Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
I recently returned from a visit to Georgia. I went to see friends and to attend a memorial service for Millard Fuller, the co-founder (with his wife, Linda) of Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing.
I worked for Millard as his scheduling secretary in the mid-1990s. His sudden death saddened people all over the world. At the time of his death, Habitat — whose mission is to eliminate poverty housing worldwide — had built more than 200,000 homes and housed more than a million people.
Though showing my respect to Millard was a large part of my journey, it wasn’t the only reason I went. I had been thinking about the South, about my time there, about my friends. I had left rather quickly and never said goodbye as I should have, to my friends or to the region. Having lived in Americus, a semi-rural community, there were many things about the soil, air, and foliage I missed. Funny, but I felt I had not bid the land a proper farewell.
I remember driving down to the South for my first visit. It was early August and the air was so thick with heat and moisture I was taken aback. Good golly, how could anyone live like that? I wondered. Sweat could permeate your being within seconds and confound any notion of an afternoon outing.
Traditionally in southern latitudes, noontime was for napping — at least before the modern world trumped the natural one. Now the “developed” world has air conditioning in cars, homes, and the workplace, all pumping freon into our atmosphere. Now the business world cannot tolerate the siesta. Now the modern world has set a new time clock: 9 to 5 at the least, 24/7 in the extreme. Now we hurry and scurry like so many rats in a maze keeping up with a pace set by something, anything but the seasons.
But back then, and for a long time, the American South was a land of screened-in porches and endless glasses of sweet iced tea. It was the land of slow talk and slower walks. It was a land of outdoor fish fries and barbecue (who but a mad dog would cook indoors?). It was a land of red soil and dogwoods, of magnolias and honking geese flying overhead in the early morning and at night. It was a land of peaches and pecans, of crowder peas, butter beans, and okra. It was a land of collard greens and smoked ham hocks and oh, Lord, buffets and Sunday suppers.
I ate myself sick in the South. There is little in Southern cuisine that I do not like. Country ham with red-eyed gravy, grits, biscuits, and “sides” like sweet-potato casserole and turnip greens. I went to eat at Granny’s Restaurant so many times while I was there that I was a near-regular. So thrilling were my meals that I had to tell everyone within earshot how happy I was.
Yes, they thought I was crazy, but they are used to crazy down there. In fact, much of what we love about Southern writers is just that — their depictions of colorful, eccentric characters. Everyone down there is a tad “heatstruck.”
So enamored was I of the region’s good cooking that I asked Hattie, an old friend of mine, if she would teach me how to make a few regional specialties. I have returned home with recipes for Southern fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, skillet bread (flat cornbread), and off-the-hook-good peach cobbler.
Now, I’m not sure I would use all the same ingredients as Hattie (the orange cheese scared me), but she will certainly excuse me, just as I will her for laughing at my use of olive oil and garlic on my string beans.
We were talking about cooking up our frozen green beans (she is a home food preserver), and evidently some things just do not translate between regions. I think I gave her the laugh of the year: “That’s what’s wrong with your green beans; it’s how you cooking ‘em.” Evidently butter and butter alone should grace your string beans.
Now I would be remiss if, amid this culinary revelry, I did not recall the South’s painful history — the one that cotton and plantations and slavery brought. I have often said that there is no poverty like Southern poverty. Rather, none in America that is so visible and in your face. That was something I witnessed during my time there as well.
Driving through the country, one saw tumble-down shanties — not abandoned as one might assume, but still occupied as if to defy all sense of justice and racial equality. And that is what Millard and Linda saw, and why they and their “Mustard Seed Theology” (from tiny seeds big things grow) filled the region with such goodwill in an effort to defy the status quo.
Almost single-handedly, they began their mission some 30 years ago and attracted good hearts and hammers to follow them all over the world. These days, Habitat for Humanity has grown very large despite an unfortunate “dismissal” of the Fullers. But the legacy continues, as does the effort, and I was happy to visit the Fuller Center’s small offices, just a stone’s throw or two from Habitat. It proved a few things for me.
I learned that anything is possible. That a commitment to a vision is the only thing one needs. That folks will follow if the spirit is true. That lives will be changed if the effort is heartfelt. And, most importantly, that a life given to a cause is a life well lived.
As Linda said to me over dinner the other night, Millard died a happy man. That was something we all needed to believe, and something Hattie and I discussed.
Hattie loved Millard. Hattie was one of the first people in Americus to receive a Habitat home. Hattie spoke at his memorial. Hattie knew how a “safe and decent” home had transformed her life and the lives of her six children.
And it was in that home that Hattie and I cooked. All the ingredients for a good meal were there: fond memories, a safe home, and old friends. Certainly Millard was there with us in spirit, stirring up the pot (as he was wont to do). And while I’m not positive, I think he would have sided with me on the green-bean controversy, if only because he was given to challenging the status quo.
So thanks, Millard. Thanks, Hattie. Thanks for the inspiration and memories. I will keep them close to my heart. As for the mustard seeds we all received during the memorial service, I’m gonna plant them in my back yard and see what big things may come.
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