Tag Archives: alabama

Kymulga Cave (DeSoto Caverns)

We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.

His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.

P1060421We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.

We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.

So, yeah, we had some expectations.

Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.

P1060396

First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?

Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.

We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.

Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.

As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)

We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.

While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.

A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.

Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.

Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.

But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.

Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.

We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.

“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.

People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.

IMG_4070

MA WISH FOR CHARITY

Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.

Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.

We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.

Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?

Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”

So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.

We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.

Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!

It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.

This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.

We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.

Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.

The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.

The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.

Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.

P1060422We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.

We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.

Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.

If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.

If You Go: Minneapolis

Since late July, we’ve been on the road – Florida, Minneapolis, Denver, Scotland, New Mexico, and now after a brief respite we’re off to Milwaukee and New York. Lots of travel, but it always feels so good to come home to our beautiful house – Montgomery really feels like home to us. Sometimes we wonder if we still feel like we are “Lost in Montgomery,” since we know more than our share of shortcuts, local weirdos, restaurants and contractors. We don’t want to be those people who live in Montgomery and are always putting it down. You know who we’re talking about – they’re always comparing Montgomery to some other place they used to live where lattes grew on trees and people actually had a choice of what live music to see after eating in some vegetarian Ethiopian fusion restaurant. We’re not saying we don’t like lattes or live music, but it’s pretty tiresome to hear people moan about your home city all the time.

There’s nothing like leaving the country to get some perspective on America and Americans, but you don’t need to pay the increasingly steep passport fees to get some perspective on Montgomery. Time may or may not do the trick, but you may be so old when you finally get perspective that you can’t do anything except complain to your nurse about the kids these days. Perspective doesn’t necessarily require distance, though some intervening miles can often help you catch your breath. Perspective comes when you can look at something differently than you did before. When the familiar looks strange, you’ve got perspective by incongruity. Creativity is a good way to make the familiar look strange, but so is exposure to other ways of doing things. A recent trip that took me to Minneapolis  did the trick nicely.

I’d never been to Minneapolis (but for a brief speaking engagement once at the downtown Convention Center). That place is a Habitrail for the nametag-and-totebag crowd, complete with tunnels and basements and endless steamy vats of industrial eggs. It could be anyplace in the world, and you’d never know the difference. And we’ve flown through the airport a few times, and always make a point of (after a visit to the Larry Craig Memorial bathroom) stopping to play one of the dozens of pinball machines throughout the terminals. They may not be super well kept up, but they are pinball machines, and since we live in a city that has exactly one such device (Bad Cats! at Chris’ Hot Dogs), every chance to play is worth it.

On this trip, I had basically a whole day to play around in the city after my work outside of town was done. I got on the light rail at the airport. The Hiawatha Line ran everywhere I’d need to go during my stay, including the Government station just a block and a half from my hotel. The train area at the airport was surprisingly clean – not the freaky/arty European action film clean of the fascist-scale Dulles tram system, but exceptional and comfortable. It was a short train ride downtown, and it seemed like everyone getting on the train after the airport terminal had a bike, a library book, or both.

The hotel, the desk workers told me, had been recently remodeled by “people from New York.” The lobby was full of drapes and lounging chairs and a wine-dispensing machine I’d never seen before, but which evidently relieves business hotels of the burden of selling wine while relieving patrons of substantial per-glass fees, all with a card linked to your room number. My room was deliciously cold and extra feathery. A nap and a shower later and I was ready for action.

At Government Station, near my hotel.

My first stop was the Walker Art Center. I walked a few blocks, easily found the right bus and went right to the museum. Just this little trip reminded me of what it’s like to live in a place with functioning sidewalks, buses that stop frequently (rather than every hour), and shelters at bus stops. Sure, the weather gets pretty inclement in the Twin Cities, but it’s not as if Montgomery’s without its own share of weather extremes. Let’s face it – our bus system is famous for other reasons besides accessibility and usefulness. There is free wireless throughout downtown, something that Montgomery is working on but is still limited. On my walk I noticed that downtown Minneapolis is really clean. The library was massive, beautiful, and bustling on a workday lunch hour.

The downtown public library branch.

The 6 bus goes to the Walker. I was pleasantly surprised by the diverse crowd on the bus, including a colorfully dressed hippie girl in striped tights who was museum-bound like me. I love to ride the bus. I love the feeling of asking for transfer even though you are pretty sure you won’t make it since you will stay too long at your destination.

At the Walker, full of galleries that are densely built up on each other in aphasic array of stimuli, I saw an exhibit curated by notorious weirdo John Waters. There was an exhibit that tried to mimic cabinets of curiosities, a la the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I enjoyed an amazing meal at the museum restaurant (a cocktail called the Minnesota Mule, a watermelon/feta/arugula salad, a goat cheese pannacotta). The museum’s got a cool outdoor area where they sponsor all kinds of community programs and encourage children (and adults) to play with a variety of art supplies and toys. You can also order beer!

Outside the Walker Art Center

Across the street from the museum is a the massive Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with, well, some pretty massive sculptures. The most famous is Spoonbridge and Cherry, seen below to give a sense of scale.

Evidently the spoon weighs 5,800 pounds and the cherry a whopping 1,200.

There’s also a beautiful glass conservatory that contains a massive fish designed by Frank Gehry and a whole host of beautiful art everywhere you look (Henry Moore! Noguchi!). I left the garden by crossing a huge bridge that connects to a large park.

On the bridge is, evidently, the world's longest poem.

I took the bus back downtown. While I walked back to the hotel I noticed the city’s ample biking facilities, including a very cool bike rental system that seemed very affordable and accessible. Nice Ride MN seems pretty amazing. You pay to rent and then pay for your time. You can rent a bike for a day for $5 plus a trip fee. Half hour trips are free. It’s designed for short-term trips, and I saw a lot of racks in my short time in the city. The Twin Cities also offer free cycling lessons through a cool program called the Bike Walk Ambassador Program. Needless to say, there are bike lanes. I wish we had bike lanes. Then maybe we can make with the bike rentals.

Bikes for rent

Minneapolis loves it some baseball, just like our fair city, so I spent my evening at a Twins game. I took the train, which was a dollar for the whole evening (I think they do this for games and other special events). I could have walked, but it’s fun to take the train. The Twins were playing the Red Sox, and Jim Thome was on the brink of 600 home runs, so there was a full house. My section was full of little league all-stars overflowing with sugar and peanuts and meat products. They had many theories about the game, some of which were corrected by the garrulous adults sitting in my row.

Note the awesome moon in the background.

Target Field sure is nice. We went to a game at the new Nationals stadium on a D.C. trip earlier this summer, and that stadium feels hastily constructed. It lacks soul and context. It’s cool that D.C. is trying to use its stadium to revitalize the Anacostia area, but still you can’t help but feeling that they could have tried harder. Target Field is new – the Twins have only been there since 2010 – but it feels homey and embedded in the city, like it’s always been there. There’s a giant Harmon Killebrew autograph on the right field wall (the little leaguers behind me were obsessed with it and insisted that Twins outfielders had to PROTECT THE AUTOGRAPH from marauding balls). There’s all the sausages you might expect from a Minnesota ball game, but there’s also whole stands that only sell beer made in Minnesota. Which is pretty amazing. And the beer’s good too. And they sell fried cheese curds. The Twins pulled off a surprise win against the playoff-bound Red Sox, to the loud delight of the crowd.

Art at the Walker

After the game, I walked back to the hotel with the rest of the crowd, peeling off euphorically one by one into bars, strip clubs, trains until I was the only one left to walk into the chi-chi lobby and take the old-timey elevator up to my ridiculously comfortable bed.

As I wandered off to sleep I thought about what Montgomery could be like. Beyond Helicity, beyond the endless charrettes and multi-use zoning planning and green space Facebook groups, can we not get together on some basics? We applaud the Dexter rehab. We are waiting to see the West Fairview “demonstration block.” We think the new hybrid eco-buses are probably great, but have yet to ride one. Seeing Minneapolis gives you perspective. What if Montgomery had rental bikes and bike lanes and classes for riders and bikers alike? What if we had a working bus system with sidewalks and shelters and libraries throughout the city? What if we had more than a handful of bookstores and a central art museum? What if we had public art in weird places that caused us to rethink our relationship to the usual?

Update

The Red Sox did not, in fact, make the playoffs.

Montgomery’s Best Red Curry

Depending on where you are in the world, people mean different things when they say “curry.” The word “curry” is from Tamil, basically meaning “sauce.” Indian “curries” may or may not actually have much in the way of sauce, but often use a blend of spices that is sometimes called curry powder that may or may not contain some combination of coriander, cumin and tumeric. Usually spicy bits like fresh or dried peppers are added separately. In Japan, the stuff they call curry is largely a disgusting brown goo draped over meats on rice. It is related to Indian curry in the same way that Corey Feldman and Sir Alec Guiness are both actors.

And then there’s Thai curry, the subject of this particular post. In a Thai restaurant, when you order a curry you can usually expect to receive some combination of ingredients with a savory sauce. The sauce is made from a curry paste and liquids that might include coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, soy sauce and assorted other goodies. There are a few staples, including yellow curry, green curry, red curry, Massaman curry and Panang curry. Their difference is less about the things that get “curried” (although Massaman usually has sweet potatoes or some kind of starch) and more about what’s in the paste. We like all these kinds, but we are partial to red curry. It’s usually more spicy than the others (with the exception of Panang) and tastes richer to me somehow. So we wanted to see where Montgomery’s best red curry might be. And we went on a lunch adventure.

Lek's. The worst of the three.

First stop: Lek’s Railroad Thai. It’s a nice spot, for sure – used to be the main place we’d go for vegetarian food here in Montgomery before we lived here. The decor is nice, the train station is pretty awesome, and it’s easily walkable from downtown. Plus they are really fast at serving what can be a very substantial lunch crowd (even though they may be the only restaurant in town without an obvious system to distinguish between the sweet and unsweet tea and tea pitchers). The lunch specials include a spring roll (pretty good), some soup (didn’t eat it, full of chicken), and your choice of a few items. The red curry costs a few dollars extra for tofu, which is pretty wack – it’s not like you’re getting shrimp or something, but it comes out fast. But it’s just not very good. You get a generous set of tofu pieces, cooked to a medium consistency, topped with a smattering of bell peppers, with a scoop of rice and a fan of cucumber slices. Over the tofu, the curry tastes cloying yet thin, like some canned coconut milk that heard a rumor of curry nearby but only got a passing whiff. It’s lacking all of the depth and flavor of Thai food, coming closer to the overly sweet Americanized “Chinese” food that they serve at horrible places like Ming’s Garden.

Next stop: Ala Thai (Midtown). There are two Ala Thais, but we only really go to this one because it’s closer to our house and reachable for a work lunch. Like Lek’s they can rock a slammed restaurant for lunch. We’ve rolled in with huge parties and gotten out with fabulous food and good service in shockingly good time. There’s lots of good stuff on the menu, and they’ll make it as hot as you want. This particular day, though, we were only interested in the red curry. Which did not cost extra for tofu but which came with either noodles or rice. We chose the rice. When the curry arrived you could have smelled it all the way over in the Shoe Circus, or whatever other awful stores they have in that mega-complex. It was spicy and sweet and deeply flavored, generously soaking in a lot of sauce that ended up merging perfectly with rice progressively ladled into the bowl. There were a number of vegetables, but not so much that it detracted from the perfectly cooked tofu.

Green Papaya. Decidedly meh.

Third stop: Green Papaya. We have been meaning to go here for the three years we’ve lived in Montgomery. Now we’ve gone, we’re not sure when or if we’ll be back. The red curry is basically a bunch of deep fried tofu mixed with what seems like pre-bagged veggie stir fry  mix (you know, little slivers of red pepper, tiny broccoli florettes, flat and vaguely scalloped carrot wedges). It is not especially savory or unique, making up for flavor by using a full-fat coconut milk. At least the “medium” is spicy (at Lek’s, “medium” seems to mean “insipid), and the the “hot” is sweat-inducingly hot. But it’s generic, and boring, and, well…you could do much better on your own.

Speaking of on your own, I want to say how easy it is to make your own red curry at home. You don’t need to make your own red curry paste from scratch (though I have, and it isn’t hard) – the Taste of Thai stuff they have in the little jars in the “Asian” section at Publix will do perfectly well. I do mine in a wok, but you could just use a big saucepan. With tofu, you press it first, slice it thin, and brown it in a little oil (I like peanut). Take it out and keep reserved. Then a little more peanut oil, and fry several teaspoons of the red curry paste till you can really smell it. Add in onions and whatever veggies you’re going to use. Then coconut milk (I like the light stuff) and some stock, depending on how soupy you want it to be. Add in equal parts brown sugar, fish sauce (there’s some vegan options for this, or you can just omit) and soy sauce. You may want more soy sauce after. Cook it down. The end. Good with some lime juice squeezed at the table and maybe some toasted peanuts to top.

Picture of the Week: 6/13/11 – 6/19/11

 

When you're a) the cops and b) the driver of a Camaro this bitchin', you probably need to park it this far from the curb.

Alabama History Internet Trail

“If you know your history, you will know where you’re coming from.”
— Bob Marley, “Buffalo Soldier”

Recent political reports had me looking at Alabama’s 7th Congressional district, which is about to be redrawn, as is the requirement each time new census data is released. You see, they want the districts to have balanced population numbers, taking into consideration demographics so that racial minorities are given one token seat in Congress fair representation in the political process. But people keep moving around, dying, being born, and so forth, meaning that everytime they do a head count, they also redraw the political lines. And since most people don’t vote, nobody really cares all that much about whether they live in district X or district Y.

But like some sort of sadist, I decided to look at the 7th Congressional district anyway. It’s an especially interesting one since our state is represented in the House of Representatives by all white dudes except for in the 7th, where there’s an African-American lady (who replaced an African-American dude). And if you don’t know the racial political coding that has been in place in Alabama for the last few decades, the black district is repped by a Democrat and the rest of Alabama’s Congressional delegation (the white dudes) is made up of Republicans. [In case you were wondering, our city, Montgomery, is represented currently in Congress by a former member of our city council, Martha Roby, who defeated our former mayor, Bobby Bright, and has gone on to become a surprisingly extreme fringe far right-wing member of the Tea Party freshman class].

Anyhoo, I was scrolling through the Wikipedia entry for ye olde 7th Congressional, looking down the list of folks who had repped the district up there in the Congress.

The district has only once been repped by Republican (from 1965-1967) and is notable for having recently been repped by now-Senator Richard Shelby, who is from Tuscaloosa and can be seen on billboards across the state, sternly glowering his evil waxy Grinch-like face at terrified Alabama motorists.

Anyway, scroll back through the list of D7 reps, long before the time of Shelby, and discover that the district was once repped by the absurdly-named Zadoc L. Weatherford. The good people of D7 were only represented by Dr. Zadoc for a few months in 1940. Sidebar: Is Dr. Zadoc not an amazing comic book name? Sounds like someone that Captain America would fight.

Why did the nefarious Dr. Zadoc only go to Congress for a few months? Turns out he was just filling out the term of William Bankhead, who had died in 1940 while in office. Bankhead was the father of Montgomery’s own, the amazing and immortal Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead was also the Speaker of the House, making him the highest ranking member of the national political scene from Alabama other than Vice-President William R. King (more on him in a moment).

So Bankhead dies and Dr. Zadoc leaves his medical practice in Red Bay, Alabama, (where he was also president of the bank) to go to D.C. and serve in Congress. He came back and was the mayor of Red Bay for a few years, probably quite a step down from the halls of Congress. Curious about what’s in Red Bay, I looked at the city’s Wikipedia entry, which contains (as of this writing) a strange amount of information about a fire that destroyed the city hall and jail. To wit:

In the summer of 2006, the Red Bay city hall caught fire. Local residents have speculated that the fire started when a squirrel suffered an untimely end at the hands of an electrical transformer. The transformer exploded shortly there after, setting fire to city hall and the city jail. The structure’s ceiling caught fire which then spread to roof above it as well as the more recently added secondary roof structure above the original. City Hall burned to the ground. Construction on a new city hall building has recently begun. The contractor bid for the new city hall by Burton Construction of Belmont, Mississippi was supposedly $750,000 dollars. Bids were also let for a new police department and the lowest bid was $500,000 dollars.

God, I love Wikipedia.

But back to Bankhead, who was the highest ranking national official since our Vice-President. What? Alabama had a Vice President?

Yes. William R. King. Sure, he was VP for only a few months (under Franklin Pierce) before dying of TB, took his inaugural oath in Cuba (which required a special act of Congress), and was thought by historians to have been gay (noted murdering douche Andrew Jackson referred to King and his lover, James Buchanan, as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.”) Oh, and King founded Selma and came up with the name for the city based on a set of poems that are fiercely contested as to their authenticity.

I took Alabama history multiple times as a child growing up in Alabama public schools. I, for one, am outraged that I didn’t get this kind of information from my education and instead had to gather this from the Internet in between sessions shopping at www.greatbigstuff.com.

People of Montgomery, rise up. Demand more from your educations. Let us embrace the total weirdness of our history. It is the only hope for moving forward in these dark days that surround us.

About Your Taxes

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the statehouse here in Montgomery, where Alabama’s Legislature hurts our state does its business. Among the various points made in my post were some barbed comments about how the building is a run-down piece of crap that wasn’t even designed to be a statehouse and has, over the years, been allowed to deteriorate, with repairs being done as a series of patchwork and half-assed efforts. In short, it is a dump that limits citizen access to the workings of democracy.

The reason why there are plastic tarps hanging from the ceilings of the halls of the statehouse, collecting vile-colored drippings, is that the state is broke. We have reached the point, as a state, where the reactionary hatred for taxes (and corresponding distrust of all government) has struck bone. By that I mean that we, as citizens, also mostly enjoy having a government to provide services to us. And those services cost money. And the taxes are how the government gets the money to pay for the services. And if I weren’t fatally depressed about the overwhelming stupidity of the populace, I wouldn’t have to be talking in such an elementary way to what is obviously an enlightened and educated blog readership. Paternalistic and condescending? No way!

Anyway, it’s not just the influence of the childish “guv’mint is bad” tea party folks that has caused this failure to comprehend the merits of a government that, say, inspects our food and provides roads for us to drive on. It’s also an instinct that pre-dates the rise of the Taxes Enough Already crowd. It’s the “Git Off My Land” suspicion of outsiders, a resentment of federal courts that used force to end institutional racial segregation, and it’s the naive belief that it’s good social policy to let rich people do whatever the hell they want because you might one day be rich too (even though you won’t).

People also don’t seem to understand that the services they like come from taxes. Nevermind the tiny fraction of simpletons who add Libertarian gloss to their lockstep Republican party ideology, grasping for some sort of intellectual aplomb to accompany their basic desire to be a selfish asshole. No, I’m talking about people who believe that “the market,” will not, in fact, keep poison out of the river or ensure that child laborers aren’t mangled by industrial machines. I’m talking about people who like Medicare, but still hate the idea of Government-Run Health Care™.

All of which is a didactic way of introducing the fact that I went to get my driver’s license renewed the other day and left work a good two hours before the DMV was scheduled to close. I took time off from my paying job to drive across town because, not only do I not want to get a ticket for having an expired license (fear of law enforcement), but also because I actually think there should be minimum standards of competence for people authorized to operate super-dangerous motor vehicles on the highways that we all use while drunkenly texting. Public safety? Yes, a compelling governmental interest. Anarcho-libertarians beware.

And what did I find upon arriving at the DMV, some two hours before they were scheduled to close their doors? An official standing out front sticking a sign on the door saying that they weren’t letting anyone else in because the line was already so long. They were done taking new customers for the day.

Photo taken around 3 p.m.

So this is the kind of thing that we get in a state where we refuse to tax property at a reasonable rate. Alabama could double property taxes and still be the lowest in the nation. We could not possibly bend over far enough for giant corporations, handing out tax breaks as if they were party favors. We allow LLC companies to deduct all of their federal income tax paid from the state income tax they owe. We brag about the fact that we pay the lowest taxes in the nation.

And what do we get for it? We get failing services. We get courts that are shutting down for entire days out of the week because they aren’t sufficiently funded. We get education budgets slashed, a process we call “proration.” We get fewer State Troopers, fewer restaurant inspections, immorally overcrowded prisons, worse health care for poor people, worse child care for poor people, worse everything for poor people. And we get a DMV that isn’t sufficiently staffed to take customers, administer driving tests, and renew driver’s licenses during normal business hours. We get a backwards collective celebration of “fend for yourself” futility, a nationally-embarrassing gutting of public structures, and a total disregard for the common good.

Go get your driver’s license renewed. Get turned away. Return to sit in line for hours, killing your day. Wait for the cops to come when you have a car wreck. Get sick from a rarely-inspected restaurant. Witness a forest fire caused by a crippled forestry service. Wish for a functioning system of public transportation. Bemoan the admissions costs and status of the facilities at our state parks.

And when you do, think about our tax system.

The Special Election and Opportunity Cost

Grandma Advertiser reported yesterday on candidate spending in today’s special election to succeed Martha Roby in representing District 7 on the Montgomery City Council. We were just plain shocked — shocked to see the sheer amounts spent by Jenny Ives ($48,784) and Arch Lee ($36,725), and shocked to note the disparity between the top of the money pile and the bottom (Grayson White: $3,250, Kenny J. Smith: less than $1,000). All of this for basically five months in office and the chance to get an incumbent’s advantage in the upcoming August election?

At least Arch Lee was quoted in the article as saying it’s an absurd amount of money. But that’s easy for him to say – he almost won the money race. I went to vote today and talked to one of the candidates who ranked low on the money list. He said he was afraid the election would end up being bought, and thought that was a sad state of affairs. And I think he’s right about the sad state of affairs part.

Together, Arch Lee and Jenny Ives spent a whopping $85,509 on this special election for a single city council seat. If this money had been spent differently here in Montgomery, it could have provided the following services:

  • 13 one-year Head Start slots for poor children, or
  • 1 year of VA care for 13 military veterans, or
  • 555,809 pounds of food distributed to needy residents through the Montgomery Area Food Bank (that is 118,257 days worth of food for adults according to the USDA’s numbers, or food for one year for 323 people), or
  • 1 year in an animal shelter for 20 dogs.

When you add in the cost to the city of holding the special election ($168,200, according to the Advertiser), this whole adventure is looking pretty expensive. And for what? We’re not saying the City Council is not important; on the contrary, its doings affect the day to day living of Montgomery citizens in ways that most folks don’t even consider. But these numbers should give pause to anyone who has ever put a dog to sleep or fed a hungry person. Or, really, anyone who has a conscience.

This kind of spending is despicable, whether it is for a local or national election. We’re sure it’s easy for big money donors and recipients (a category that certainly includes Martha Roby) to rationalize this kind of cash flow (hell, the Supreme Court says it’s free speech), but at the same time we can’t help but think it says something quite negative about the ethical compass of those who give and receive these kind of donations, not to mention about the health of our ever-fragile democracy.

(Trade off figures from the National Priorities Project, Montgomery Area Food Bank and Montgomery Humane Society)