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Exploring Beyond the Ozarks

Stacey Spensley

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I've just come in from one of those trips that gave me the label of Snowbird. I went south, way south, and then with only a day at home, I've gone north, all the way north to where it's snowing. So I guess I've met the criteria. 

But I noticed along the way that when migrations are done like that, you are introduced to a world of differences just in the act of passing through, putting cultures as well as the seasons on fast forward. When you're actually on the Gulf, most of your consciousness of differing cultures, at least if you're me, is for a while overwhelmed by the desire for seafood – any and all seafood, as much and as soon as possible. I and my pocketbook were fortunate on this trip in that I was palling with some of my favorite people, my favorite artists as well, and, it should be said, some of my favorite cooks. I remember only two meals out. The rest we made ourselves. Everything from oyster po' boys to gumbo and ettouffe, in such substantial quantities and better than I've ever before found at any restaurant.

After a few days and multiple meals, though, one's cravings are set aside in favor of other pursuits. Beach flotsam, art museums, bird sanctuaries, the calumet mounds at Dauphin Island, the estuarium. All too soon, it was time to head north. And that's the time to discover the real differences in cultures. It's not just the seafood. The south, and more explicitly the Deep South, is where you find things like popcorn rice, and Pearl brand navy beans, and those little yellow pint cartons that are labeled "dressing mix" but which are the real secret to genuine Louisiana dirty rice. Forget Zatarains. It's a poor cousin. And the citrus - my lord. Halo tangerines, so beloved in my home area, are a far cry from the sweet as sugar, easily shucked but hard to ship Satsumas. They are so delicious. I got there just in time for the last of the crop, and so couldn't attempt to bring any home they were already going bye. That was ok, because the navel oranges were plentiful and very tasty. Only problem, as I discovered when I put my bag up at the grocery kiosk, was the word at the bottom. They were from California.

Heading home, we soon exited the land of seafood and citrus, driving into the land of a thousand sweet potatoes. Maybe that should be a million? We passed at least a dozen or more pickup trucks in turnouts along Mississippi Highway 49, with tubers piled like cordwood in the back, $10 for a paper grocery bag full. This year's variety was Vardamon. Last trip it was Beauregard. We had to get us some, if only to make an attempt to replicate the fresh, home-cooked sweet potato fries we'd had fixed at home.

We were a little way into Arkansas before remembering to stock up on new crop shelled pecans. And then I ran out of time. I had to get home before I could leave again – this time north to Columbia. I arrived late at night, unpacked and fell asleep in my chair before I could even get my shoes off …and left a pint of splendid homemade gumbo, carried carefully on ice all the way from the coast, sitting out on the counter, unrefrigerated. The cats pronounced it delicious - lucky devils.

At home, grits had been replaced by hashbrowns and seafood was again an expensive novelty. But MY time was fleeting in familiar territory. I still had to make the trek north to Columbia to meet with the Folk Arts folks, who help support my storytelling habit with programs that put my name out and ideas for how to get better at what I do. The press was on, because the weather forecast for my home town said rain and maybe a little snow. The forecast for Columbia was snow you betcha, and plenty of it. So after a day to unpack, do laundry and repack, I was off again, without even enough time to write or record a story. Which is why I'm doing it now, with the snow coming down hard and 20 miles of freezing rain just behind me, and with about an hour until deadline. Some folks say they do their best work under pressure. I don't know about that. But I do know that all of life's a story. The secret is in the telling. And pressure or no, I did make time, for culture's sake, to stop at a little German cafe at Freeberg and grabbed some smothered steak and bread pudding. I could have mourned the lack of seafood, but it was way more fun to celebrate the culture where I was, just north of the Ozarks, above the Missouri River, where the yards are neater, the churches are bigger and older, and the paths of ancient glaciers remain in the loess hills. 

So I thought it would be a good time to offer a reminder that we are blessed to live in a beautiful tapestry of cultures in this wide land we call America, which by the way, was named after an Italian sailor who really had nothing to do with this place except tell stories about it. I'm just carrying on that same whimsical tradition, whether in the middle or way far afield from these Ozarks Hills. I wonder if they have any sweet potato fries up here?

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”