New novel tells an exciting version of how we came to receive electricity in our homes
By Paul Wesslund
What if Thomas Edison was a bad guy? An evil genius? A man so desperate to protect his inventions that he would bribe the police and even electrocute dogs to show his electric systems were better than his competitors?
You’d have what writers like me have always been searching for—a dramatic, can’t-put-it-down story about electricity.
Graham Moore’s new novel The Last Days of Night tells the based-on-fact story of the ultra-high stakes battle between Edison and George Westinghouse over nothing less than what kind of electricity would power the U.S.
As with any good novel, it’s also about more than just the basic plot—it’s about invention and the creative process. It’s about the business, scheming, teamwork and luck that can make the difference between a genius who lives his life undiscovered and unknown, and one who enjoys wealth and fame.
The storytelling moves briskly through courtroom drama, corporate intrigue, romance, greed and political corruption. It’s a history lesson, with a cast of famous characters, including the Wall Street baron J.P. Morgan, Alexander Graham Bell and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. The book includes an author’s note at the end to help separate fact from fiction. If it was a movie (and a movie is in the planning stages) it would be rated PG—a graphic description of the use of the electric chair plays a role, though the account was taken from actual newspaper reports of the day.
Moore is most popularly known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter for the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” about WWII codebreakers. The Last Days of Night tells its story through the character of Paul Cravath, the smart but inexperienced attorney Westinghouse hired to fight the scores of lawsuits Edison had filed against him.
In the late 1800s, Edison was turning his invention of the light bulb into a network for electrifying the country, starting in New York City. The Westinghouse company had invented what it felt was a better light bulb, but the lawsuits claimed it was just a copy of Edison’s.
The much bigger issue came with how the electricity would be delivered to those light bulbs. Edison’s system used direct current (DC), which is what comes out of any battery you have in your home. Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla had developed alternating current (AC), so named because it actually changes direction about 60 times a second, as a more efficient way to deliver electricity over long distances. Alternating current won—AC is the kind of electricity found in your home today.
Fear of electricity
A feature of the fight was a media relations war over whether AC or DC was more dangerous. In those early days of electricity, it created both fear and amazement since few people understood the phenomenon. In the 1930s, 40 years after the events in this book, electricity started coming to rural parts of our country. And some of those same fears came with it. One story told of a man who wanted to make sure a bulb stayed screwed into the overhead socket so the electricity wouldn’t flow out and electrocute everyone in the room.
In the book, Moore covers the complexities of generating and delivering electricity—but he does so with a sense of excitement. The great gift to Moore was that his unlikely and compelling character, attorney Paul Cravath, was a real person. And he had a real romance with a real celebrity, who happened to have her own creative genius, backed by a cleverness for self-promotion and a willingness to cut ethical corners.
The story ends on an intelligently positive note, making the point that invention and creation require a cast of talents. The book concludes with a tribute to all of the characters: “Only together could they have birthed the system that was now the bone and sinew of these United States. No one man could have done it. In order to produce such a wonder … the world required … Visionaries like Tesla. Craftsmen like Westinghouse. Salesmen like Edison.”
Paul Wesslundwrites on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.
Q: Now that winter is here, I’d like to make my home more comfortable by keeping cold air out. I’m planning to have a contractor inspect and seal air leaks. However, a neighbor mentioned that I could seal up my home too much and cause ventilation problems. Is this true?
A: You’re certainly on the right track. Sealing air leaks is usually one of the best energy efficiency investments a homeowner can make. A typical home leaks, on average, about half of its air every hour, which is like having your kitchen window open all day, every day. Sealing air leaks can also eliminate drafts that keep your home from being cozy.
However, it is possible to seal up some homes so “tight” that they have little ventilation, which can contribute to indoor air quality problems or a build-up of moisture. The challenge is to achieve the best home performance and energy savings while maintaining air quality. The first step is to eliminate or reduce indoor air pollutants, such as smoke or chemicals. Experts then recommend sealing air leaks as much as possible and installing mechanical ventilation, as needed. Simple mechanical ventilation can be controlled and consistent, as opposed to “natural” ventilation from air leaks, which can result in a home being too drafty in more extreme weather and not ventilated enough in milder weather.
The best way to inspect your home for air leaks is to hire a contractor or energy auditor who will conduct a blower door test, which uses a powerful fan to measure the air infiltration rate. During the test, the contractor will be able to locate and seal air leaks. After sealing, the contractor can measure the resulting air infiltration rate and talk with you about any ventilation needs. There is no simple way to determine how much mechanical ventilation your home will need—it depends on a combination of factors, including the rate of air flow into your home, what kind of climate you live in, the layout and occupancy of your home and whether there are other indoor air quality concerns, such as radon or combustion appliances like gas furnaces.
Mechanical ventilation systems allow for controlled air movement and a rate of ventilation in your home on which you can depend, helping ensure good indoor air quality and appropriate levels of moisture. Generally, newer homes that have been sealed well and manufactured homes have the greatest need for mechanical ventilation.
There are two primary categories of mechanical ventilation. Many people are familiar with spot ventilation systems—these are the fans that you find above your oven range, in your laundry room, in your bathroom and perhaps above a garage workshop. They focus on removing moist air and indoor air pollutants at the source. Generally, these fans only work when you turn them on, but you can install condensation sensors or humidistats so the fans will turn on whenever they sense a higher moisture content in the air. Keep in mind running these fans constantly can take too much heated or cooled air out of your home, increasing your energy bills.
Whole-house ventilation circulates air throughout the home and introduces the right amount of outside air. There are four categories of whole-house ventilation systems; determining which method is best for you will depend on your home’s needs, your budget and your climate:
Exhaust ventilation systems: Fans pull air out of your home, which increases infiltration from the outside, either through air leaks or vents.
Supply ventilation systems: Fans bring outside air into your home.
Balanced ventilation systems: Both supply and exhaust fans circulate air in and out of the home.
Energy recovery ventilation systems: Fans, combined with heat exchangers, modulate the temperature and humidity of incoming air into your home.
Talk with your energy auditor or home performance contractor about whether you need additional mechanical ventilation, and if so, which system would work best for your living space.
Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to email@example.com for more information.
Black Belt artist Stephen James likes traveling, both to the country and sometimes through time to a simpler, less frantic past.
“Some of my fondest memories are of staying with my grandfather, who was a tenant farmer,” said James, who lives in rural Monroe County. “Everyone picked cotton by hand, and there were chicken and cattle.”
But it’s not just James who sees those memories of Alabama farm life from long ago. Thousands witness them at the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center in the paintings that James has created.
The center opened in Camden as a way to attract tourists to Alabama’s Black Belt. The Black Belt is one of the poorest areas of the state, and is called the “Black Belt,” because of its black soil where most of the state’s cotton was once grown.
Since opening in 2005, the center has grown from representing 75 artists to more than 450.
And those artists, who include painters, sculptors, potters, basket-weavers, quilters, woodworkers and others, have succeeded in attracting tourists to the area. So far Black Belt Treasures has attracted visitors from all 50 states and more than 26 countries.
It has also helped those tourists discover artists such as James, the 62-year-old painter who has discovered his visions of the past now have a bright future.
Of course, James also paints the present, but whether past or present most of his subjects are found in rural areas of the state that you can only get to by winding dirt roads.
“I like country scenes, family scenes, scenes that emphasize the fun you can have in the country and that emphasize family values,” he said. One of his favorite things to draw is country churches.
James has been selling his paintings for almost 40 years, but because of Black Belt Treasures and the Monroe County Heritage Museum, he said he has sold more paintings in the past five years than in the other 35 combined.
He said he has been drawn to art since he was 3 or 4 and his father showed him how to draw a cowboy.
He was about 10 when his parents began to realize he had talent. They had gotten him a paint-by-the-numbers set.
“After I painted the dog on the front by the numbers, I turned it around, and on the back, I did a country scene,” he said.
In school, he was always sketching and drawing and doodling, but never considered art as a career.
Instead, he graduated from nursing school in 1977 and has worked as a nurse ever since.
But he never completely spurned his love of art.
When he was around 20, he started doing oil paintings. He gave the first two paintings he did to his parents, who he said were incredibly supportive.
And through the years, he developed his own style.
“I guess you could say I am self-taught,” he said. “I took one class in college, but the teacher seemed a lot more interested in drama than art.”
“As far as technique, I pretty much developed mine by just doing it and experimenting. And maybe that has helped me. If I had a lot of instruction, I’d be doing paintings more like other people do. Now, I have my own style.”
Occasionally he said he would sell a painting, usually to people who lived in the country, but mainly he continued because he loved painting country scenes. Then a strange thing happened. After a lifetime of drawing and painting, his career started to blossom when he was in his late 50s.
Now in his 60s, he still works as a nurse part time, but spends about 30 hours a week painting. Sometimes he regrets that painting takes time away from his other “hobbies,” which include fishing, gardening and “maintaining a good bit of land.” But he doesn’t regret it often. He says he loves what he does.
He credits his success to his family, including his sharecropping grandfather, his dad, who he says is still the best man he’s ever known, and his wife Sheila James, who has encouraged him ever since they got married 30 years ago.
In the future he plans to do a collection of country churches.
“I want to paint them just because it seems country churches are just some of the prettiest scenes you can find in the country,” he said. “I think those have been some of my favorite things to paint.”
He likes painting country churches even though some of them don’t sell.
“Usually when I do one that I really like, my wife takes it so I don’t get to sell it,” he said laughing.
Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center 209 Claiborne St.
Camden, AL 36726
Special decorations. Special foods. Special guests.
When I was a boy, my family had Uncle Artemus.
Born in 1895, Artemus grew up wanting more than Elmore County, Alabama offered, so in the 1920s he headed west for Hollywood. There he got work designing movie sets and as an extra in silent classics like “Scaramouche” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
(The family was often skeptical of the tales Uncle Artemus told, but as far as I was concerned, if they weren’t true, they should have been.)
Uncle Artemus ended up in Miami where, to no one’s surprise considering his Hollywood career, he became an interior decorator. We figured he made good money at it, because he had a monkey and monkeys don’t come cheap.
He also had a wife, a sweet lady, and a yappy little dog. He brought them with him when he joined the family for Christmas at my Grandmother’s.
It was an event when Uncle Artemus and his entourage arrived.
His dress was flamboyant, his speech was theatrical, his movements were exaggerated – with the monkey on his shoulder he would have caused no great stir on Biscayne Boulevard, but in Slapout, Alabama, the seat of the Jackson clan, he cut a curious figure. So we were really impressed one Christmas when he announced that he, himself was going to make new, swell drapes for Grandma’s living room.
Grandma lived in what was really just a big farmhouse that had grown room by room as children arrived. What was then the living room had served a number of functions over the years and its décor reflected its evolution. So you would have thought that whatever Uncle Artemus designed would have fit right in. You would have been wrong.
When Christmas came round again Uncle Artemus arrived with wife, monkey, dog, and piles of cloth turned out to be drapes and valances that hung from ceiling to floor and looked, as my Daddy observed, “like something from a New Orleans brothel.”
Mama asked Daddy what he knew about New Orleans brothels.
Daddy changed the subject.
A couple of Christmases after that, when we were again gathered at Grandma’s, Uncle Artemus gave Daddy a present. When Daddy opened it he found a tie. Not just any tie. A hand-made-personally-by-Artemus-tie, creamy white, with an embossed design that looked suspiciously like the draperies that would not have been out of place at a you-know-what-you-know-where.
Later Daddy’s brother-in-law, my Uncle Canoy, got Daddy off to the side and told him that it was the ugliest tie he had ever seen.
So next Christmas Daddy wrapped it up and gave it to Canoy.
The next year Canoy gave it back to Daddy.
So began the swapping of the Christmas tie.
A few years ago Canoy died. So Daddy gave it to Canoy’s son, my cousin Benny, who gave it back the next year, and then Daddy gave it to me.
The tie passed between us until Daddy died.
Then it was just Benny and me.
We swap it back and forth, every year, and remember Uncle Artemus, and Uncle Canoy, and Daddy, and all those that gathered every Christmas.
This is a joyous time of year, but for gardeners it can be a little sad. December, after all, heralds the beginning of winter and a lull in the gardening season. But we can keep the joy of gardening alive in our yards and hearts through those winter months by using a wide array of cool-season plants.
One of the most popular and iconic of these plants is the camellia. Native to Asia, the camellia has been such a staple in southern landscapes that it feels like it’s ours — it is Alabama’s state flower after all. And, with thousands of cultivars and hybrids to choose from, the options for using these winter-blooming beauties are abundant.
Two species of camellias — C. japonica and C. sasanqua — form the basis for the plants used in our landscapes. Each offers slightly different characteristics that, mixed and matched with one another and other plants, can provide gorgeous blooms from fall through early spring.
C. sasanquas, which generally range in height from 2 to 12 feet at maturity, typically begin blooming earlier in the year than their japonica cousins and produce white or pink, usually non-fragrant single or double blooms.
Japonica camellias, on the other hand, can grow from 6 to 25 feet in height and usually begin blooming a little later in the season. Japonicas also come in a wider selection of often fragrant bloom options in colors of white, pink, rose, red and mixed red and pink, and in bloom forms ranging from single cup-shaped flowers to more ornate double blooms resembling anemones, peonies and roses.
Both species are evergreen, are quite drought tolerant once they are established and, with proper care, can live for years — more than one hundred years in some cases. Providing that care can be easy, especially if you tap into the many expert resources available through state camellia societies and clubs (see a partial list of these at www.americancamellias.com) or through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which offers publications and expert advice on camellia culture.
But camellias are not alone in providing magical blooms and interest to a winter landscape. Forsythia, flowering quince, witch hazel, winter jasmine and honeysuckle, Japanese magnolia and even blueberries are great landscape plants for winter and early spring blooms. Mix these with other trees and shrubs, such as maples and hollies, and winter- and spring-blooming bulbs and you’ll never be without something spectacular in the garden.
Most of these perennial plants can be planted right now, but newly planted shrubs, trees and bulbs may not offer the full beauty of their blooms until next year. If you can’t wait and want some immediate winter joy in your life, use cool-season annual and herbaceous perennial plants — pansies, calendula, ornamental kale and cabbage, snapdragons, poppies, salvias, hellebores and hardy cyclamen among them — in garden beds and containers.
In addition to adding beauty and joy to the winter landscape, these plants also often help feed birds, bees and other wild things, so you’ll be doing a service to nature while feeding your gardening joy. You can also feed your family this winter with winter vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, beets, onions and leafy greens, most of which can be planted from now into February.
These are just a few of the many ways to keep the joy of gardening alive this winter. For more ideas, look online for lists of winter plants suited for your area or check with local nursery and garden centers, botanical gardens, Extension offices or Master Gardener groups for some joyful inspiration.
Prepare garden beds by adding organic matter and other soil nutrients.
Test your soil to find out what nutrients need to be added for the coming growing season.
Plant bare-root roses, trees, shrubs, vines and spring-flowering bulbs.
Apply mulch around newly planted trees and shrubs and tender perennials.
Prune hardy deciduous and evergreen trees and summer-blooming shrubs.
Sow seeds for winter or cool-season vegetables and cool-season annuals.
Keep an eye out for off-season deals on lawn and garden equipment and furniture.
Begin selecting vegetable and flower seed for spring and summer planting from online or printed catalogs.
A frosty Christmas Eve duck hunt yields a ‘present’
With billions of stars shining overhead on this cold Christmas Eve, one could imagine the Star of Bethlehem illuminating the desert. However, this trip did not involve a desert journey, although we did cross some sand.
The outboard motor droning against the river current pushed the 14-foot aluminum flatboat through the swampy landscape. With only the stars lighting the way as it did two millennia ago, the twisted shapes of giant cypress trees lining the shoreline took on an eerie appearance.
Ethereal wisps of fog climbed from the dark, swirling currents like ghostly soldiers marching to one final battle. Above the fog, a shooting star plunged to its death in a brief, but brilliant blaze of glory across an ebony sky. Beyond the blackness that marked the water’s edge, unseen creatures began to stir.
A few miles upstream, we turned off the main river channel into an oxbow lake. A sandbar nearly capped the mouth of this former river channel and would eventually seal it completely. Abandoned by the mighty river eons ago, only a tiny, barely flowing ditch remained of the once powerful channel.
The motor kicked up sand in the shrinking ditch as we crossed over the bar into the oxbow. Beyond the sandbar, the ancient oxbow took on more of its former riverine shape. Rounding a couple bends, we stopped the boat at the outside edge of another bend. We broke off some brush and draped it over the green boat. Finally, we covered the motor with an old camouflaged poncho and waited.
Wood ducks generally follow the same flight patterns each morning and evening. They move at first light and after sunset between roosting and feeding areas. This predictability exposes their weakness. If hunters can position themselves in the right spot under a good flight path, they might enjoy almost continuous action as waves of ducks rush overhead — but only for a short time!
Having spent every possible hour exploring this swamp as we grew up, my friend Eric Holbrook and I knew where to find wood ducks. Every morning, woodies and an occasional green-winged teal or mallard flew across the bend of this oxbow. Woodies roosted in the cypress swamp across the river, but ate acorns dropped by oaks growing on a low ridge running through the swamp behind us. Wood ducks frequently follow river channels for navigation and flew up this oxbow on their way to breakfast at the oak ridge each morning.
The woodies always flew fast at treetop level. Sometimes, they zipped through trees, dodging trunks as if radar guided. In limited open pockets between the trees, woodies only offered quick long-range passing shots. In seconds, we needed to see, identify and fire, all under low-light conditions.
We seldom used decoys or calls, although I sometimes whistled at flying birds. Occasionally, a duck flew low down the channel between the trees, but they never landed or even slowed their momentum. They knew where they wanted to go and nothing, except a well-placed shot, could deter them from their preferred destination.
Expecting long shots, I switched the old adjustable choke on my dad’s Remington 870, already ancient even back then, to extra full. For high, fast ducks, I needed maximum range and knockdown power.
On this frosty Christmas Eve, temperatures hovered just above freezing. A ribbon of crimson barely lit the eastern sky beyond the gnarled cypress trees as we shivered in the aluminum boat. In the gloom, unseen whistling black specters already rocketed down the oxbow channel. As shooting hours arrived, several loose clusters of weaving objects burst through the low fog. We opened fire, unsuccessfully. For the next 15 minutes, we couldn’t load our shotguns fast enough as birds suddenly materialized, then vanished.
When the action died down, we warmed our hands by cupping them around the glowing shotgun barrels. A fleet of spent shell hulls bobbed in the frigid water around us. Others clattered and rolled around the bottom of the metal boat. The morning wave seemed over. We had enjoyed an exciting, although brief, hunt.
Still, we had nothing to show for it.
“Felsh, we’ve been hunting and fishing lots of times, but we never been skunked,” Eric remarked. “So far, we’ve shot more than a box of shells and didn’t touch a feather.”
“Day’s not over yet,” I replied. “Maybe we’ll get a Christmas present.”
As the morning brightened, more swamp denizens awakened with chirps, screeches and chatters. Not far away, the haunting tones of a pileated woodpecker reverberated through the swamp as I poured myself a cup of warming coffee. I barely had time to enjoy the strong, rich flavor before a lone drake wood duck materialized just below the treetops as it rocketed straight up the ancient channel.
I pulled the trigger on Ol’ Reliable. The bird splashed into the water. A single pellet of the 12-gauge magnum load had found its mark.
“That’s a beautiful bird,” Eric said. “Look at all the colors. Incredible! We still haven’t been skunked yet!”
“Yep! This one is almost undamaged,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to mount a drake wood duck. This one’s going on the wall… a little Christmas present to myself.”
John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com
As our number of Christmases grows, the memories of holidays past become a little more fuzzy, each year blending into the backgrounds of others. Photos are helpful and pleasant reminders, but save perhaps the years with a special event – a new baby, a change of venue, an unexpected influx of relatives crowding around the table – many Christmas mornings are much like the ones before.
But for most adults, there is at least one Christmas that stands out. Always, the most memorable gifts are the treasured memories we create.
Some of our readers, as well as staffers at Alabama Living, are sharing their personal stories to help capture the spirit of the holiday. Read on and reflect on your own favorite Christmas memory. And enjoy making some new ones this year.
Managing editor of Alabama Living:
My mom had a fun little game that is in my earliest childhood memories: The first person awake in the house on Christmas morning could sneak around to anyone still sleeping and shout “Christmas gift!” The shouter was the “winner,” though there was no official prize. Mom, who was an early riser, always won.
This Christmas will be our first without my mom, and thinking about not having her here prompted this memory. I have no doubt she’ll be looking down on us that morning, long before sunrise. I’m betting I’ll sense a little whisper, not a shout this time, that awakens me with a “Christmas gift.”
Communications coordinator, Alabama Rural Electric Association:
When we bought our first home, our current office was painted royal blue. It boasted a very rustic light switch cover featuring a moose standing in a forest. I mentioned to my family several times that as soon as we moved in, it would have to go! My father-in-law, Buddy, volunteered to replace the light switch covers in several rooms while we unpacked boxes.
Little did I know, he took the moose light switch cover with him! Last Christmas, he presented me with a gift bag, and told me that this was my main gift, that he had picked it out himself, to be prepared, because it would make me emotional. I was nervous after he had built up such anticipation for this gift — to find the much dreaded moose light switch cover in the bag. It has become a running joke now and I am looking forward to returning the favor this Christmas!
Office assistant, Alabama Rural Electric Association:
In my small hometown, Morehead, Ky., my uncle owned a department store. Of course, he had a department store Santa. Every year on Christmas Eve, Santa came to our house and brought our Christmas gifts.
One year, apparently my uncle had hired his son to play Santa. When he came to our house, he was afraid we might recognize him, so he spread his fluffy white beard all over his face. We have a picture of me giggling, standing beside a very bearded Santa. Considering the fact that I still believed in Santa after that, apparently the “full” beard fooled me.
On the weekend before Christmas in 1945, my mother, daddy and I visited a hunting buddy of my dad’s in Tuscaloosa County. The friend’s beagle had recently had puppies, and they were adorable to a 5-year-old girl who had asked Santa for a puppy for Christmas. Not especially counting on Santa, since other years had been disappointing, I started the age-old practice of begging. After my daddy and his friend talked, I went home with a puppy I named Spooky.
My daddy’s youngest brother was in the Army, home on leave for the birth of his first baby. Our house was three blocks from West End Baptist Hospital, so he was staying with us. His baby was born on Dec. 23. The same day Santa delivered my present to my daddy at work. He brought home a cute, tiny Pekingese I named Peewee. That night my uncle slept on the couch with Spooky, and I slept in a chair holding Peewee, the best Christmas gifts ever.
(My most memorable gift) is a pair of diamond earrings from my dad, after he got mad at me for letting my friend pierce my ears! I was a senior in high school. He was mad, but not for long. And yes, I still have the earrings. A girl’s first diamond should come from her daddy!
Janice Woulfe Charlesworth:
On Christmas Eve back in the 1960s, my sister, who is four years older than me, opened a gift from an aunt. It was a beautiful jewelry box. She immediately turned to me and said I could have her “old one.” Then I opened a package from the same aunt and I, too, received a jewelry box.
We were living in Mojave, Calif., when I was a child. (One year) my dad gave me a Tiny Tears doll, and a stuffed doll with a plastic face. I still have both of them and I’m 60 years old.
Barbara Findley Harrington:
My Grandmother Chesser was the mother of nine children, which meant lots of children, their spouses and grands to give gifts to, which were usually handmade. My favorite gift, when we were living near Milton, Fla., was a sweet sock monkey named Jo Jo that I still have 55 years later.
I received a bride doll from “Santa” when I was in the third grade and lived in Somerville, Ala. I assume Santa was my teacher, Mrs. Prince. She probably realized that was the only Christmas present I would receive.
Unfortunately, I no longer have the doll. The reason I treasure the memory is the dear teacher that I was sure was my secret Santa. Most loving teacher ever.
By Jennifer Kornegay | photos by Michael Cornelison
When I was growing up, it didn’t take much faith to believe in Santa. One year, I saw physical proof; there were huge sooty boot prints on our den floor marking a path from the chimney to the Christmas tree and then back again on Christmas morning.
The next Christmas Eve, I’d heard him stomping around on the roof, his reindeers’ bells jingling as he belted out his signature chortle. I’d even seen Rudolph’s glowing ruby red nose whiz past my window.
My father convinced my mom to let him dirty her floors with fireplace ashes. He climbed up on our roof. He put a red bulb in a small flashlight and scooted around the backyard.
My dad’s dedication to keeping the magic of Santa alive for as long as possible was matched only by the amount of fun he had doing it. He went above and beyond his dad duties in these instances, but you don’t have to go nearly as far to keep the wonder in the “most wonderful time of the year.” Start by making some holiday cookies.
A plateful of warm, sweet treats shared with family and friends is seasonally appropriate comfort food at its finest. And even if you don’t have kids in your house, go ahead and save a few to put out with a tall glass of milk for the big guy in red. Who knows? Better safe than sorry, right?
Cook of the Month
Julia Barnard, Arab EC
Julia Barnard has been making her Holiday Fruit Cookies for six decades, basically as long as she’s been married. “I started making them for my husband, and we wed 61 years ago,” she says. “They are a real favorite.” She especially loves the flavor of the sweet coconut and even sweeter cherries together. And while she cooks and bakes often, she usually gives away a good bit of whatever she whips up. “I have wonderful children and a grandchild, but most of them don’t live close, so it is just me and my husband, and we can’t eat a whole batch of cookies or a whole cake by ourselves, so I like to share,” she says. Those on the receiving end of Julia’s efforts are definitely some fortunate folks. “I love to bake, and even though I’ve never won anything like being named Cook of the Month before, I think I’m pretty good at it,” she says. We agree, Julia.
Holiday Fruit Cookies
¾ cup sugar
1 stick butter
1¾ cups self-rising flour
1 cup green and red candied cherries
1 cup coconut
1 cup chopped nuts
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped dates
½ teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream sugar and butter together. Add eggs and vanilla. Add flour, milk and spices. Stir in fruit and nuts. Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Makes 5-6 dozen cookies.
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup oleo or butter
1¼ cups sugar
2½ cups plain flour
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift dry ingredients and set aside. Cream oleo and sugar; add egg and vanilla. Mix well. Add flour mixture gradually and mix well. Add pecans if you like. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Drop batter by a teaspoon and bake 15 minutes or until lightly browned in a 300-325 degree oven. Do not over bake.
Carolyn Melton, Southern Pine EC
Cheryl’s Cherry Winks
1 jar of maraschino cherries
1½ cups coconut, plus extra for rolling
1½ cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup butter
1 teaspoon cream or milk
Mix butter with electric mixer and add the sugar, coconut, almond extract and milk or cream. Set mixture in refrigerator for about 10 minutes. Drain the cherries and place them on paper towels. Take a roughly tablespoon-size portion of the coconut mixture and place a cherry in the center and form into a ball. Roll the ball in loose coconut. Place the ball on a cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining mixture and cherries. Once finished, place in refrigerator until time to eat. For serving, individual balls may be placed in miniature cups.
Cheryl Lobb, Dixie EC
Holiday Minute Cookies
¼ cup butter
8 ounces cream cheese
2 boxes 10X sugar, sifted
1 cup finely crushed Oreo cookies
1 large carton whole candied cherries, cut in half
Melt butter and cream cheese in microwave until soft and blended when stirred. Pour sugar into a medium-large bowl, and stir in melted butter mixture until blended. Prepare 2 large pieces wax paper; on one piece, sprinkle Oreo crumbs. Dip out a teaspoon of cookie mixture and roll in crumbs, and place on the other piece of wax paper. Repeat until all mixture is used. Press each with a fork and top with half a cherry. Store covered at room temperature.
Barbara Frasier, Sand Mountain EC
2¾ cups almond flour
¼ cup coconut flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon powdered ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup honey
¼ cup coconut oil, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place parchment paper in a 9 by 13-inch pan. In a large bowl, mix all the dry ingredients. Separately, mix the wet ingredients and combine well with the dry. Press onto the 9 by 13-inch pan. Cook for 8-10 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes then cut into bars. When completely cooled, remove from pan with parchment paper. Store leftovers in fridge or freezer.
Aly Davis, Tombigbee EC
Oreo Cookie Balls
8 ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 package oreo-style cookies (I find the store brands work best, otherwise cookies will be too sweet)
White chocolate bark, melted
Put cookies into a gallon-size plastic bag and crush until the consistency of coarse breadcrumbs. Mix the cookies and the cream cheese together by hand until thoroughly mixed. Gently shape the mixture into balls the size of large marbles. Do not mash the dough hard, or the cookies will be too hard to eat. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Dip the balls into bark and put on wax paper to harden. Be sure to put wax paper between layers in your containers. Serve at room temperature, but refrigerate if it will be more than 4 hours before serving the cookies. Makes around 50.
Jane Kendrick, Coosa Valley EC
½ cup butter
5 heaping cups miniature marshmallows
1 teaspoon green food coloring
5½ cups corn flakes cereal
Handful of red cinnamon candies
Measure corn flakes into a large bowl. Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Once melted, add the marshmallows and stir continuously until completely melted. Stir in food coloring. Pour melted marshmallows into the large bowl with the corn flakes. Stir until well coated. Lay out a piece of parchment paper on your kitchen counter. Dollop spoonfuls of the corn flake mixture onto the parchment paper. Grease your clean hands with butter or cooking spray, or dip them in a little bit of water. Use your fingers to shape each spoonful into an individual wreath. Top each wreath with cinnamon candies.
Jennifer Robinson-Tijsma, Sand Mountain EC
Italian Meatball Cookies (Christmas Spice Cookies)
For the cookies:
1 cup Crisco
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
¼ cup canola or other vegetable oil
1 cup 2 percent milk
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon baking soda
1½ tablespoons baking powder
3 tablespoons baking cocoa
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cups all-purpose flour
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
For the buttercream frosting:
¾ cup softened butter
6-8 cups confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 to ½ cup milk
Red and green food coloring (optional)
Candy and chocolate sprinkles (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the Crisco and sugar until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, then add the oil, milk, black pepper, and remaining ingredients except for the flour, chocolate chips, and nuts and mix well. Add the flour one cup at a time until smooth and then add the chips and nuts. Spoon the batter with a teaspoon onto the parchment paper, leaving 1/2 inch between cookies. (The Crisco allows the cookies to bake into little mounds resembling meatballs, hence the name Italian Meatballs.) Bake for 9-10 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom. They will continue to bake after removed from the oven. Let them cool completely.
For the frosting:
Using a hand or stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very smooth. Add the vanilla and enough milk to make a good spreading consistency. I separate the frosting into two other bowls and add a couple of drops of red and green food coloring to them, making 3 colors of frosting. I then top the cookies with candy and chocolate sprinkles. After the frosting and sprinkles are completely dry, store the cookies in airtight containers and keep in a cool location.
Jacqueline Bonn, Covington EC
Christmas Swirl Cookies
3 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Red and green food coloring
1 cup holiday sprinkles
In a large bowl, cream sugar and butter until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients in separate bowl and add to butter mixture, mix well. Separate the dough in half and color one part red and one part green. Put one of the freshly made dough balls between two sheets of parchment paper and roll to 11 by 9 inches and ¼-inch thick. Repeat with the other color dough.
Put the rolled dough, including the parchment paper, on a cookie sheet and refrigerate for 10 minutes or longer. Take the top layer off both doughs and lightly wet the tops. Sandwich the two colors together. Using a paring knife, trim the edges to make straight edges.
Remove the top layer of paper and start rolling up and use the bottom layer of paper to pull it tight. If the dough tears you can just pinch it together. Pour the sprinkles onto a large platter and roll the log onto the sprinkles and press them in. Place the dough into the fridge for 15 minutes or longer. Slice the dough into ¼-inch slices and bake on parchment lined sheets. Bake at 325 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Let cool.
Jennifer Robinson-Tijsma, Sand Mountain EC
A couple of this month’s reader-submitted recipes call for cherries, both candied and the “maraschino” variety. So what’s the difference? Both begin with fresh cherries, which are brined for preservation purposes, rinsed and then pitted. Maraschino cherries are soaked in a sweetened syrup and food dye (red or green), and additional flavorings are added like almond extract (for red) and peppermint (for green).
Candied cherries (also called glace cherries) are more saccharine than maraschino and achieve their almost-overwhelming sweetness by being slowly cooked down in a sugary solution, allowing them to actually absorb it. And instead of being stored in liquid like maraschino cherries, soft, sticky candied cherries are packed dry. Maraschino cherries can be subbed for candied cherries in a dish, but you’ll need to drain them first, and you may need to increase the sugar called for in the recipe to achieve the desired flavor.
Please send us your original recipes, developed by you or family members, and not ones copied from a book or magazine. You may adapt a recipe from another source by changing as little as the amount of one ingredient. Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year.
Share a story about your recipe! Whether it’s your grandmother’s best cake or your uncle’s camp stew, every recipe has a story behind it. We’ll pay $50 for the best recipe-related story each month.
Recipe Themes and Deadlines:
Feb. Cooking for Two Dec. 8 Mar. Lemons Jan. 8 Apr. Easter Meals Feb. 8
Dothan native brings New York skills to downhome cooking
By Allison Griffin
In a land of fast-food restaurants, Dothan’s Kelsey Barnard Clark is creating food that is sophisticated yet clean, healthy and homemade, with a menu of what she calls “simple, well-done food.”
She started with Kelsey Barnard Catering, with a focus on high-quality ingredients and dishes that were elevated from the usual reception fare. Then came the restaurant opportunities: first was KBC Butcher Block, a lunch and brunch place that is also a market for locally-sourced products and her own baked goods; then came KBC on Foster, a weekday lunch-only eatery in historic downtown Dothan that also features an event space.
With training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and at such high-end New York restaurants as Cafe Boulud and Dovetail, Clark has a culinary pedigree that would land her in any high-end, fine-dining restaurant. But she chose to come back to Alabama after graduating from CIA and working in New York.
She didn’t know exactly what kind of business she wanted to run, but she knew she didn’t want to work for someone else.
A culinary foundation
Always a “go-getter,” she started cooking as a child and was doing catering jobs as a teenager. At 15, she asked high-end Dothan caterer Larry Williams if she could work for him. He asked if she had an apron, and when she said yes, he put her to work that day. She’s been working ever since.
After high school, she went to Auburn University for two years in the hotel and restaurant management program. Culinary school was always in her plan, but the two years at Auburn allowed her to mature and figure out that the CIA was where she wanted to go.
The CIA training was intense, but she’d go back now in a minute if she could. “I soaked every bit of it up.” Part of the program was an externship at an approved high-end restaurant, and she chose Cafe Boulud, an upscale French and Michelin-starred restaurant on the Upper East Side. The pressure was relentless.
“It’s very rigid,” she says of her training there, with “lots of yelling.” Ninety-hour weeks are the norm, with no pay. But the militaristic atmosphere and exceedingly high standards of such kitchens were good training, which she recommends to anyone looking to get into the restaurant business.
“You have to be the best. There’s no such thing as mediocre food in these places. You have to be perfect, because if you’re not you’re going to fail,” she says. She doesn’t have to maintain that intense pressure in her kitchens in Dothan, nor does she work all those hours. But the standards are always in her mind, and she believes such an experience builds character and work ethic.
And also a quality and consistency that customers notice.
Fresh, quality foods
She trained in fine dining, but knew that what works in New York wouldn’t really translate to a small Southern city like Dothan. Between football games and the beach, weekends down South can leave restaurants deserted, and the fine dining industry is primarily built on weekend traffic.
So she dialed back the concept for her businesses, but not the quality. She uses locally sourced produce and proteins when possible; everything is homemade.
“I eat healthy for the most part, so I told myself, what would I eat? There’s a huge amount of people who strive for healthy, fresh food. Things you know were not ripped open from a bag and reheated the day before.”
The food is simplified, but not dumbed down. “It’s really going back to the basics,” she says. “Anything on our plate has five things, usually, and it’s things like cheese, salt, olive oil. It’s just so simple. You won’t see much in our kitchens. You won’t see big bottles of seasonings or marinades.”
Both locations serve a variety of specialty sandwiches and wraps, salads, bowls and desserts. Weekly specials allow her to incorporate more local and seasonal products.
The restaurant menus have their mainstays because the customers come to expect them, but she likes to change things up. She says many restaurant owners want to just maintain what they have, but her staff jokes that just when they have the menu down pat, she shakes it up. “I guess that’s what I’m known for – you never know what you’re going to get in here.”
Doing catering allows her to really get creative and play around with menus, because every bride and every event is different. It’s also where she gets to be the most hands-on in terms of cooking.
And that’s where she envisions her next growth. Last year, she set a goal to start catering outside of Dothan, specifically along the Gulf coast, especially the 30A area. She hopes to double the number of weddings and events she caters and do more traveling for catering jobs.
She also started a bakery last December; before that, she was doing all the baking herself, and couldn’t keep up with demand.
“(With the) bakery, my concept was the same as the food, I wanted it to be simple,” she says. “Yeah, we have macaroons that are definitely not simple and one of the hardest things to make. But then we’ve got chocolate chip cookies … made with the best ingredients. (We hope) someone who eats our cookie says, ‘that’s the best cookie I ever had.’
“That’s because it tastes like something that your grandmother would make. That’s sort of our whole concept – if your grandmother doesn’t know what it is, we’re not going to put it in there.”
KBC Butcher Block
560 Westgate Parkway
Dothan, AL 36303
10 a.m.-3 p.m.
KBC on Foster
151 N. Foster St.
Dothan, AL 36303
Angels, Elvis and politicians all find a place in the holiday season greetings of famous Alabamians
By M.J. Ellington
The good wishes of governors, other politicians and famous people are in the collections preserved for the future generations at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Funny, serious or poignant in message, they tell something about the world and the people who received them at the time they were sent.
The greetings by themselves may not hold much historic value to archival experts. But as part of a broader collection, they are a link to milestones in history, says Mary Jo Scott, head of the Archives’ special collections.
Scott’s favorite Christmas card is a shiny oversized full-color postcard sent in 1974 from Elvis Presley to Gov. George C. Wallace. “It makes me smile,” Scott says.
The card shows Elvis performing in a spangled white costume singing in front of a giant white Christmas tree with pastel ornaments. A Santa Claus, who may be his manager “Colonel Tom” Parker in costume, and two Saint Bernards are nearby. The wording on the card reads, “Seasons Greetings, Elvis and the Colonel and friends.”
Another longtime favorite card at Archives, and Scott’s second favorite, is the whimsical 1951 official Christmas card of Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom and his wife Jamelle.
The cover photograph shows the Folsom home in Cullman with the sentiment “Home: Cullman, Ala.” Inside is an artist’s drawing of a green convertible with a reindeer hood ornament and a banner depicting a red sleigh instead of car doors.
Photographs of the Folsoms in the front seat and four little children, Rachel, Melissa, “Little Jim” and “Little Jack” in the back seat, complete the illustration. Folsom’s first term as governor would end the next month and, under Alabama law at the time, governors could not serve two consecutive terms. The family was headed back to Cullman for Folsom to resume his insurance business and plan for his return to the governor’s office in 1955.
One toddler in the car, James E. Folsom Jr., would grow up to win multiple elections as public service commissioner and lieutenant governor. “Little Jim” also became the state’s chief executive for part of a term when then-Gov. Guy Hunt was removed from office in 1993.
1972 card had more serious tone
The dramatic cover of the 1972 Christmas card that Gov. George C. Wallace and his wife, Cornelia, sent had a very different tone in quite different circumstances. The card depicted the winning entry of a Christmas card contest that highlighted works of Alabama artists. Cornelia Wallace was the niece of “Big Jim” Folsom.
The winning painting, by Huntsville artist Robert Forstner, showed six angels in a night sky hovering with wings outstretched over the governor’s mansion. Inside the card read “May the Angels of the Lord watch over you and yours now and throughout the coming years.”
Wallace had been paralyzed from the waist down by a sniper shooting the previous May in Laurel, Maryland, and would never walk again.
The following year, an Alabamian who had received the 1972 card sent a handwritten card back to the first family. It read, “We too say ‘May the angels of the Lord watch over you and yours now and throughout the coming years.’ You are often in our prayers.”
A more typical 1966 Christmas card has a traditional cover with a black and white photo of a husband, wife and four young children on the inside cover.
The message, however, was a celebration of the season and a hope for the future from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife Coretta and children Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice.
“New systems of justice and equality are being born. Let us nourish this new life with love and brotherhood,” the printed message reads. “…If we follow the spirit of this season, we shall awaken from a midnight of despair to a glorious morning of peace and goodwill.”
The civil rights leader who urged nonviolence in the face of violence was killed by a sniper in April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Not all holiday messages in the collections involve famous people.
Cards from movie stars, national politicians and average citizens offer hope and goodwill. Cards and letters from soldiers from the Civil War to today describe how the soldiers spent or planned to spend Christmas Day and how they longed to be with family.
As a group, the messages convey hope that the coming year will bring peace and a better life across Alabama, just as modern holiday greetings do.
M.J. Ellington is a Montgomery freelance journalist whose longtime health and state government reporting and editing career included the Montgomery Advertiser, The Decatur Daily, Florence Times-Daily and The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.