Tag Archives: Leonard C. Harbison

Following Simple Directions

The first time I remember baking anything, I was in my 30s already and my Grandmother Harbison’s hip had broken while she was taking cornbread out of the oven. After following the ambulance to the hospital and meeting my parents there to get Grandmother ensconced in a room, Grandmother was worried about what Granddaddy Harbison was going to eat while she was hospitalized. As far back as I knew my Harbison grandparents, Grandmother always took care of the cooking and the inside of the house and Granddaddy, who had an impressive green thumb, took care of the yard and the outdoors.

He didn’t cook. And, back then, with very few exceptions, neither did I.

But this was an emergency so I went back to my grandparents’ house and pondered what to do. There was a pot of Grandmother’s homemade vegetable soup already simmering on the stove and Granddaddy assured me that as long as he had cornbread and buttermilk in the house, he could make do for himself for a while. There was buttermilk in the refrigerator and, since grandmother’s cornbread had been ruined in her fall, I said I’d make a cake of cornbread.

I had no idea what I was doing. I pulled out the cornmeal and was relieved to see a recipe for cornbread on the package. I followed the directions carefully and was amazed and relieved when the final product actually looked and tasted like cornbread. Granddaddy declared that it was good.

I have been making cornbread ever since and have amended that original recipe over the years. Here’s the thing, though: I still have to follow the recipe to make a decent cornbread. As long as a recipe is available, why bother to memorize?

Over the years, I have gotten more comfortable in the kitchen. As a lifelong bachelor, that is a necessity. I vowed never to become like one of my bachelor professors at Alabama who never cooked, but was at Morrison’s Cafeteria every day at 5:30 p.m. to take his meal. He died not long after that Morrison’s on University Boulevard shut down; I worried that his fatal illness may have been triggered by food deprivation.

My grandmother, Eula Harbison, was a natural magician in the kitchen. She came from the era in which relatives might arrive for long stays and, later, company might happen to drop by for an unannounced visit, especially on a Sunday afternoon. She always had food warming in the oven and a cake on hand to offer her guests with a cup of percolator coffee. She made a variety of cakes, but my favorites were always the most simple and unadorned. On some occasions, she would apply a sugary glaze to these basic cakes, but as often as not there was no glaze. Her hospitality always seemed humble and effortless; she was a superb host.

This comes to mind tonight because I just made an olive oil cake and, even though olive oil cake was not part of Grandmother’s repertoire, it reminds me a lot of the kinds of cakes she would always have on hand.

An olive oil cake is a traditional Italian cake that substitutes oil for butter. It can be amended and embellished in any number of ways. It’s a common cake, but when I mention it to people, most are not aware of it.

I was aware of it, but I never recall tasting it. That changed in March when I was on a business trip in Memphis and having dinner with friends. The dessert menu at Catherine and Mary’s, an Italian-influenced Southern restaurant not far from Beale Street, listed an olive oil cake.
The cake was moist and flaky with a frothy cream and drizzle of sauce. It was the perfect way to top off a rich meal. I got back to Birmingham and vowed to experiment with olive oil cake recipes. No experimentation was necessary; it’s a straightforward and simple cake that has turned out moist and delicious each time I have made it by following simple directions. In fact, I was just asked to make one for an anniversary gift. With that success under my belt, I already am planning ways that I can adorn the cake for special occasions in the future. I am not confident as a baker, so olive oil cake may be my gateway into more adventurous baking.

I don’t live a “company dropping by” sort of existence, but I would be proud to offer a slice of olive oil cake to company that might call in the future.

Here’s the recipe I’m using:

Classic Olive Oil Cake

Notes on Cursive Writing

My great-grandfather John Houston McCarn was born in 1865, the year that Lincoln was assassinated. He lived until 1959. That is significant for me because I vaguely remember seeing Grandpa McCarn when I was a pre-schooler. We went to his house in Cullman “town”; I got impatient that the old gentleman was hard of hearing and things had to be repeated all the time.

When I was older, I realized that Houston McCarn was born the year the Civil War ended; I was impressed that I had known a person with that particular direct connection to history.

Grandpa McCarn was a highly educated man and a school teacher. Based on the amount of land and real estate he managed to accrue in Cullman, Jefferson, and Walker counties in his long lifetime, he was a savvy investor as well. Six of his seven children were alive when he died and the property was split in many directions, so none, I suspect, got a lot.

I remember going to the Cullman county community of Bremen with my mother and grandmother to witness an auction of one of Houston McCarn’s rural schoolhouses, just a few hundred yards away from the “home place” where my grandmother Eula McCarn Harbison and her siblings grew up.

Mother remembers Grandpa McCarn’s large library. We have no clue what happened to his books when he died, but I shudder to think of the probability that they were discarded.

The discipline of clear penmanship was part of every school teacher’s domain in the days when Grandpa was teaching and I would look at samples of Grandpa McCarn’s elegant writing in letters and penmanship exercises in my grandmother’s chests of drawers when I was young.

After Grandmother Harbison died, I came to be in possession of two faded sheets of Grandpa’s writing. One sheet has his stylish rendering of the letter “E” with a few sample words starting with that letter. One of the words, coincidentally, is the name “Edward.” Even though the writing predates me by decades, the coincidence is neat.

The second sheet is the rendering of two images of birds. Grandpa McCarn used these images to teach the basic strokes of cursive writing. I have wondered how his students – farm boys and girls in rural Alabama in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – reacted to the rigorous discipline of Houston’s exercises in cursive penmanship.

I had the fading sheets of writing framed and they hang in my bedroom. I know they will seem worthless to anyone who runs across them when I am gone, but they are remarkably valuable to me. Houston would probably be stunned to know that his doodling from a century ago or more is hanging in a place of honor in the home of that 4-year-old boy.

Grandpa McCarn’s son-in-law, my grandfather Leonard Harbison, was a farmer’s son from a large family. He lacked a lengthy formal education, but he had mastered Grandpa McCarn’s deliberate and stylized birds and was still drawing them into his old age. I remember Granddaddy Harbison’s skilled rendering of the birds in the margins of books. He lived to age 93, almost as long as his scholarly father-in-law.

Over a decade after Grandpa McCarn died, those of us in Birmingham city schools had weekly classes in penmanship. I remember that in second grade, when we shifted from printing to cursive, it was referred to as “real writing.”

I have thought of it in those terms ever since.

At that time, Birmingham City Schools employed handwriting specialists – teachers who came to schools to ensure that the students’ cursive writing was up to par. In addition, we took weekly handwriting classes as part of our curriculum and were assigned a grade for penmanship in our report cards.

One time in fifth grade, my straight-A report card was marred by a “C” in penmanship from Mrs. Caskey. I think the shock of that “C” instilled in me a life-long commitment to be conscientious about my handwriting. Over the years, it has changed drastically; as I get older, it loses a bit of its confidence, but it’s still a source of pride.

It saddens me that cursive writing is no longer taught to elementary school students. A “good hand,” as it was called in the past, was once a mark of an educated person. Now, I list cursive writing as a “special skill” on my vita.

Nowadays, when I write notes to young people, I struggle with whether or not I should write in cursive. More often than not, I print the text and sign my name in cursive. I worry that I might insult the recipient either way: Am I insinuating they can’t read cursive? or Am I deliberately writing in a style they can’t read?

Literacy in general is a touchy area in dealing with youth, for whom “literacy” may take on a very different meaning than it did when I was their age. A young friend tactfully put me in my place recently. I was accustomed since her birth to sending picture books to her for Christmas and her birthday. The last time I gave her a picture book, she wrote a polite thank you note with a gentle reprimand, telling me, “I am reading chapter books now.”

I got her point, vowed to gift her no more picture books, and was delighted that she knew to send a handwritten thank you note.

“That’s not writing; it’s just typing” (or words to that effect) was Truman Capote’s catty dismissal of the Beat writers in general, and Jack Kerouac in particular, in the 1950s.

I wonder how he might respond to our age of tweets and posts, blogs and instant messaging, to the obsolescence of typewriters and handwriting in general. How might he and his contemporaries react to the fact that cursive writing has become a lost art?

October Waning

Marigolds; Fall 2020

There are so many things happening right now. I am excited and anxious about the election, but friends in the Midwest are seeing major snows earlier than anticipated and wildfires, beyond biblical proportions, are ravaging the West. To the South, and nearer to me, Zeta percolates in the Gulf.

And then there’s COVID. I don’t really have the “fatigue”; I have just run out of things to say. As I said, I am excited and anxious about the election.

A day or two ago, I made my annual reservation for my December getaway in Point Clear on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

I asked my usual contact, “How’s it going down there?”

“I’ll let you know when Zeta has passed,” she responded.

My regular room choice is closed post-Sally, awaiting carpet replacement, but I managed to snag an almost identical room still available for the Christmas season.

My checkbook howls, but my spirit soars. December in Point Clear has become an annual rite of renewal.’

In the long list of things to ponder, a last look at the season now coming to a close has captured my wandering attention,

The indoor plants were moved indoors a few weeks ago and the outdoor annuals were committed back to the earth. A peace lily, that had been given up for lost in the summer, decided to sprout a week ago and I am trying to coax it along. Most of what was left, though, was left to fend for itself. I thought I had washed my hands of it all except for the raking and maintenance of the debris.

Over the past week, all of that was turned asunder.

I returned home to find a single gardenia in full bloom. My potted gardenia is temperamental in the best of times and never blooms beyond early summer, so I still ponder what inspired its late-October solitary flourish. Even so, the silky sexiness of a gardenia is hard to beat.

My Granddaddy Harbison’s heirloom rose, which has to be at least a half-century old and is now spread over gardens across the South, had a final burst of blossoms that are both spectacular and later than ever.

A couple of months ago, only the forget-me-nots had flowered from several packets of seeds sent to my mother with a charity solicitation in the Spring. When I got home a few days ago, the marigolds from that same set of packets had decided to take their turn. Those few blooms epitomize the shades of Autumn without the aid of the more predictable chrysanthemums.

It is truly time to cut back the purple hearts that thrive next to the front door. This late-October, however, they are far too exuberant to thwart just yet, and I will encourage them to bloom as long as they like.

We have frosts in our forecasts, so this might be the final homage to the warm weather culture for a while.

Please, whatever you do, VOTE on November 3. Every vote matters.


Wanderlust: My Grandfather’s Travels

leonard-harbison-photo  My maternal grandfather, Leonard C. Harbison, was a wanderer all of his life. When I was young, he and my grandmother, Eula McCarn Harbison, lived in Fairfield Highlands in the western suburbs of Birmingham. From their house, you could see the Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel and the Ensley Works in the distance.

When Grandmother would hang clothes on the line to dry, she’d walk up and down the line with a damp rag to clean off the industrial soot. Even though it was bad for pollution, I loved to watch the robust factory activities, the trains coming and going, the smoke rising into the sky, and the orange glow when molten steel was poured at night.

Their street dead-ended at land that belonged to Woodward Iron and Granddaddy loved to take a walking stick, a dog, and a grandson on hikes along the creek in the wooded property. He had five grandsons in all and when one outgrew the walks, there would be another to fill in. When my brother was very young and I was a teen, I heard Granddaddy tell Grandmother “I like them when they’re that age. When they get older, I don’t have much use for them.” It wasn’t personal; he always had a sense of wonder and a love for nature and animals and he found that the younger boys would tend to get more excited about sharing it with him.

The federal interstate system eventually claimed the Fairfield Highlands house for right of way for I-20/59 but if you know where to look from the interstate — near the Allison-Bonnett Parkway / Jaybird Road exit – you can still spot a large oak tree that was in the backyard of that house. I used to climb that tree.

When the interstate moved in, my grandparents moved closer into Birmingham in the Central Park neighborhood. There was less space for nature walks but Granddaddy still would take a stick and a dog and walk the alleys of the neighborhood and sometimes over to the nearby Bessemer Super Highway to go to the pharmacy, to the grocery store, or to get a haircut.

Granddaddy often talked of his travels as a young man but nobody showed a lot of interest and I don’t remember a lot of the details. I just knew that he had travelled a great deal before he married and remembered comments about making tires in Ohio, working the oil fields in Oklahoma, and working on movie lots in California. He mentioned working with Tom Mix, a silent film actor who was the first “King of the Cowboys.”

Mother recently rediscovered a newspaper article about Granddaddy Harbison that was published in The Cullman (AL) Times in 1997, four months before he died. Under the headline “One Roaring Twenties Train Ride Was Enough for Young Hobo,” the article profiles some of Granddad’s adventures when he was a young man. Some of the time lines seem a bit skewed but he was recounting memories from seventy and more years earlier and small inaccuracies are to be expected.

Granddaddy grew up on his parents’ 500-acre farm in Trade, Alabama, in Cullman County. Charlie and Mary Lott Harbison farmed and raised livestock and Leonard, the second youngest of fifteen children, recounts idyllic days on the farm and hanging out at Luther Perdue’s general store.

He talks about hopping trains and “hoboing” – a popular activity for many young men (and some women) during that time. Woody Guthrie is perhaps the most famous proponent of that lifestyle. I was surprised to read that Granddaddy’s total “hobo” history consisted of one short trip from Cullman to Birmingham and back. He says that he met up with a “Yankee hobo” in Cullman and rode on top of the train, ducking for tunnels and overpasses. By the time he got to Birmingham, he had seen enough of the world and was ready to turn around and go home.

But his wanderlust continued and soon after his hobo adventure he moved to Akron, Ohio, working in the Firestone tire factory. After returning to Alabama from Akron comes the most intriguing part of the travel lore. Leonard, along with a brother, cousin, and friend, hopped in a Dodge and headed out west. I know he spent time in Oklahoma, Oregon, and California and he often mentioned Tom Mix and those Hollywood studio lots.

Why don’t we think to listen more when we’re young? I would love to hear more about the western travels – and especially about the movie lots – but at the time it just seemed like listening to somebody talking about the “olden days,” as we referred to them. My students now tend to say “back in the day” if I start to reminisce.

My grandfather loved all animals and he loved to hunt. He always had hunting dogs in a pen in the backyard of his Fairfield Highlands house. He was one of those southern hunters who was not that interested in the kill but in the “chase.” In fact, I’m not sure he carried a gun on his hunting trips. Instead, he and his hunting buddies would stay up all night drinking coffee by a camp fire and listen to the dogs run; they recognized the individual barks of the hounds and would listen to the chase until dawn. If the barking got too distant, they’d pick up and move to another location and listen.

His love of hunting is mentioned in that newspaper article as well as the fact that he met my grandmother at Ryan’s Creek Baptist Church after an all-night hunt with Rev. Charlie Johnson, the Ryan’s Creek preacher. He and my grandmother are laid to rest at the Ryan’s Creek cemetery, across the road from the church where they met.

Leonard and Eula married and had three children; they farmed in Cullman County and eventually moved to Birmingham in the ‘40s for Granddad to take a factory job until he retired in 1968. They maintained land in Cullman County and frequently went up for weekends during retirement. Granddaddy would go out into the woods and wander on those trips; he never tired of nature.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem that I have a lot in common with my Grandfather Harbison. But I love to take walks in the woods.

I inherited his love for plants and my house is filled with houseplants now that will be moved to the yard as soon as the weather gets reliably warm. In fact, I still use some of his containers for my plants.

I inherited his affection for “volunteers,” those plants that just pop up in the pots or in the yard. This has been an extraordinarily mild winter and I already have volunteers all over the yard. I don’t like to weed them out; they chose to grow there so I choose to let them. I’ll make the final decision in the spring when I see what my volunteers plan to do.

And I inherited his wanderlust, although I’m afraid my travels cannot compete with the style and romance of Granddaddy Harbison’s.

Note: The photograph is of my Grandfather Harbison (C), my brother (R), and me (L), taken at his and Grandmother’s Central Park home in 1988.