Thursday, March 29, 2012

“The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!” (from Thomas Merton’s autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, Harcourt, Inc.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Grandma's Cornmeal Mush

My German grandmother, Lizzie Fuchs (1897-1983), used to cook cornmeal mush for the dogs. I have no reason to believe that the contents were anything more than cornmeal brought to boil in water and cooked for awhile. Maybe she added bacon grease for a little flavor. That sounds like something she and lots of other country folks would think good for the hounds. Nice and filling and fragrant and tasty.

So Grandma’s cornmeal mush came to mind today while I was making polenta to go with the chicken and sausage gumbo I cooked yesterday. I know, gumbo calls for white rice. Some south Louisiana traditions call for a big dollup of potato salad plopped into the middle of a bowl of gumbo. I first experienced that on a visit to south Louisiana following Hurricane Rita. In my German-English heritage, we always had white rice.

Last night, when I finished cooking my version of this cajun delectable, the thought of polenta held the promise of pleasing my palate. Luckily, I found a pound of stone ground yellow cornmeal in the freezer. The recipe for polenta: 1 part cornmeal to 3 parts water. Bring the water to a boil, stir in the cornmeal, sans salt, and cook over a low temp for 30 minutes. Cornmeal mush! Now wouldn’t Grandma Fuchs shake a puzzled head to hear that her hound recipe is—and has been for a long time now—a favorite in upscale restaurants here in the States known for what I call their New American cuisine. Granted, by definition, polenta is nothing more than mush—gruel, porridge—traditional peasant food in Roman times.

After cooking my gruel this morning, I let it set for a few hours in a glass pie plate. Then I slathered it generously with a soft spread blend of olive oil canola oil and baked it for 30 minutes. Lots of people brown polenta in a skillet and top it with all sorts of appetizing sauces.

Here’s to you Grandma! Cornmeal mush is not just for the hounds. Were you ahead of your time, and could your dogs possibly have known how hip you were filling their dishes with polenta. I suppose not. I do know this, however. A slice of my baked-to-golden brown polenta nested in the middle of a bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo was about as fine as anything from my stovetop in a long time. For a treat, in a couple of days I just might offer some of the leftovers to the pooches who call this 200 acres home here in Leon County Texas. Casey and Yager, one a purebred Blue Heeler and the other a purebred Rat Terrier, are in for a treat. No doubt, they will know.

Grandma’s Cornmeal Mush—Normangee, Texas (March 28, 2012)

R. Harold Hollis

A rose by any other name

Spring 2012 has produced an abundance of blooms on the roses here on our land in Leon County, Texas. Pictured: Old Blush shrub (c. 1752) and Old Blush climber. “Old Blush “...also known as Common Monthly, Common Blush China, Old Pink Daily, Old Pink Monthly, and Parsons Pink China, the myriad of names of this semi-double hybrid of R. chinensis attest to the friendly familiarity with which it has been grown for over two hundred years.” (information from the Antique Rose Emporium, Independence Texas)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Garden in Leon County Texas Spring 2012

Bignonia capreolata s a vine commonly referred to as Crossvine. The common name refers to the cross-shaped pattern revealed when the stem is cut. This membrane is of a sweet, pleasant taste. According to Wikipedia, the Cherokees would “crop these vines to pieces, together with china brier ands sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

Home Again

Ruhe in Frieden

No doubt I’ve covered this subject already— at least in talking about family history if not also buried deep in some document stored on my laptop. It bears saying again anyway. Many times over the last couple of decades of my mother’s life (1917-2007), she and I talked about the whereabouts of her maternal Grandfather Henry Fuchs’s grave. All she could remember was that he was buried somewhere in the White Oak area in the northwest part of Houston— where his German Fuchs family settled when they made their way from the port of Galveston to Harris County, most likely during the great war between the American states. I know more about my great grandmother’s family, which made passage to Galveston in 1866. They settled farther to the north of Houston, maybe 15 miles east of the Fuchs settlement. Benfer (most likely Banfer with an umlaut over the “a”) was the name of my great grandmother’s family. I have known the place of burial for Great-Grandmother Louisa Benfer Fuchs all of my life. In my mind’s eye I see myself as a child there in Perry Cemetery— which during my growing up years was situated “in the country” as we called it. I am most likely with my mother and grandmother, and maybe one or both of my older sisters is there as well. Perry was across the dirt, and later blacktop, road from the old Heemer place and just down the road road from where my Grandma Lizzie Fuchs and her son, Bubba, had a dairy, located on land Louisa had gifted to Lizzie. I grew to understand at least 30 years ago that Louisa, who died on new year’s day of 1939, owned lots of land in the area of Perry Cemetery, northwest of Houston, including what became known later as the Heemer place. Mother was born in that house in 1917. No doubt Louisa owned land in other parts of Harris County as well. Oh, if walls could talk. Indeed, if the land could talk.

Mother never remembered exactly where her Grandfather Fuchs was buried, although she likely would have visited the place as a child, and maybe even as a teenager and young woman. Either she never said, or I don’t remember. All she could recall was that he was buried in the woods somewhere behind Paradise Cemetery on West Montgomery Road, in an area near White Oak known as Acres Homes. By the time I was born in 1943, Acres Homes, which had been settled by Whites during World War I— a “genteel” place of sorts where city folks could have a patch of land for gardening and raising chickens and livestock— had become an African American community. “Colored Town” we called it. Paradise Cemetery was a burial place for “coloreds” as we called Blacks at the time. And the cemetery for many years was owned by white cousins on my daddy’s side. How that came about— a group of white brothers owning a Black cemetery— I don’t know, and there is no one left to ask. No doubt, it was a money maker because the Butler brothers and their families lived in style. Maybe Cousin E. J. Butler had a vague recollection of where the Fuchs cemetery was located, but in the 1960s, that area of White Oak had been sold to developers by the family member who had inherited the land settled by the Fuchs immigrants. Now we know their names— my great-great grandfather was August Fuchs (1830-1908) and my great-great grandmother, Christiane Henriette (1837-1911). We know their place of burial, and yes, we know the place that Mother couldn’t remember— where her Grandfather Heinrich (Henry) Adolph Fuchs (1856-1911) is buried.

The story of the discovery of the Fuchs Cemetery is another lesson in tenacity and good luck. One of my Fuchs cousins did the work, and only after she had discovered that the cemetery, which holds only four graves, was I able to connect a little family history to this story. This family cemetery saw use only from 1908 to 1914. At least those are the graves that remain marked. I wonder if infants might be buried there as well. The cemetery is hidden away among houses in an area known as Inwood Forest— almost as if the people who built around it had circled the wagons, backyards nested against the old chain link fence that encloses this sanctified space on two sides. A couple of the property owners have built privacy fences to block out the old graveyard. Thanks to Wikipedia, good friend to those who search for information, we know that the “land in what is now Inwood Forest was originally Native American hunting grounds. In the 1860s German American farmers settled along the White Oak Bayou. For a 100 year period until 1963, the Fuchs family owned the land that would become Inwood Forest and surrounding subdivisions; during that year a real estate developer bought the land. Many of the original houses in Inwood Forest were developed for oil company executives.” (^ a b c d Meeks, Flori. "Inwood offers stability." Houston Chronicle. April 18, 2007. Retrieved on August 17, 2009.)

Yesterday, my two older sisters and a Fuchs cousin who lives nearby, joined several other cousins for a visit to this tiny 50 x 50 foot time capsule. Except for our cousin Cindy, who “discovered” the cemetery through a posting on the Internet, and her husband, Joe, both who saw the site last October, it was the first visit for the rest of us. I knew in advance that two of the property owners had recently built privacy fences, leaving a path about three feet wide leading up to a privacy gate marking the entrance. A representative of the neighborhood association had surprised Cindy and Joe by enlisting a Boy Scout troop to clean the old cemetery, which was overgrown by underbrush, including a healthy stand of palmettos and an equally healthy stand of poison oak. Several large old oak trees completely shade the spot. And as we discovered yesterday, the cemetery, which lies near a drainage ditch and also near White Oak Bayou, retains water during heavy rains. Houston is, after all, known as the Bayou City. We stood at the opening looking over to the grave markers, ankle deep in the aftermath of recent rains. No one had come prepared for standing water, even though we all knew that the ground would be wet because of rains. The markers for our great-great grandfather and grandmother are in German, which likely was their primary, if not their only, language, until their deaths in the very early 20th century. Our great-grandfather Henry and his brother Louis complete the quartet. At the time of these burials almost 100 years ago, White Oak was far out in the country from the city of Houston. These days, Houston has encroached many, many miles beyond in all directions.

Since learning last fall about the “discovery” of the cemetery, I have reflected that our mother, Tena, who loved her family and family history, and instilled in me the same wanting to know when and how this Texas story came to pass, must be smiling at our good fortune. If we could hurl ourselves back to 1863, see the once Native American hunting grounds of what became the White Oak community— obviously named for the White Oaks that heavily populate the area— it would at least resemble what I recall as a young child in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. I do remember the pasture lands and the heavily populated woods, cattle grazing, and old wood frame farm houses situated here and there. A lot has changed in 60 years. Yet the little Fuchs cemetery, surrounded but protected by urban development, remains unchanged.

Cindy and I have talked briefly about how we go about assuring that the resting place of those with whom we began in Texas remains undisturbed. I know from personal witness that this is not guaranteed in a city where development and sprawl unapologetically gobbles up history in its way. Today I began my own part of this quest by contacting the Texas Historical Commission. I intend to know what it takes to protect our newly-discovered place of family history. Who owns this land? We have identified descendants of the branch of the Fuchs family that sold the land surrounding the cemetery. As of this writing they have not expressed an interest in this unfolding family story. Let the dead bury the dead? I love knowing the final resting place of my great grandfather and my great-great grandparents. I love it especially because I know my mother is smiling at this discovery. No doubt, the other Fuchs descendants who are participants in this journey feel their own connections to this story and to our forebears. We who gathered yesterday shared a lunch table afterwards. We had hugged when arrived at the cemetery, the conversation never lagged, and we hugged as we parted company later in the afternoon. Having reconnected in the last couple of years, I have no doubt that this small representation of our family will continue this journey together. We will mark our part in the Fuchs family history. With special thanks to our cousin Cindy.

Home Again— Normangee, Texas (March 16, 2012)
R. Harold Hollis