for the sweltering heat of summer. 

Ankle, shin, then knee-deep in the swollen creek, where the dog fetches driftwood and the snake rests coiled on the sunny bank, time slows down. If it’s true that water retains memory, then you are standing in a pool of ancient musings — an endless, ever-flowing cycle of beginnings and endings, life and death, sweetness and sorrow.

The dog interrupts your own introspection with a playful shake — water spraying in all directions — and you admire the fullness and purity of his presence. Amid the sweetness and the sting, he’s just here, joyfully and without a care. And in this moment, so are you.

You watch as a dragonfly kisses the water’s surface, wings glittering as it circles about this summer dreamscape. Even the dragonfly bites. We forget. And yet the sting is part of it, inseparable from the beauty of the bigger picture.

Lose yourself in the bramble and remember: The sting makes the berries all the sweeter.

Thank you, beloved August. Thank you for your thorns and fruits and wild honey. Thank you for all of it.

In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke their tender limbs. — Henry David Thoreau

Pickle Me This

Want to savor the summer bounty while keeping things simple? Quick-pickle it. Refrigerator pickles will keep in the fridge for several weeks. And all you’ll need is your harvest, white distilled or apple cider vinegar, canning or pickling salt (read: not table salt!), water, and any glass or plastic container with a lid.

A “Simple Pickling Recipe” from The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends 1 1/2 pounds of homegrown cucumbers, 1 cup of vinegar, 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt, 1 cup of water, and — if you’re feeling spicy — dill or mustard seeds, peppercorns, garlic cloves (peeled and smashed), or fresh dill, mint, or basil.

Got everything? OK, here we go:

If you’re flavoring your fridge pickles with herbs or spices, add that to your glass or plastic containers first.

Next, wash produce, slice into spears or coins, then add them to the containers, leaving at least 1/2 inch of headspace up top.

Time for the brine. Combine vinegar, water, and salt in a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then pour hot brine over the veggies (cover vegetables completely with liquid but leave about 1/2 inch of headspace) and cover. Allow the jars to cool on the countertop for about an hour, then add your lids and pop those future pickles into the fridge. In three days to one week (the longer you wait the better they’ll taste), give them a try.

Natural Remedies

One of the highlights of porch-sitting in the summer is hearing the sweet, unmistakable buzz of hummingbird wings moments before it swoops in for a long drink from the feeder. One of the low points: mosquitoes. They also arrive with a buzz — arguably unsweet — and the only long drink they’re coming for is you.

If you’re into natural mosquito repellents, you’ve likely tried citronella candles or added its oil to homemade sprays. But did you know that planting certain herbs and flowers in your garden might also help keep them at bay? Try lemon balm, marigolds, peppermint, catnip, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, neem, basil and thyme. Either way, you really can’t go wrong.  PS

What dreadful hot weather we have!
It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.
— Jane Austen

Simple Life

In the Sweet By and By

Until then, the dance of life continues

By Jim Dodson

The Great Pandemic Summer of 2020 is drawing to a close.

How have you coped?

As you read this, I am coping by being thigh-deep in a tumbling stream at the base of Mount Mitchell, deep in a national forest, amusing a few sleepy rainbow trout with my rusty fly-casting skills.

If ever there was a summer to get away to the wild, this is it. For me, fly fishing has long provided relaxation and unexpected answers to questions that seem to resist easy answers.

Twenty-five summers ago, during an unexpected family crisis, my daughter Maggie and I spent a glorious summer camping and fly-fishing our way across America. Maggie was 7 years old. Our old dog Amos was pushing 13. It was a summer to remember chasing trout  in some of the West’s most iconic rivers.

This summer, Maggie and her fiancé, Nate, and their two rescued pups are retracing portions of our route through the West as they head for new jobs in Los Angeles, camping and hiking. The other night, Maggie phoned from the banks of Shoshone River in Wyoming just to hear her old man rhapsodize about the summer night we spent camped by the swift blue river beneath a quilt of glittering stars. Such nights stay with you.  

Throughout this devastating pandemic and summer of social discontent, many of us have faithfully sheltered in place and adopted wearing face coverings in public. We have placed our trust in science, avoided crowds, dutifully washed hands and learned new phrases like “safe distancing” and “community spread.” We’ve also marveled at the human capacity for finding meaning, change and creativity in the midst of a crisis our children will probably tell their grandchildren about in tones of wonder and solemnity, and maybe even gratitude.

Change and history move in halting steps, stumbling before we who are living through them finally come to terms with the truth. To many in America, a racial awakening in the midst of a worldwide pandemic either seems like a cosmic piling on or a clear message from the universe that it’s time for America to face up to the sins of our collective past and finally take steps to end systemic racism, a reckoning long overdue. 

One man’s awakening, I suppose, is another’s End of Days.

For what it’s worth, a different metric on this time of trials comes from leading astrologers who point out that for the first time in thousands of years, half a dozen planets are simultaneously in retrograde and the rare success of three consecutive eclipses, two lunar, one solar, combined with the planet Pluto — the diminutive power broker of darkness and chaos — passing through America’s chart in almost the exact location at the time of our country’s founding, indicates a period of feeling “stuck” in a protracted time of intense disruption and bitter division. As the planets move forward, or so we are told, we may experience a vast spiritual awakening, possibly even a new age of enlightenment springing from lessons of the past.

Whether the problem lies in our stars or ourselves remains an open question.

In the meantime, lacking the gift of celestial prophecy, I stand in tumbling waters thinking how this year of chaos and change reminds me of valuable lessons learned early in life in the racially bifurcated world where I grew up.

My father was a newspaperman with a poet’s heart who lost his dream in 1958 when his partner cleaned out the operating funds of their thriving weekly newspaper in coastal Mississippi, disappearing without a trace.

One day later, his only sister died in a car wreck on an icy road outside Washington, D.C., and my mother suffered her second late-term miscarriage in three years.

We left Mississippi with everything we owned in a Pontiac Star Chief and drove all night to Wilmington, where my dad worked for several months at the Star News before moving on to a better job in South Carolina.

I started first grade in Florence, a pretty Southern town of old houses and shady streets. I was the only kid in my class who could read chapter books and had perfect attendance at school.  At year’s end, Miss Patillo presented me with a small brass pin shaped like an open book with Perfect Attendance inscribed on its pages. I still have the pin.

For my parents, however — something I learned many years later — Florence was like a silent ordeal, a twilight world between the unyielding values of the Old South and a brave new world of tomorrow.

The summer before second grade, a lovely African-American woman named Miss Jesse came to help my mother get back on her feet. She was said to be a natural healer and a woman who knew how to take care of families like ours. My mother held strong views about race and resisted the notion of having a maid like other women in town. But her health was dangerously frail. So Miss Jesse came.

It is no longer the fashion to speak of having someone like Miss Jesse in your privileged white life.  I get that. But for one summer this kind woman took me everywhere with her to keep me out from under my mother’s feet — to the public library, to the Piggly Wiggly, to and from vacation Bible school at the Lutheran Church. I adored riding around town with Miss Jesse. The radio of her blue Dodge Dart was always tuned to a Southern gospel station. I can almost hear her singing “In the Sweet By and By” and “I’ll Fly Away.” I sang along, too.

She and my mom quickly became friends. Among other things, Miss Jesse introduced my mother-a former Maryland beauty queen-to flower gardening and turned her into quite a respectable Southern cook. Her beauty and vitality returned.

One evening while the two of them were cooking supper, a lively gospel tune came on the transistor radio and Miss Jesse invited me to hop on her strong feet, sashaying us both around the kitchen floor. She called this “feet dancing.”

One night that autumn of 1959, my father’s boss came to supper. He was a thin old man with loose change jingling in his pants pockets. Miss Jesse was cooking supper. The adults were all standing in the kitchen talking about “protests” that were suddenly happening across the Deep South. My father’s boss jingled his change and declared, “Fortunately, we don’t have that kind of trouble around here, do we Jesse? That’s because we have good nigras round these parts.”

“Jimmy,” my mother chimed instantly, “could you come with me, please?”

I was barely into the hallway when she took hold of my ear and perp-walked me to the bathroom, leading me in and shutting the door.  Over my protest, she ordered me to sit and hush up.

As I watched, she calmly opened a new bar of Ivory soap and held it inches from my face.

“If I ever hear that word come out of your mouth,” she said, restraining her Germanic fury, “you’ll be sitting on this toilet with this new bar of soap in your mouth for an hour. Is that clear?”

I knew exactly the word she meant. She explained that “nigra” was the way “supposedly educated white people in the South” said the word my brother and I were forbidden to ever use, though I heard it often used in those days.

For what it’s worth, I can’t stomach the smell of Ivory soap to this day.

Weeks later, shockingly, Miss Jesse went into the hospital and we went to visit her in its “colored wing.” She passed a few days later. We went to her funeral service at the little brick church she attended. The place was full of flowers and people, including a few white women who’d benefited from Miss Jesse’s healing presence. The music was pure gospel. My mother cried. I remember meeting Miss Jesse’s daughter, her pride and joy whom she called “Babygirl,” an art teacher from Atlanta.

A few weeks later, my dad took a new job and we finally moved home to Greensboro, where I started mid-way through the second grade.

Just days after my brother and I got our new library cards, our history-mad father mysteriously turned up at school to spring us for the afternoon. He drove us downtown to stand near the “colored” entrance of the Center Theater and watch as four brave students from A&T attempted to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter across Elm Street.

“Boys,” he said to us. “This isn’t just going to change life in Greensboro. It’s going to change America.”

That event is considered a watershed moment of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of America.

It was my 7th birthday, February 2, 1960.

Sixty years later, as statues of Confederate generals and segregationists topple and sweeping racial reckoning has finally commenced, I’ve been playing a lot of Southern gospel in my car, thinking about Miss Jesse and the first music I ever learned to sing. Embarrassing to admit, I’m having trouble remembering her last name. To me she was always Miss Jesse.

As I cast after slumbering trout in a gorgeous mountain stream, far away from that strained and vanishing South, I find myself humming “In the Sweet By and By” and wishing I could properly thank Miss Jesse for saving my mother’s life and unexpectedly shaping mine.

Maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to feet dance with her again. And learn her whole name.  PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

In the Spirit

The World of Del Maguey

Mezcal so good, I forgot how to count

By Tony Cross

Back in June, I was invited to dinner and a mezcal tasting by my good friends Bo and Suze. I first met the couple six years ago when I was tending bar. Bo and I bonded over our love of spirits and cocktails. He was one of the few people I knew at the time that shared the same knowledge and appreciation of everything from cocktail books, to bars across the U.S. and the great drinks they are known for. Needless to say, we’ve been pals ever since.

In the time we’ve known each other, we’ve shared lots of great drinks, many of which were imbibed in his bar, The Bo Zone. That’s right. He’s got quite the selection, and almost everything on hand for most cocktails across the board. Along with his invitation, he informed me he’d just received a huge delivery of spirits online. Yes, you can order spirits online and have them delivered to your home in North Carolina. I’m not going to name names, but do your research and thank me later.

The majority of bottles from Bo’s latest shipment was mezcal from Del Maguey. Pronounced ma-gay, the single village Mezcal was founded in 1995 by Ron Cooper. Each bottle is made by individual family producers and, as the website states: “We are the first producer to credit each product after the village where our liquid is made. When you see our beautiful green bottles, you know it’s Del Maguey.”

After the three of us enjoyed a fabulous dinner, we retired downstairs to The Bo Zone, where many beautiful green bottles awaited us. Here are a few of my favorites from that evening. I’m including the tasting notes that Bo provided, along with my recollections. I took pictures so I would remember just in case I time-traveled — I didn’t, but I’m glad I have the pictures to remind me. They were all excellent. The mezcals, I mean.

Del Maguey Tepextate ($115)

This was the first bottle we got into. What a great start.

Bo’s notes: This glorious mezcal made from wild agave is the work of the same master mezcalero that produces the legendary Tobala (see below) bottled by Del Maguey. Tepextate expressions are rare, to say the least, and the extreme conditions that the plant grows in result in mezcals with concentrated, sweet tones of pure nectar.”

My recollections: Honeysuckle. It was a touch sweet. The problem with all of these great mezcals is you want to have another taste — there’s so much going on that you need one more little sip to figure out what your palate is picking up.

Del Maguey San Pablo Ameyaltepec ($130)

Number three on the list was this beauty from Puebla. For “mezcal” to be printed on a label, the agave has to originate from one of eight Mexican states. Puebla is now on that list.

Bo’s notes: With this extraordinary bottling from master mezcalero Aurelio Gonzalez Tobnon, Del Maguey takes a big step forward with their first official bottling from the state of Puebla. The wild Papalote agaves for this spirit were harvested after 12 to 18 years maturing to full ripeness in the remote hillsides outside the city limits. Showing off an incredible range of complexity, the spirit resolves to an umami-like level of intensity and harmony with notes that hit on the tropical, floral, spicy, savory, salty, mineral and more.

My recollections: We all agreed that the Ameyaltepec left a savory, umami flavor on the finish. What’s fun about tasting mezcal (or spirits or wine) is how there is no right or wrong. You taste what you taste. Over the years I’ve looked at tech sheets on spirits/wine provided for staff by a distillery/winery and thinking, “Nope. That’s not what I taste at all.” This was one of the times where we all thought the notes hit the nail on the head. What a finish.

Del Maguey Madrecuixe ($110)

Bo’s notes: Not far off the banks of the Red Ant River in the dense, green village of San Luis del Rio in Oaxaca, Paciano Cruz Nolasco produces some of the most traditional mezcals on Earth. This rare bottling was made from the wild grown agave species of Madrecruixe. The opening notes are herbaceous and green in nature, then slowly, layers of tropical fruit are revealed spiked with earthy, edgy flavors that all seem to fit together thanks to the gorgeous texture and elegant medium body.”

My recollections: I remember loving this. I also remember humming some Jimi Hendrix tune that was on in the background. Let’s go with: What tastes like bananas, silk, and something green for $300, Alex?

Del Maguey Tobala ($120)

When we finished tasting the recent acquisitions, Bo pulled two more off the shelf. I’ve had this one before, but it had been so long I was forced to say, “Hey, man, lemme taste that one again” out loud.

Notes from Del Maguey’s website: The Tobala maguey is found growing naturally only in the highest altitude canyons in the shade of oak trees, like truffles. It takes about eight piñas (agave hearts) to equal one piña from either of the more commonly propagated and cultivated magueys. Our Tobala has a sweet, fruity nose, with a mango and cinnamon taste and long, extra smooth finish.

My recollections: “Ahh, man, that’s awesome!” At this point I was texting certain friends (who could care less) with pictures of the different, beautiful green bottles I was sipping from. My laugh was getting audibly louder and somewhat obnoxious, even in text form.

Del Maguey Pechuga ($200)

This is the showstopper. Bo had a little more than half a bottle of the Pechuga that had been on the shelf for five years — or did he say three? — and I was honored he would share this beautiful spirit with me. The first thing I learned about Pechuga involved the use of a chicken. Don’t be afraid. A whole skinless chicken breast (pechuga) is washed thoroughly to remove any grease, then hung by a string within the still for 24 hours while a second or third distillation happens. It’s not voodoo, it balances the native apples, plums, plantains, pineapples, almonds, and white rice that were already added to the 100 liters of mezcal.

My recollections: I remember taking a few sips, smiling, saying something brainy, and then tuning out. I was transported immediately to Santa Catarina Minas. I’m a donkey. Kind of like Eeyore, but not melancholy; my mood was the equivalent of being in a commercial for unwanted facial hair where everyone is really, really, happy. Oh, and I was a cartoon. I’m in the middle of grinding piñas during mezcal production. And then I came to. Maybe I did time-travel a little. This mezcal is classy.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.