Columns, Video

Hooping it Up

Gin and tonic in hand, I watch from the deck of the Aqua Bar and Grill as the skinny lad with the blonde pompadour and the tattoos reaches for his hula hoop.  He slips it over his head and down around his narrow waist.  Swaying and rocking, he slowly builds up speed, working the hoop up and down his lean torso.  Soon he’s hopping around on one foot while the rainbow colored hula hoop ricochets ‘round and ‘round his neck.  It’s an athletic and impromptu hoop jam, and the people passing by on Rehoboth’s Baltimore Avenue clearly love it, especially the kids.

The young hoopster’s name is TJ and he’s been working as a doorman for Aqua this summer, checking IDs and occasionally performing when the mood strikes.  I had the opportunity recently to spend a little time chatting with him about life, love, hair, and hooping.  Now don’t go getting any wrong impressions.  It’s his hula hooping that caught my eye and interest.  Besides, TJ isn’t into older men.  This 21-year old hair stylist and burgeoning folk musician says he likes ‘em “younger and clean cut.”

TJ began hooping as a little boy at Grateful Dead concerts. His family followed the Dead and the post-Jerry Garcia spin off groups, traveling around the country to festivals and performances several times a month. Hooping is popular among Dead followers as a way of expressing love, peace, and good energy. The hoop is said to draw out those qualities and help you get more in touch with those feelings. Look closely at a car loaded with Dead stickers and you’ll likely see a dancing yellow or blue bear with a hula hoop around its waist.

To be precise, today’s hoops aren’t technically hula hoops because “hula hoop” is the trademarked name for a polyethylene toy produced by a California company called Wham-O.  Modern hoops tend to be heavier and bigger.  TJ makes his own out of common black poly tubing available at Lowe’s or Home Depot.  He cuts the tubing, heats the ends in boiling water and then joins them together via a PVC connector. The final touch is decorating it with colored electrical tape.  His current hoop du jour he calls his big gay hoop.  Of course, one can buy pre-made hoops.  Some even come with LED lights that cause the hoops to glow in the dark.

Wham-O hula hoops hit the southern California playgrounds in 1958, launching a craze that swept the nation.  The company sold twenty-five million hula hoops in less than four months and 100 million in two years.

It’s not the first time a hoop toy has started a fad.  Historians say that during the fourteenth century in England both children and adults were caught up in a hooping craze that led to dislocated backs and even heart attacks.  In the late 18th century, children in Europe and the U.S. enjoyed a game called hoop trundling (the rolling of metal or wooden hoops with a stick).  Things supposedly got so out of hand in London with hoops running into and cutting pedestrians’ shins that the police began to crack down on what became known as the “Hoops Nuisance.”

Fifty-five years after Wham-O, we’re seeing a hula hooping renaissance of sorts, and not just among the hairy armpit crowd, as my moonshine dealer in Asheville, NC, refers to those who have helped make that city the “hoopie” capital of the USA.  Celebrities like Beyoncé and TV fashion personality Kelly Osborne use hula hoops as creative cardio to keep svelte.  One minute of serious hooping can burn seven calories.  A recent study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York says the benefits of regular hoop dancing may even ward off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by stimulating brain cells.

Michelle Obama hoops for exercise, as does triple platinum recording artist Jason Mraz, who sometimes hoops on stage and other times on a surfboard.  Remember singer Grace Jones?  She electrified the crowd at the Diamond Jubilee concert for Queen Elizabeth last year when she sang and hula hooped through the entire performance of her 1985 hit song “Slave to the Rhythm.”

TJ admits he hoops partly for the full-body workout it provides him, and it shows. There’s not an ounce of fat on this sapling – just ninety-nine pounds of skin, bone, and muscle – and he wants to keep it that way.  Mostly though, TJ hoops to entertain the crowd. He’s a true performance artist, and if you haven’t seen him work his hoop, I suggest you drop by Aqua on a Saturday night.

He asks if I’ve ever hooped and I admit I have not.  The hula hoop was out of style when I was a kid.  But after hearing how hooping strengthens the core, abs, legs, arms, and back I am tempted.  Then I picture it in my head. While the spectacle would most certainly be amusing, I think a more prudent way to cut calories is to simply switch out the tonic for soda in my cocktail….



Columns, Photos

Ode to the Green Bean Casserole

The Green Bean Casserole Deconstructed.

Has there ever been a holiday dish more maligned, yet as beloved as the green bean casserole? Today it seems any food that comes in a can gets unfairly disgraced, but what about a dish that owes its entire existence to the can? Three cans, in fact. Yet, somehow the green bean casserole (“GBC”) remains a staple on Thanksgiving tables from Georgia to Wisconsin, white trash abomination to some, an American original to others – the Britney Spears of Thanksgiving dishes.

The green bean casserole we know today was invented in the 1950s, but food historians say its roots go further back to the meat and vegetable casseroles that begun appearing in New England cookbooks like the Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book at the end of the 19th century. During WWI, the U.S. government actually encouraged families to cook casseroles and pad meat with rice and vegetables.

In 1934, Campbell’s Soup Company began mass-producing cans of condensed mushroom soup. Soon thereafter, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking featured the tuna noodle casserole, which became a Depression era favorite and established cream of mushroom soup as an essential staple in casserole cooking.

Jump to 1955 where New Jersey native Dorcas Reilly and her colleagues in the home economics kitchen at Campbell’s Soup were thinking up quick and easy recipes using soup and staples most women kept on hand in their pantries. A can of condensed mushroom soup, a couple cans of green beans, and a can of French fried onions. Voila, a star was born.

Whatever you think of the concoction, you should know that about 30 million “GBCs” appear on tables each Thanksgiving holiday season, according to Campbell’s Soup.

There are probably just about as many variations on the recipe. Julia Child made light of the green bean casserole, yet she had a “GBC” recipe tarted up with fresh haricot verts, a lot of butter and cream, some sherry, fresh parsley, and, of course, the ubiquitous French fried onions. Martha Stewart has a recipe too. It’s more of a full makeover, combining fresh green beans, a béchamel sauce, sautéed mushrooms, red bell peppers, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and fried shallots. Nothing from a can.

I prefer a casserole more like Julia’s than Martha’s. You’ve got to use at least one canned ingredient or it just isn’t a proper “GBC.” To give it a little pazzazz, I add a little somethin’ somethin’ and I don’t mean sautéed almonds or paprika. Nope, give me a sprinkling of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds and you’ve got a dish fit for a queen.

My secret ingredient is costume jewelry.

The idea came to me one Thanksgiving when I was asked – no, make that ordered – to bring two green bean casseroles for a holiday dinner party. To turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, I thought it might be fun to hide a little plastic baby Jesus in each casserole, like they do in those Mardi Gras King Cakes. When I couldn’t find a baby Jesus, I improvised.

Let me tell you, it causes a ruckus when someone extracts an earring or brooch from the “GBC” and then proceeds to wear it for the remainder of the meal. Naturally, you must warn folks in advance because you don’t want anyone choking or breaking a tooth for a little mirth.

It is best to add jewelry to a “GBC” after it is cooked. Just press it in and cover up your tracks with extra French fried onions. I once baked a cocktail ring in a casserole for thirty five minutes. Heat caused the faux sapphire to slide off the ring and the glue, I assume, just blended into the coagulated mass. No one was the wiser. Of course, the crowd was quite inebriated.

I shall end my ode to the green bean casserole by putting it in context. Ten years ago, Dorcas Reilly donated the original copy of her iconic green bean casserole recipe to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. The museum honors Americans responsible for great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible. A yellowed 8×11 recipe card now sits alongside Thomas Edison’s light bulb.

Chew on that this holiday season…


Elvis and Me

They arrived in mini vans and on walkers and with canes. Aged fans in super-sized sweatshirts and silk shirts emblazoned with all sorts of Elvis imagery. A couple of old gals said they had stood in line for hours to get front row seats at the 12th annual Elvis Festival at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach.  A sign on Route One promised twenty-two Elvis impersonators.  How could I resist?

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death from heart failure and drug overdose.  It seems longer, but then I don’t remember Elvis’ passing.  At age sixteen, my musical tastes certainly did not include a bloated and bejeweled Las Vegas lounge act.  I was more interested in Elvis Costello, the British musician in the oversized eyeglasses and tight suits who was part of an edgy new style of music called punk rock.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Athens, Georgia, for law school and started exploring that city’s diverse musical scene that I started to learn about and appreciate how Elvis Presley’s music and persona changed the country.

Presley, I could even argue, even changed me, or in the least, helped start my writing career.  Disillusioned with law, I moved after graduation to Washington, DC, to try and get into publishing.  Boy, was I naïve.  Nobody wanted to hire an over educated kid who knew nothing about the industry.  I was about to give up when I got a call back for an interview with a small firm that published materials for the nonprofit sector.

The interview went well, especially because the woman doing the hiring had as unconventional a resume as I did.  Moreover, she had a black velvet Elvis painting hanging on her cubicle wall.  Realizing it was now or never, I leaned in and offered my prized toenail clippers, the one with Elvis Presley’s face on it, in exchange for the job.  Of course, she took the bribe.

The Dewey Beach Elvis Festival is just one of many around the country and around the world.  Fans gather in places like Indiana, Hawaii, California, Sao Paulo, Las Vegas, and, of course, in Memphis to pay homage to “The King.”  Dewey’s festival is one of the largest and the only one held mostly outdoors (on the bayside deck).  Organizers say about a thousand people come through the Rusty Rudder during the event, which runs six hours on Friday night and twelve hours on Saturday.

Saturday night is always the big finale with awards given in two divisions – professional and nonprofessional.  Professionals are also known as ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists).  ETAs supposedly earn seventy percent of their living as Elvis impersonators.

The Elvises – Elvi? – at the Rudder that Saturday afternoon were men from both categories. I’d guestimate most of them were anywhere from 35 to 60 years of age.  Nearly all sported the ubiquitous side burns and pompadour hair.  According to the program, most of the performers were from the mid-Atlantic region.  There were a couple of younger versions of the King, including one cute high school kid in tight jeans and an open front plaid shirt.  He was carrying a guitar, clearly a clean cut Elvis, circa 1950s.  Much to my chagrin, I didn’t see anyone in a cape.

After a couple of orange crush cocktails, I was getting a bit restless so I decided to cruise a table full of Elvis paraphernalia for sale.  The flashing blue eye glasses were popular with the crowd, but it’s a rubber Elvis mask that caught my eye.  I slipped one on and leaned back against a wall.

As I watched the mostly older crowd singing every song, I couldn’t help but think it ironic that these fans and this music could have been so controversial back in the 50s and 60s.   According to church leaders and leading conservatives, Elvis was a menace to society.  He was blatantly sexy, sang black music, and was, therefore, a threat to good little white girls.  Kids who listened to his music were headed on a one-way path to juvenile delinquency. I wondered what crimes the heavyset super fan stamping her walker to the tune of “Hound Dog” had committed in her youth.

Yes, it was easy to laugh at the thought of aging Elvis fans as cutting edge. But then that’s always the way it is between generations.  It’s hard for me to believe it when I hear Elvis Costello’s music being played as soft rock in a Starbucks.

“The King” though presided over the birth of a great new means of expression – rock music – which was followed in turn by television and now by the Internet.  As I sipped my third orange crush cocktail, it hit me that the fat guy in the black jumpsuit working a table of aging baby boomers wasn’t a joke.  He was live history, baby, the tail end of a significant cultural change.  And that’s sort of cool.  Made me almost want to drop down on one knee and bust out an Elvis-like arm swing.  Almost…


Where the Boys Are

What happens when a fifty-year old man decides to go off to Spring Break?  It sounds a lot like a bad movie starring Adam Sandler, I know, but when the opportunity to spend ten days in sunny Key West among hordes of attractive college students in pursuit of cocktails and hook ups presented itself, I just had to say yes.

Ah, Spring Break, I remember thee well.  The nineteen hour drive. Seventy five cent beers.  Sunburn. Where I stayed I cannot recall, but rest assured it was somewhere on the infamous Ft. Lauderdale strip, that mile-and-a-half long stretch of bars and cheap hotels that paralleled the beach.  The armpit of Ft. Lauderdale was what some local officials called it.  Nirvana was more like it, if you had asked the more than a quarter million of us college kids who descended upon the place back in the spring of 1982.

Ironically, nobody goes to “Ft. Liquordale” anymore for Spring Break.  The city fathers ran the students out in the mid-80s.  But for a good thirty years or so, it was Mecca.  And, while the city didn’t actually invent the celebration of springtime awakening and fertility – blame that debauchery on the ancient Greeks and Romans – it did conspire to create the modern Spring Break model.  Back in 1936, a swimming coach at Colgate University in upstate New York brought his boys to Fort Lauderdale in the spring to train in the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Florida, thereby getting a jump on the competition. Two years later, the city hosted a college swimming competition.  By 1953, it is estimated that about 15,000 college students were traveling to Ft. Lauderdale each spring.

The gathering eventually attracted the attention of magazines such as Look and Life.  In 1960, Michigan State English professor Glendon Swarthout wrote a coming of age novel about four college coeds heading to Ft. Lauderdale in search of sun and fun during their spring break.  It was called Where the Boys Are and MGM turned it into a movie that premiered in December of that same year. Three months later, more than 50,000 students made the journey to Ft. Lauderdale.  The floodgates had opened.

By the time I got there in ‘82, it was a free for all of outrageous behavior and non-stop drinking. Guys used hotel railings for diving into pools.  Girls on balconies flashed passers by.  Then there was the nightly parade down the strip where one nonchalantly stepped over passed out bodies, vomit, and broken bottles.  Food?  All I remember were barbeque Fritos and Chips Ahoy cookies.

Everyone seemed to spend the mornings in bed recovering or out on the beach frying.  Afternoons were dedicated to drinking in notorious bars like the Elbo Room and the Candy Store.  Specialty adult-themed drinks were all the rage:  Screaming Orgasms, Skip and Go Naked, and Sex on the Beach were ones I seem to recall.

Mostly, though, I remember The Button, a cavernous barn of a bar where college kids drank beer for free after paying a nominal admission fee.  Mixed drinks were cheap.  Shots of Sambuca were plentiful.  It was a lusty environment, one made even more so by body heat radiating from sunburned bodies and the lewd drinking games such as the wet willy and the erotic banana-eating contests that the bar was known for.  Every now and then the bouncers would spray the crowd with water to cool everyone down.  Even that couldn’t stop all the bumping and grinding.  Oh, it was quite a place.

By the mid-1980’s, Ft. Lauderdale had started cracking down hard on the revelers and that’s the same time MTV arrived on the scene with its Spring Break specials in places like Daytona Beach and Cancun.  The crowds followed, and Ft. Lauderdale happily relinquished its title as the Spring Break capital.

Spring Break today is big business and locales like Panama City, Florida, and South Padre Island, Texas, actively court student visitors.  A number of travel companies cater specifically to Spring Break travel in more exotic locations like Cancun, Cabo, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic.  MTV last year began promoting Las Vegas as a Spring Break destination.  There are special Spring Break websites and even cruises catering to more diverse Spring Break desires.

So what did I encounter during my Spring Break in Key West? The bars and beaches were full, but not packed. Students were drinking in public, but so too were the locals.  There wasn’t much wonton nakedness or public drunkenness, at least not from the students.  For such a permissive place, the city felt pretty tame by Spring Break standards.

On the other hand, I did get sunburned and I somehow managed to find all the two-for- one drink specials. I even stumbled upon a convenience store selling beer and wigs, just what every Spring Breaker needs, don’t you think? By day, I took photography classes and watched drag queens frolic poolside.  At night, I sipped White Russians in La Te Da and then fended off the erotic advances of Russian hustler boys in the Bourbon Street Pub.

Ah yes, Spring Break at age 50.  It wasn’t quite the same as it was thirty years ago, but you know what?  It just might make a good movie.  Of course, I’d cast Kevin Spacey rather than Adam Sandler.

Columns, Photos

Ode to a Go Cup

I was flipping back and forth between Whitney Houston’s funeral on CNN and a college basketball game on ESPN when I noticed something very strange. At first, I thought I was mistaken, but, no, there it was, just to the left of the preacher’s podium in the New Hope Baptist Church: a blue go cup.

Seriously, who in the world would have brought a go cup into the church? And, more importantly, what was in it? There was a cruel irony in thinking that someone brought a Bloody Mary to Whitney Houston’s funeral. And to display it so brazenly! I know it was a long service, but that’s why you own a petite silver flask.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “go cup,” let me explain. A “go cup” is Southern slang for a plastic cup used to hold a beverage—often alcoholic—and then carried with you when you go somewhere. Some people refer to them as “cruisers” or “travelers.” Still others call them “solo cups,” a nod to the Solo Cup Company which started producing the ubiquitous red plastic drinking cup back in the 1970s.

Before becoming known for party cups, Solo developed wax-lined cups for drive-in movies and fast food joints in the 1950s and small paper cones for office water coolers in the 1940s. Today, the company produces a wide variety of plastic and paper products and boasts annual sales of about $1.6 billion. That’s a lot of go cups.

Red cups make up sixty percent of Solo’s party cup sales. Blue cups are a distant second. The company has conducted a lot of market research on color and they believe the preference is because the color red appeals to both men and women. Red also signifies concepts like energy and passion, while blue is linked with tranquility and depth.

Do you think that’s why red is associated with Republicans and blue with Democrats?

Politics aside, I’m a fan of the classic red go cup. Blue will work in a pinch, as will yellow, but for some reason, a drink just doesn’t taste as good as it does in red. What goes best in a red go cup? All fizzy drinks, and that includes champagne. Screwdrivers, Bloody Marys, and Margaritas, of course. Wine, however, should not be served in a red plastic cup. Neither should a martini or a manhattan. And, don’t even think about handing someone a Cosmopolitan in a red go cup. That’s just gauche.

Beer, of course, is ideally suited for the red go cup, so much so that the red plastic cup is the official cup of college keg parties and beer drinking games like flip cup and pong. More recently, this American party staple has even become the subject of a new song by Toby Keith: Red Solo cup, I fill you up…Let’s have a party.

Despite its reputation and some really bad lyrics, the red go cup is not about merely getting drunk or trying to sneak something somewhere. It’s also about living the moment and taking that moment with you. It’s about freedom and the outdoors. One of my favorite things to do after a day on the beach is to mix a rum and Coke and then go tend my garden, red cup in hand.

For me, the go cup also symbolizes the past, the days of station wagons with wood paneling, Polo cologne, and good FM radio. Back when the Republicans weren’t so scary and before the people you knew and loved began to die.

A friend’s sister paints pictures of go cups in all colors. I have a red one, framed and lit in my cottage. When I ask her why the go cup, she shrugs and says she admires its simplicity and aesthetic. She likes how it makes people smile.

In retrospect, perhaps a blue go cup at a funeral isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Columns, Photos

A Good Chair is Hard to Find

I’ve been obsessed this winter with finding two new matching club chairs for in front of my fireplace.  They had to be upholstered and comfortable, and not too big.  I wanted chairs with a little style, chairs that fit like a pair of Cole Hahn loafers.

Shouldn’t be too difficult, right?

I scoured Washington. Mitchell Gold had a nice variety of “unique and ethical pieces,” according to its oh so stylish salesman. That’d be fine if I were purchasing a sculpture, but I was looking for a chair that I could sit in and write in for a couple of hours without my back hurting.

Room and Board’s made-in-America chairs were too mid-century modern for a cottage like mine built in 1921.  And, besides, I couldn’t wait four to six weeks for delivery. The chairs at my favorite haunt Random Harvest in Georgetown were too diminutive and too beige, while the furniture at Restoration Hardware was too expensive and too eclectic.  Domed burlap wing chairs? Faux mink bean bag chairs?  I don’t think so.

The catalogues were no better. Everything seemed grossly oversized and anything I did like seemed to be available only in pebble and putty or silver and sage.  In Rehoboth, things were certainly more colorful, but seashells, palm trees, cabana stripes, and decorator perfect chairs with coordinated piping and tassels were way too resort-like for my taste.

Exasperated, I ventured over to western Sussex County, where the roads are riddled with signs about bed bugs and Jesus, and furniture is sold in buildings the size of airplane hangars.  Yes, I went to Johnny Janosik, the largest furniture store on the East Coast at 180,000 square feet. That’s one hundred and fifty times the size of my house.

It was eerily reminiscent of being in a casino where you quickly lose all sense of time and place. There must have been thousands of chairs in all different styles and sizes, and if a few might have worked for me, I couldn’t find them, so distracted was I by the humongous ultra suede recliners that doubled as beverage coolers and all the people rocking back and forth and swiveling to and fro as if in some sort of human pinball machine.  When I saw two guys I recognized from Rehoboth trying out white matching leather recliners with cup holders, I just averted my eyes.

By the time I arrived at Mitchell’s Furniture in Laurel, Delaware, I was so delirious from the furniture vortex I’d just escaped that I began to seriously consider buying a pair of green leather library chairs at $2,500 apiece.  I rationalized that if I quit drinking for a month I could justify the expense.

Something, however, stopped me from making that purchase, and I decided to walk outside, clear my head, and make one final pass through the store.  Wouldn’t you know that’s when I spotted a pair of chairs in a bold, but masculine, floral pattern?  I got closer.  They were Sherill chairs, made in Hickory, North Carolina, not far from where I grew up.  Quality craftsmanship with a little southern flair.

As I drove back to Rehoboth with my precious cargo in back of the truck, I couldn’t help but wonder why was it that chairs seemed so much more difficult to pick out and purchase than other pieces of furniture?  Is it because they’re more like us than are beds and tables?  Chairs have arms, legs, and backs.  They can be staid, frumpy, or trendy.  They support us.

But, it’s about more than mere comfort. Chairs are expressions of our individuality and status, of our hopes and dreams.  As status symbols, we choose our chairs to demonstrate what we perceive as our good taste.

Artists and craftsmen build chairs that often express higher ideals.  The famous Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe once said that designing a skyscraper was almost easier than a chair.  He should know, having designed many buildings but only a few chairs, including the iconic modern Barcelona chair of 1921.

In case you’re wondering, my new floral chairs look great in the cottage beside my fireplace. They neither swivel nor recline.  And, more importantly, I didn’t have to give up my drinking allowance to pay for them.

Columns, Photos

Mums the Word

I was attending a swank supper party over in Henlopen Acres the other night.  The scotch was free flowing and the conversation was too, veering wildly from topics such as men who like to fluff bed linens to Republican presidential candidates to the pending migration of the monied set to the Palm-fringed beaches of Florida.

At one point, I was asked what my next column was going to be about, and I mentioned I was thinking about chrysanthemums, those cushion-like mounds of brightly colored blooms you see just about everywhere this time of year.  Bad answer.  I’m lucky I wasn’t asked to leave.  You see, they don’t do mums in the Acres…

Seems a lot of folks look down their noses at the chrysanthemum, thinking it brash and mass produced and disposable after its blooms fade.  Some mums, admittedly, are a little gauche, but that’s to be expected when you have more than thirty species and thousands of varieties of anything.

I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on writing about chrysanthemums until I saw the reactions to the idea.  I knew I had to give it a go.

The chrysanthemum hasn’t always been regarded in low esteem. In China, where it is believed to have originated, the flower was revered for its healing properties.  A hardy flower, it was also associated in Chinese literature with independent, proud, and noble men. By the 8th Century A.D. it arrived in Japan, where people bestowed many honors upon it.  To sip dew from its petals meant long life.  To eat the flowers meant immortality. The chrysanthemum became so prestigious that only royal and noble families were permitted to cultivate it.  The emperor chose it as the symbol and seal of the imperial family, and it remains so to this day.

By the early 1800s, the flower had made its way to the Netherlands and England. Nobody knows for sure exactly when or who introduced the chrysanthemum to Europe, but there are well-documented reports of the flower arriving inside a glass case and under the care of Robert Fortune, a noted plant collector and writer of traveler tales. Perhaps recognized more for introducing tea to India, Fortune is credited with bringing all sorts of exotic Oriental specimens back for the Horticultural Society of London — azaleas, wisterias, magnolias, rhododendrons, honeysuckles, and bamboos.  Upon retirement, he became a gentleman farmer and penned articles for the Gardener’s Chronicle, a popular British horticulture periodical.

The chrysanthemum’s early history in America is questionable. Some claim the flowers were imported first by wealthy gardeners in Philadelphia and Boston.  Others insist they were grown first in fancy gardens in Virginia and the Carolinas.  Whatever the source, they quickly gained popularity. The first American horticultural show devoted solely to the chrysanthemum was held in Boston in 1868.  Mums today are the second most popular cut flower after the rose.

My first encounter with the chrysanthemum occurred in Virginia in 1978, and it was traumatic. Imagine if you will a huge honking white “football” mum emblazoned with GWHS letters spelled out with maroon-colored pipe cleaners and festooned with maroon and gray ribbon tails and little silver bells and worn on the large bosom of an over-perfumed, Farrah Fawcett wannabe in a white cowl neck sweater.

It gets worse.

After the homecoming dance, my date and I were guzzling Southern Comfort and Coca-Colas and nuzzling in the backseat of my best friend’s four-door, Thunderbird Landau. I remember feeling as if I was gonna suffocate in hair and perfume, and all the while the “Grease” soundtrack was playing and that damn mum was jingling and jangling, trying to lure my reticent hand. Luckily, my date upchucked on her sweater and all over the corsage. Always the gentleman, I gallantly tossed the soggy mum out the car window.

It wasn’t until many decades later when I bought my cottage in Rehoboth and started gardening on weekends that I began to appreciate the chrysanthemum in all its colors and blossom shapes.  They raise a lot of mums in Delaware, mostly field grown, and nothing like what I remember from the bosom of my nauseated back seat paramour.  And, while I cultivate the more classic Chrysanthemum manimum (Shasta daisy) and Chrysanthemum nipponicum (Montauk daisy) in my garden, every now and then I must admit that I’ll slow down and pick up one of those colorful, larger-than-life “monster mums” sold on the side of the road for $7.99 a pot.

Yes, I realize they’re a tad tawdry, the equivalent of fast food, but to me that’s also why they’re alluring.  Forbidden desire.  Do me a favor though and don’t tell anyone in the Acres about this predilection of mine or I won’t be attending any swank supper parties any time soon.

Columns, Photos

Sometimes a Rose is Just a Rose

Why does it seem whenever there’s an extreme weather event or natural phenomena that evangelical right wingers fly into a tizzy and start hollering about how it’s God’s punishment for something they don’t agree with?

Seriously, who can forget the numerous claims that Hurricane Katrina was God’s retribution against the sodomites and licentiousness of New Orleans?  Seems America’s abortion policy was to blame too.  Haitians, according to televangelist Pat Robertson, brought the earthquake that racked their nation on themselves by making a deal with the Devil during the 1791 slave rebellion in exchange for getting their freedom from France.  Then there was the anti-gay activist who made headlines earlier this year by blaming all those unexplained bird deaths on the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

So when Hurricane Irene threatened, I knew it would merely be a matter of time until some kook stepped forward to say something outrageous. How could they not? This storm was so irresistibly dangerous, threatening as it did the “Left Coast” of the United States and New York City, less than a week after an earthquake!

Sure enough, Presidential candidate Michelle Bachman, bless her heart, just couldn’t resist.  At a rally in Florida she told supporters that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquake were God’s way of telling America’s politicians to rein in spending.  Naturally, her spokespeople said it was a little joke to emphasize her commitment to smaller government.

I’m skeptical. After all, Bachman claims God called her to run for Congress and then told her to sponsor a law in Minnesota defining marriage as between one woman and one man.  The girl’s got a pretty good pipeline it seems to the Almighty.

This concept of “divine retribution” is neither new, nor limited to American evangelical conservatives. Minister Louis Farrakhan asserted that Hurricane Katrina was God’s way of punishing the nation for its warmongering and racism. The governor of Tokyo said the deadly Japanese earthquake and tsunami were payback for what he termed national egoism.

Seriously, are we still living in the 18th century?

I ask this because I’ve just finished reading a book called Hurricane of Independence about the September 1775 hurricane that crashed into the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia, and then raced up the East Coast in a path very similar to Hurricane Irene, striking all the important colonial capital cities.

People back then had very little understanding of hurricanes. Most attributed big storms to divine Providence. Americans believed in a wrathful God who punished their sins and a merciful God who protected them from their enemies.  So when this hurricane struck on the eve of the Revolution, the American patriots were confused.  Why would God punish them rather than sending a storm against the fleet of British redcoats trying to rob Americans of their liberties?  Could the storm be a divine signal that their cause was not quite as favored as they believed?  Or was it merely a heavenly reminder to live virtuous lives?

Because the hurricane killed both colonists and British, the consensus seemed to shake out that God was indeed on the side of the Americans in their glorious cause for liberty and was punishing the British for their tyranny.  How about that for a rationalization?

I have to wonder what kind of meaning the evangelical right wingers would give to the fact that the wrath of Hurricane Irene seemed to pass Rehoboth by.  We had less wind and rain than expected.  Yes, the beach lost some sand, but the dunes held. At my house, we never lost power.  It blinked a couple of times while I was preparing a pork roast and some patty pan squash, but that’s all. The front porch didn’t even get wet, despite my removing the protective canvas awnings.

And get this, a rose bloomed in my garden during the middle of the hurricane. A pink rose.

Columns, Photos

Watermelon Man

Eating watermelon is one of the most symbolic rituals of summer that I can think of, especially for a Southerner like me.

Whether it’s a simple slice enjoyed on the beach or as the base for a margarita, there’s nothing better than some “sweet meat” on a hot August afternoon. Heck, I even like watermelon grilled with a little olive oil and salt and pepper — six minutes on one side only. Goes well with crab cakes.  So, naturally, when I heard about a watermelon market over in the town of Laurel on the western side of Sussex County, I had to go check it out.

The proper name for the market is the Laurel Farmer’s Auction Market.  One of the oldest established produce markets on the East Coast; it’s where you want to be right now to get in on the melon action in Sussex County. It’s also where I met the watermelon man.

The watermelon man was lean and tanned, with short hair, a big Saxon schnozz, and a hawk-like gaze.  He kind of reminded me of that gay Welsh rugger Gareth Thomas, only older and not so hot. But whereas Gareth plays with balls, this fella works with watermelons.  Lots and lots of watermelons.  He and his crew follow the season and the harvest from Florida up through the Carolinas to the Delmarva peninsula and then back down to Florida and over to Mexico.  He was kind enough to give me a little tour and tell me all about Delaware watermelons.

Some of the nation’s finest watermelons are grown right here in Sussex County on 2,700 acres of well-drained, sandy soils. The western side of the county is really the epicenter of the industry, and it’s been that way since the 1850s when farmers filled up boats with watermelons and sent them down the Nanticoke River and on to Baltimore and points beyond.

Delaware watermelons begin to ripen in July and the picking continues through mid-September.  So far, about a million pounds of “sweet meat” have come through the Laurel market.  And come it has, piled high in the beds of pickup trucks and on special watermelon buses (old school buses with the tops ripped off and the seats and windows stripped out.)  Some of them are even “customized.”  Pimp my bus.

Why school buses?  Well, first of all, there’s very little demand for old ones.  They’re cheap.  And because school buses are automatic drive, they work pretty well in the sandy watermelon fields.  Each bus can hold about a thousand melons.

Delaware’s watermelon crop is valued at about $11 million annually.  It’s serious business. But, when you’re standing in the old 1940s-era wooden market looking at all the watermelon buses, it still feels kind of quaint.

The crop yield has so far been good because we’ve had hot a lot of dry weather. Too much water causes a watermelon to swell too quickly and dilutes the sugar in the fruit. Too much rain and the melon may become misshapen or even split open.  The melons this summer are just right and I really wanted to grab one off a bus. Unfortunately, I had missed the actual market, which occurs in the morning.

Forced to search for a local melon on the road, I came across a little produce manned by a rather hefty woman wearing pink striped shorts and a green tank top.  Please, I asked, could she pick me out a good ripe Sussex County watermelon? Despite my culinary prowess with the big fruit, I’m notoriously inept at picking one out. She pointed to one of the greener melons and hollered that it was “sweet to the rind.”  When I asked how she could tell, she instructed me to roll it over.

All watermelons have a flat side from how they grow, and the wider the spread and the more yellow the color, the sweeter and riper the melon. This one looked pretty good, so I gave her my two dollars and put the watermelon beside me in the air conditioned cab of the pickup so it would cool down on the hour long drive back to Rehoboth.

Another accepted way to pick out a ripe watermelon is to knock on it.  A thud indicates the watermelon is ripe while a hollow sounds means it’s still got a way to go.  Because I can never trust my ear, I was excited to learn there’s a new iPhone app to help me pick out a perfect melon. It’s called iWatermelon.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Here’s how it works.  You simply put your iPhone on top of the melon and then thump it three times. The iPhone senses whether or not it’s ripe. I kid you not.   I actually downloaded it and tested it out in the Whole Foods Market in Washington where I went through four watermelons before the app finally identified a ripe one.  People stared, but low and behold the melon was indeed super sweet and ready to eat.

Feeling this must be some sort of scam, I tried the app on my head. It didn’t register, which pleased me.   When I put it on my belly and tapped three times, however, the app flashed and told me this was “a fair one.”  Hmm….Guess that makes me a real watermelon man too.


Keep Calm and Rave On

Gays getting married. Gays having babies. Gays serving openly in the military.  Yes, we’re seeing some amazing things in this new century.  Here’s one I wasn’t prepared for: gays playing beer pong.

You heard me right. The ultimate beer drinking game is no longer the province of straight frat boys and Snooki wanna-bes. Now the gay twenty-something pocket boys – those wispy lads so thin you can slip into your back pocket – are playing pong right here in Rehoboth Beach.

“Pong” is shorthand for a drinking game in which you try and land a ping-pong ball in your opponent’s cups of beer. If you succeed, your opponent must drink the beer.  It sounds easy and in concept it is.  Except that there are numerous variations on the game and every group of players seems to have its own special rules.

The National Beer Pong League — yes, there is such an entity– counts more than sixty recognized variations that can be played without paddles and more than a dozen with paddles. You’ve got Dartmouth pong, Cornell pong, Bounce pong, Long Island style, Philly style, Beirut East Coast style, Auburn rules, Virginia rules, and so the list goes on.

There’s even a set of rules for strip beer pong. And special names for players too. A camel toe, for example, is someone who always shoots before consuming the beer. A Che (Guevara) is someone who refuses to play by the house rules.

Pong tables vary too, though you can basically play the game on any flat tabletop.  The most popular size today is eight feet by two feet, and you can order one online in plastic, wood or aluminum at prices starting as low as $89. Handmade elegant wooden ones are available too and can cost upwards of $700. Picnic tables work well in a pinch.

The game has become so popular that there are leagues all over the country dedicated to pong. There is even a World Series of Beer Pong, held annually at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas where hundreds of players compete for a $50,000 grand prize.

How did this all come about?

Most historians — and I use that term loosely — believe beer pong originated at Dartmouth College in the 1950s and 1960s. Some older alumni think it grew organically from the simple fact of putting cups of beer on the table when playing the game of ping-pong. However it started, by the 1970s, the game of beer pong had developed rules and spread up and down the East Coast through the college and university circuit. At Dartmouth, it became so popular the school sanctioned it as an actual intramural sport for a short period of time.

I played pong for the first time in the fall of 1979 in the basement of a UVA fraternity. It was hot and heady with the scent of college boy sweat, Polo cologne, and marijuana. Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus album was playing on the stereo. Juanita my sweet chiquita, what are you up to?

A paddle was thrust into my hand and I was steered to a ping-pong table set atop a pool table with arranged with plastic cups of beer. A neophyte to beer pong, the brothers no doubt considered me an easy target.  Little did they know I’d been playing ping-pong for many years in my own basement. I had a good lob and I knew how to deliver some wicked topspin.

Yes, back then we played pong on real ping-pong tables and with real paddles. Old school.

Things started to change in the early 1980s when the frat boys at Lehigh and Lafayette chucked the paddles and started chucking the balls by hand. They called their new variation “Beirut” in reference to the Lebanese civil war. The rival schools are located but seventeen miles apart in eastern Pennsylvania, so, naturally, each claimed to have invented the game.  While the origin might be at issue, the raison d’etre wasn’t: to get bombed.

Today you find diehard fans of both the paddle and paddle-less versions. It’s a matter of preference. The pocket boys of Rehoboth toss rather than paddle. And though I’m personally partial to the classic version of pong, I am quite impressed by the boys’ sense of sporting style. They’ve got a specially designed table, balls, and even plastic cups all emblazoned with the slogan “Keep Calm and Rave On.”  I was told it’s a riff off of the British government’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign to buoy public spirit during WWII.  Crowns for queens.  I like that.