Creamed Chicken

They say smell is the oldest of the five senses we humans have. I certainly believe it – There have been times I haven’t smelled a thing in 30 years, and then I do, and I’m instantly taken back. It’s as if the smell is somehow a shortcut to the exact spot in my brain where that memory hides.

I will always remember that hot summer night on Parris Island whenever I smell rotting fruit. I will always think of my Great Aunt’s bathroom when I smell rusting metal. The smell of strawberries instantly transports me into a walk-in cooler in Byhalia, MS, where 16 year old me would hide when I should have been working and would eat the Louisiana strawberries that I should have been putting on the store shelves.

And the smell of hot tuna always transports me back to my momma’s kitchen on a day in 1980: A day I should have been in school, but was home instead, sick.

It was a cold day, and I had been running a fever all night and so Mom let me lay on the couch and watch The Price is Right on TV instead of going to school.

I had dozed off, somewhere before the Showcase Showdown and she gently woke me. The TV was off, and I felt a bit better, and she sat on the couch beside me and asked if I was hungry.

“I’m about to fix some creamed tuna over toast,” she said.

I told her I didn’t know what that was.

“I know. But I love it, and your dad doesn’t – he calls it cat food – and since it’s just us today, I thought I would make some.”

We walked into our small kitchen, and I drug a chair over to the stove, to watch.

She got out a small pan and drained a can of tuna. We only had the kind packed in water, because Dad was watching his cholesterol – and she heated up a can of cream of mushroom soup and stirred in a can’s worth of water, and added the tuna to it while it heated.

In the meantime, she put four slices of bread in our toaster, and when the toast was done, she tore it into small pieces, which she placed in the white Corelle bowls with the small blue flower trim they had gotten as newlyweds. She set them on the oak table that my grandfather rescued from the fire in the 1930s.

She took a serving spoon from the drawer and spooned the tuna mixture over both our bowls and then stirred it well, to coat the chunks of bread with the ersatz roux.

The kitchen did smell vaguely of cat food, to my dad’s point, but not obnoxiously so. At that moment, it just smelled good, and safe.

I still love it – creamed tuna over toast, even if I don’t make it that way anymore. I would learn, later, about bechamel sauce and seasoning and the value of aromatics. But that would all come later.

Mom and I didn’t have a lot of things that were just ours – we still don’t, actually – but our love of creamed tuna over toast was one of them. And to this day, when I don’t feel particularly well, I will make a version of this dish and just know everything is going to be OK.

I want to go on record that there’s nothing wrong with making it the way Mom did. I mean, if you are sick, or have been pulling lots of shifts, or just don’t have a lot of energy, spending 10 minutes dumping two cans into a pot and then pouring it over toasted bread may be all you have the energy for. And if that’s true, then go for it.

But, if you find yourself with 15 minutes and a smidgen more energy, you can make something remarkable. These days, I often make this using chicken, because my wife shares my dad’s feelings about seafood, and I want to keep living here. But you can replace the chicken in this recipe with tuna and it still works.

Everything you will need for this is in your pantry, or at least should be. Bread. Flour. Butter. Some leftover chicken. Salt. Pepper. Chicken broth, An onion. Milk. Love.

Before you get started, let’s talk about chicken. You can use leftover chicken of any sort. White meat. Dark meat. Canned chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken. Chicken legs you bought on clearance and poached specifically for this dish. It doesn’t matter. Really. They all have different flavor profiles, but they are all good. You will need to shred it up, and you need about two cups of it.

You want to start with two tablespoons of butter, which you put in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.

While it’s melting, take a small onion, and dice it fine. You don’t need a lot of onion, and if I’m feeling fancy and it’s after payday, I would probably use a large shallot for this, and if it’s a few days before payday, I would probably use the 1/2 an onion sitting in the crisper drawer in a ziplock bag leftover from God knows what.

Sweat the onions for about five minutes in the melted butter – don’t let them burn, and this means you may have to reduce the heat. Then put in two tablespoons of flour, and, using your whisk, get the flour coated in the melted butter. Just like when you are making milk gravy, you don’t want this to burn. This is a white sauce, so all you want is the flour and oil to be mixed well.

Slowly add a cup of half and half, a 1/4 cup or so at a time, whisking all the while, until it’s all mixed in. Then do the same with the chicken broth – add it slowly, while whisking, until it is a lovely velvety smooth, and probably slightly yellow. That color is one of my favorite colors. The smell right now is something else, too.

If you are feeling fancy, this is where you throw in about half a cup of what we called English peas, and you probably call green peas or sweet peas. Little green round peas, preferably frozen, is what we’re going for here. And then add the chicken, stirring it all in, so the lovely creamy sauce covers the chicken and peas, and the peas look like little green islands in a light yellow sea.

You want this to simmer for about 5 minutes, to both warm up the peas and chicken, and to thicken the sauce. If it gets too thick, you can drizzle in a bit of hot water while stirring, and also remember that it will thicken a bit as it sits and cools.

While the sauce is simmering, start making toast – two to three slices per person is about right. When the toast is done, I like to rip it into rough chunks about 2 inches square. Then pour a generous half cup of sauce over the top, and if you have any, sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley.

This is one of my favorite meals. There are variations galore. This will serve two hungry people or 4 polite ones, but it scales up perfectly – 2 tablespoons of fat and flour per cup of broth and cup of dairy.

This is also lovely over biscuits, served like you would sausage gravy, or over plain white rice, which is how I serve it for supper or when company would show up unexpectedly in the before times.

Go buck wild and use whipping cream or half and half if you are a generally optimistic person, but whole milk is what I use most often. Some of you are scared of your food and will be tempted to use skim milk, and while I would discourage you, I can’t stop you.

Some people, I have learned, just want to watch the world burn.


When I was in financial sales, my mentor was a man named Jerry.

Jerry was a dapper man, always in a sports coat and slacks. His shoes were immaculate and shiny. He went through the carwash every time he filled his gas tank. His image and appearance were very important to Jerry.

We would have lunch every Friday, and on one particular Friday, he said he had to go to his mechanics when he left the restaurant because he had an appointment to get new windshield wipers put on his car.

I told him that was ridiculous – that he shouldn’t spend money on something like that, because it would be so easy to just do it himself.

“Hugh,” he said. “You don’t understand. I want to always make enough money that I never have to do it myself. It’s not just that I don’t know how to do it myself – but that I never want to know how to do it myself.“

That would bother me to no end. There is no way I would drive somewhere and then pay someone to do something I could do myself in literally 5 minutes without getting dirty or even inconvenienced.

But if there are two kinds of people when it comes to Doing-It-Yourself, Jerry was one kind of person, and I am the other.

It’s not even that I particularly enjoy putting on windshield wipers. I just can’t imagine paying someone else to do it. I can’t even imagine asking someone else to do it.

A few years ago, it was late on a Saturday and I was outside, measuring the spot for the new potting bench when I realized the faucet on the patio was leaking. Not a huge leak, but a pinhole of spray.

At first, I just thought the hose was loose, but then saw it was coming from behind the faucet. I got out my monkey wrench and when I turned the faucet to tighten it, the pipe broke off under the house. It was a 70-year-old galvanized pipe, and it had finally rusted through.

At the time I didn’t know where the water cut-off for the house was. Since it was gushing all over the patio and not in the house, I decided to let it spray while I figured out how to fix it.

I crawled under the house with a flashlight and saw the broken pipe was 1/2 inch galvanized pipe and what I needed was most likely a 10-inch nipple. Then I went to Home Depot – water still spraying all over the patio.

30 minutes later, I have a new faucet, a 12-inch nipple (just to be safe), and some plumbers tape, because while I own at least 10 rolls of plumber’s tape, I can never find it when I need it.

I crawl back under the house, holding a flashlight in my mouth, and disconnect the nipple, causing water to no longer spray all over the patio, but now to gush under the house and all over me.

It was then that I noticed the corner where the pipe is had, in the past, been some raccoon’s litter box, as now raccoon turds are floating in the water that is rising all around me.


I get the old pipe loose, and when I knock it out, loose mortar in the brick wall falls into the hole through the wall, keeping me from putting the new nipple in. Back out from under the house I go.

Back on the patio, I take a hammer and the old nipple and bust the offending mortar lose, and then crawl back into the raccoon-turd-filled swimming pool that is my crawlspace. This time I wrap the nipple with plumber’s tape, slide it through the wall, and with my monkey wrench, get it installed and tight. Water is no longer gushing under the house – it is now back to gushing all over the patio.

Then I crawl out of the raccoon septic tank, drenched to the bone and trying hard not to think about what germs are all over me, and then wrap the nipple that is jutting 2 and a half inches proud of the foundation wall (it turns out it WAS a 10-inch nipple after all, but I figured it was better to be proud than to be short) with pipe tape, and then put on the faucet, with water spraying everywhere, including all over me. Then it’s finished, and I turn off the faucet and everything is mercifully quiet again, except for the water dripping off everything, including me.

Elapsed time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. I paid less than $15 in materials. It was on a Saturday night, so it would have been an emergency plumber call at $175 an hour if I had been able to get one at all. 

I had never replaced a faucet before that day. I had a vague idea of how the plumbing works, and maybe $30 worth of tools. The biggest thing I had going for me was being willing to do it. Or, put another way, I had an orientation or a bent toward doing it myself. I honestly never considered calling a plumber.

On some days – like that one – it saves me a lot of money to do things myself. But sometimes, it really doesn’t.

Like right now, I’m in the middle of changing platforms for one of the newsletters I publish each week. I am not a coder. Or a programmer. I’m just a slightly above-average user of this sort of technology.

When I began blogging back in 2003, I taught myself HTML. And then rudimentary CSS, and learned how to do some basic work with databases and then PHP. Not because I really wanted to know how to do it, but because I couldn’t imagine having to ask someone else to change a picture for me on a website, or to tweak the font or increase the padding on an image. I couldn’t imagine asking for that sort of help even if I could have afforded it.

And along the way, I learned how to do lots of stuff, and for sure saved a lot of money.

But, as I said, right now I’m changing platforms. And the new CMS I’m using is one I’ve never used before. Like, it works entirely different than any CMS I had used before. But, I said, I can learn how to do this!

I then spent some 30 hours trying to figure out how to do it. I have been tied up for over a month – off and on – trying to work out a solution that was within my technical abilities. Have watched a dozen tutorials.

Yesterday I broke down and just paid someone to do it for me. They charged me $95, and now it’s done.

It frustrates me beyond belief that should it break, or I do something wrong and somehow screw up a setting, I will not be able to fix it, and will have to pay someone else to do it. I feel stupid because I couldn’t do it because I have all the tools to do it – just not the knowledge.

But sometimes, it just makes sense to pay someone else. It is hardly the best use of my time to learn a whole new type of niche tech that only does this one sort of thing that literally nobody else I know will ever use. That is very different from learning how, say, WordPress works, which powers ⅓ of the public websites on the internet.

It still bothered me more to spend that $95 than I care to admit. But that’s just the sort of person I am, I guess.

Showing your work

In school, I would often get in trouble in math class for not showing my work. I would know the answer, could even figure out the answer, but the process I used was often a combination of intuition and huge logical leaps, none of which translated well to paper. As a result, it was often hard to show how I had arrived at that conclusion, and thus had a hard time “showing my work”, much to the chagrin of both my math teachers and my grades. Math aside, however, I have, especially as an adult, become a huge fan of showing my work.

Very little is new in the world. While the technology to do something may change, the thing itself seldom does. For example, there is a very real difference between people like me who write on blogs, and people like the pamphleteers of the 1700s in Colonial America that stoked the colonies onto Revolution, but it is largely a difference of technology and not type. Had blogging been available to Benjamin Franklin, he would have been far more dangerous.

For those of us who are doing work that is self-generated, as opposed to work that someone else tells us how to do, we are constantly scrambling, looking for models or examples of people who are already doing the sort of work we want to do, so that we can glean from them how to do it.

There’s nothing scandalous in this – in the ancient world one learned to be a rhetorician by reciting the speeches given by famous people, and by so doing, one learned how to deliver a speech, as well as phrasing and sentence structure, so that when you went to write your own speech, you had a mental model to compare it to.

But first, you have to have a model.

If you work at IBM in sales, this isn’t a problem at all. You will be assigned to work with a seasoned veteran who will show you the ropes, who will walk you through best practices, who will tell you how he organizes his day and how to handle the follow-up. But I don’t work in sales at IBM. I, like a lot of so-called creatives, have to generate my own work, have to figure out my own solutions.

In the early days of blogging, we are all out there, floundering. I remember when my friend Richard, who also had a blog at the time, showed me the analytics he had set up on his blog for the first time. This was in perhaps 2004, and they were primitive compared to anything we have now, but I didn’t even know such a thing existed. But once I did, I knew what to look for and there was no stopping me.

Often back then, bloggers would have a colophon on their blog, either in the footer or on a separate page, where you told what tools you used. This gave a newcomer to blogging breadcrumbs to follow. If one wanted to start their own blog, now they had links to follow, terms to Google. It was an incredible act of generosity to people who didn’t have traditional tech backgrounds or who came from historically disadvantaged communities. FYI: mine for this blog is here.

When I was looking for creative models for this sort of creative universe (or Hughniverse, as a Patron called it the other day)of projects I have, I lucked across Craig Mod, who writes long essays about how his business works, which had links and examples galore. One could almost take that essay linked to above and duplicate his workflow. You could absolutely duplicate his tech stack.

So, a thing I am committed to doing going forward is showing my work. How did I build a blog from scratch? How did I put together a newsletter? What host do I use? Should I use Substack or Mailchimp? How did you arrive at that conclusion?

In other words, I’m going to start showing my work.


  1. I recognize this isn’t the sort of content that people subscribe to this blog for, so I will be posting it on my other blog, Leftovers. I will link to relevant articles in my Friday newsletter, which you can subscribe to here
  2. As an example of what that could look like: Over the last few weeks, I ran a reader survey over at my newsletter Life Is So Beautiful. I got pretty valuable insight (and scads of affirmation!) from a bunch of readers, and now I know how to make it better. And so I wrote up the results and my thought process, so anyone who wants to survey their readers now has an example and something to go on.





I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Every Monday morning, I send out a newsletter. I have done this for more than seven years now. At this point, it’s just something I do, and I suspect that if everyone unsubscribed, I would probably still do it.

And amazingly, people read it. I know that sounds like I’m fishing for compliments, but I mean it – that people read anything I write amazes me constantly. That other people spend folding money to make sure I have the freedom to do that writing is staggering to me.

Last week, I started a survey of my newsletter readers – a thing I’ve never done before. There are some demographic and informational questions I have wondered about – how old are my readers (mostly between 35 and 65, it seems) and when do they read my newsletter that I publish on Monday mornings (almost perfectly evenly split between “as soon as it hits my inbox” and “I save it for later when I can savor it”), but mostly I wanted the more subjective comments to questions like, “What do you like about this newsletter” and “How would you describe what this newsletter is about?”

From a marketing perspective, these are mostly useless. Knowing that an anonymous reader (I didn’t tie responded to email addresses, so people would be more honest) thinks that I need to do more of what I’m doing, or that another anonymous reader thinks that I am a “breath of fresh air” won’t help me get more readers, but it does reassure me that at least some people get value from what I’m trying to do.

But what I love about reader responses is what they tell me about myself. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe writing to be a partnership between the reader and the writer. A friend who is a movie critic once told me that it’s the job of the critic to tell the artist what they are doing – that it’s actually the critic (or audience), for example, that decides whether a movie is sad, or inspiring.

So when I get responses to my question “Is there anything you would like me to know?” with things like “I love reading your newsletter because it calms my anxiety” or “You are like a Southern Bob Ross” or “I love how calm you are in the face of the tragedies all around us, without ignoring that they are happening”, it tells me something I would have never guessed on my own about what people get from my writing.

Because I don’t really feel calm, or even like I am trying to be calming. I mean, there are a couple of people who ostensibly have things in common with me who are sorta famous on the internet who are very viral, and who are always angry and post click-bait posts designed to provoke a reaction and make you angry at other people. I decided a long time ago that I don’t want readers that badly. So, it is not so much that I’m trying to be calming as much as I’m just trying to not be an asshole.

But knowing that people perceive the project I’m working on to not just be about beauty but also as calming and restorative is useful feedback and lets me know that I am doing things I didn’t know I was doing.

Just like how, when a friend says, “I don’t think you know you are doing it, but you chew with your mouth open, and it’s pretty gross”, you can stop. And once I know I’m doing a thing, and that people like it, I can do more of it.

I’ve been writing nearly daily on this blog for more than four months now – almost 99,000 words since the beginning of November, and during that time, I’ve sorted into a rhythm of sorts. I know that posts about self-care get shared in ways that nothing else I write does, and I know that posts about food are loved and heavily commented on, and I know that people respond well to my posts that are heavy on memories and nostalgia. But I’m not sure yet if the blog has figured out yet what it’s doing.

I mean, I know what I think I’m doing, but like the newsletter example shows – what I think I‘m doing and what people see you as doing can be different things. So, expect an anonymous reader survey soon, because I’d love to know what you think I’m doing.




In Praise of Cabbage

Often when reading a novel, I will find that if the author wants to indicate the smell of poverty, they will mention the smell of cooked cabbage. Like, “The stairway in the tenement smelled of used diapers, cooked cabbage, and despair.”

That’s no reflection on the cabbage, however, as cabbage is no respecter of persons, is filled with vitamins, and will keep in your fridge (or in your cellar) for damn near forever. No, in addition to all the virtues of cabbage, it is also usually inexpensive, which makes it the butt of jokes rather than be celebrated for the heroic vegetable it is, serving to fill in around the edges when the more respected fare is hard to come by.

As a young boy, I ate my share of cooked cabbage, but sadly, I never had any cooked cabbage that tasted good until I was grown. My people tended to, when in doubt, just boil a thing until it surrendered when some things benefit most by gentle encouragement instead of a full-on assault. They would make up for this by pouring the potlikker in the bottom of the pot – the vitamin laden broth left after the cabbage had been eaten – over cornbread, which was always the best part of the meal, the cabbage having been cooked until it dissolved, like the dreams we had of a meal with texture.

But done right, stewed cabbage is a delight, and there is virtually no likker to be had because we didn’t soak away all the vitamins. If it’s a weeknight and you don’t know what to use for a side dish, this is perfect. It takes about 25 minutes, from start to back, and if you add some bacon, you can make it a main dish instead. I think it’s even good enough to serve as a side at a celebration, like Thanksgiving.

If stewed cabbage is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

What you will need for this are a head of white (as opposed to red) cabbage, a big skillet, three tablespoons of some cooking fat – bacon grease is traditional, but butter is OK too, and I like to mix them both, half and half, each bringing qualities of which the other is shy – some salt, some sugar, and some water.

Turn the heat on medium under your skillet, and put your fat in it to melt. I’m going to assume you paid attention and are using one and a half tablespoons each of both butter and bacon grease, but you do you. Unless you doing you involves olive oil, in which case, just … no. There are things for which olive oil is wonderful, but this is not one of them.

While your fat’s melting, quarter your head of cabbage, cut out the stem, and then cut the rest of it into “steaks”, top to bottom (like, from pole to pole of the cabbage head) about an inch and a half thick. Then cut the steaks into chunks about 2×2, and then put the chunks in the hot fat. Don’t shred your cabbage – this ain’t slaw. You want chunks. It may fall apart a bit, which is fine, but don’t encourage it any. I mean, you fall apart, and we do you the kindness of not mentioning it, so return the favor here.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt over the top of the cabbage chunks. You want to give the cabbage a minute or two in the hot fat, so the leaves will begin to brown and caramelize – take your spatula and move it about a bit to keep it from sticking. When you see edges beginning to brown slightly, add a cup of water (slowly), and then allow the water to cook down over medium heat until the water is mostly gone, the house smells amazing, and the cabbage is tender when you stab it, but the chunks are still mostly intact – which on my stove takes about 20 minutes.

Some of you will want to cook this longer. I understand this, but you’re wrong. It won’t be improved by turning it into mush. I am in favor, however, of starting this dish by frying up three slices of bacon, then dicing the cooked bacon into bits, and using that bacon grease plus another tablespoon or two of butter as the fat and then proceed from there, using the bacon bits as a garnish when you are done.

Some of you will think this can be improved by reducing the fat down to only one tablespoon, making it less fattening. It may be less fattening that way, but it won’t taste better. And in all honesty, two tablespoons of butter has 200 calories, which when divided by the four serving this makes, means you saved 50 calories a serving, but managed to turn something delicious into something your kids will make fun of you for making.

The partnership

I carry a notebook around with me, and I jot down things I want to remember to write about. But it’s a small notebook, and I have 50-year-old eyes, and so sometimes in the name of expediency, I lose either legibility or intelligibility and sometimes both.

Like the entry that I wrote a few weeks ago in bed, late at night. Here it is, in its entirety: Paul McCartney, song (talk to Renee) / partnership between reader and writer.

Now, this time, I happen to completely understand what I was getting at. For Christmas, I got Renee, who is a huge Beatles fan, this two-volume book of Paul McCartney lyrics and commentary, called, fittingly enough, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It’s huge.

And one night we were lying in bed, reading our respective books, when she told me that she had just learned an interesting thing about a particular song – that while the lyrics were powerful and moving to us both, it turns out that when he wrote them, it was meant as a fun song, almost whimsical.

I bet you are wondering what song it was. I am too because while I wrote down the event, I made no mention of the song because I would surely remember it.

I do not remember it. My brief note was a bit too brief.

But I wrote it down because it so perfectly encapsulates the partnership that exists between the writer and the reader.

In 1994, I was dating a woman who was my superior in practically every way. She made more money than I did, she was older than I was, and she was smarter than I was. And when we broke up, which was, in hindsight, inevitable, I took it rough. Really rough, in the way only a 22-year-old could.

I went on a three-day drunk. I drunk-called her house at all hours. I showed up outside her house and the police got called – not by her, but by the neighbor who took umbrage to my declarations of my love in her front yard at 3 in the morning.

Eventually, I came to terms with the breakup, but like 22-year-olds everywhere that go through tragic breakups, I found solace in music.

At the time, there was a popular country music song called Little Rock, by Tom Douglas, sung by Collin Ray. In it, the protagonist is starting his life over in Little Rock after destroying his relationship and is now trying to rebuild his new life while mourning the loss of the life he had.

A sample of the lyrics:

Well, I know I disappeared a time or two,

And along the way, I lost me and you.

I needed a new town for my new start

Selling VCR’s in Arkansas at a Wal-Mart.

I haven’t had a drink in nineteen days.

My eyes are clear and bright without that haze.

I like the preacher from the Church of Christ.

Sorry that I cried when I talked to you last night.

I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.

I’m solid as a stone, baby, wait and see.

I’ve got just one small problem here in Little Rock,

Without you, baby I’m not me.

Now, you might look at those lyrics here in the cold light of day in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two and say to yourself that they are trite and sentimental. And I would agree with you. But 22-year-old me in 1994 drank at least a few cases of beer while sobbing and listening to that song on repeat, for weeks and weeks. I wore out that cassette tape; playing that song, then hitting rewind and playing it again. One thing you can say for MP3 players – listening to sad breakup music is easier than it was back in the day.

I already knew the song, of course. It had been out a while. But when I went through that breakup, it perfectly captured the struggle, the mourning, the lament, and the hope of it all.

When Tom Douglas wrote that song, he had no idea who I was. He had probably never set foot in Southaven, Mississippi, the scene of the yard incident. But he didn’t have to. He wrote the words, but I supplied the meaning. We were in partnership, Mr. Douglass and I.

It doesn’t matter if he had ever been through a breakup. It doesn’t matter if he had ever dated anyone, ever. I supplied every bit of meaning that I put on that song. And while I hear that song today and it reminds me of that time, I recognize that, objectively, it’s not a great song.

But it didn’t matter.

I try hard to write in an accessible way – people who know me say they can hear my voice when they read my writing, which is 100% what I’m shooting for. And I’m fortunate that I have a really interactive group of readers. Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email or Facebook message from someone who read something I wrote, and often they will tell me the story of how something I wrote – sometimes something I wrote years ago – really spoke to them.

And sometimes, they see things in my writing that perplex me, because I didn’t put them there. Luckily for me, they tend to be good things, by and large, but still. But I guarantee you I saw things in the song Little Rock that neither the singer nor the songwriter put there. In the partnership between the writer and I, he supplied the worlds, and I supplied the meaning.

Now, I have to confess that as a writer, there are times this frustrates me. I will spend a great deal of time crafting an essay about, say, birds, and then I see where someone shared it on Facebook, and they talk about how it’s a testimonial to the enduring power of the human spirit.

I really thought it was about birds. But if they needed to hear about the enduring power of the human spirit right then, I’m willing to let them have it. After all, I just bring the words – they supply the meaning.

Re: Facebook

I want to preface this by noting that the irony that Facebook is the largest driver of traffic for my blog is not lost on me. Neither is it lost on me that I have many relationships with people I love dearly that I no longer have contact information for other than Facebook Messenger. And I also want to point out that there is a strong likelihood that you won’t see this post, as posts that are critical of that platform tend to not get seen there.

Social media is fine if you want a place to see pictures of your brother’s kids. It’s fine as a place to find like-minded people (which explains most of the FB groups I belong to) or to learn new skills (which explains the rest of them). But it is always important to remember that the reason social media exists is not to entertain you – it is to make the social media company money. That’s it. The whole reason Facebook exists is to make money, and you don’t factor into their calculations at all. They don’t care that you don’t like the new design. Or the way your timeline shows the same four people, over and over.

It’s become commonplace to blame the algorithms for the lack of diversity and echo chambers, but these algorithms are not Holy Writ, handed down from Mt. Olympus (or Mt. Sinai, if that’s your thing). Rather, they are the result of intentional business decisions, designed to – you guessed it, make the social media company money. If they make you angry – Facebook makes money. If they show you something you disagree with and you go on a ranty – Facebook makes money. If you link to something that makes you happy, they now know more about you, and they can then make more money.

We are not Facebook’s customer: We are their product.

If you are relatively conscious, I have not said anything at all unknown to you. We all trade access for privacy, and while we fuss, most of us stick around. We are in an abusive relationship with this site, and their sins are well known. I’ve talked about this before, but I wanted to elaborate a bit: Facebook is a horrible place to depend on, because it is space you do not own, but only rent, and you rent it from an abusive landlord and you have no protections as a tenant, and you have no lease.

If tomorrow Facebook decided to change the rules, you would have no choice but to take it. Many small businesses got wiped out in the mid-teens when Facebook began charging Business Pages to get views – businesses that had invested years in cultivating a following on Facebook and getting traffic and followers. Overnight, the rules changed.

Or if you have views Facebook decides to restrict. Any post I share that talks heavily about the pandemic will get far fewer views than normal. It just doesn’t get on as many timelines. Who decided that? Facebook.

So, like anyone who rents space, I am ever conscious that I don’t control this space, and I don’t want to make business decisions that depend on this space.

I am a writer. I mean, it’s part of how I make my living. And while I recognize that a lot of people read my writing via Facebook, I am refusing to depend on it. Because I see people all the time who tell me they don’t see my posts on here.

But you know who never says that? Email subscribers.

Email virtually always gets delivered. Email is 100% open. If I left Facebook, I lose all my Facebook friends. I couldn’t port them over to, say, Twitter. But If I quit using Mailchimp and began using ConvertKit to send my emails, it would be seamless. Subscribers would most likely not even know it happened. Because I own my email list – but I’m just renting the Facebook list.

Virtually every creator I know worries about how Facebook gatekeepers our content. I’m making more and more business decisions that take me towards openness, and away from closed platforms. 

I find myself growing more and more frustrated with Social Media platforms. I get angry when I’m on there for any length of time, and the lack of civility and reflection frustrates me. Most days I am on there for only a few minutes to check in or to post something, and then I’m out – which would be great, except for the other days, when I find myself doomscrolling and getting angrier and angrier. I have taken all Social apps off my phone, and have blockers on my browsers so I don’t get on during certain hours while I’m trying to write.

Another thing I don’t like is how it discourages civility. For example, I had two interactions today with people who read my stuff and who disagreed with me: One by email and one on Facebook. The email response was thoughtful and measured, and I responded with a thoughtful and measured reply. The Facebook interaction was a frustrating dumpster fire, and then after I put over an hour in interacting with it, he deleted his post, erasing all the work I did.

As long as it makes sense to keep sharing my blog posts in clear text on my Facebook feed, I will do so as a courtesy to my readers there, as part of my POSSE (Post Own Site, Share Everywhere) strategy. But one day, I fear the juice will no longer be worth the squeeze, and that will change.

So, in preparation for that day, please know that you can also read this blog on the website at, or you can get a weekly email from me with a link to that week’s posts, or you can go to this page and find links to follow me on Twitter or Tumbler or even my blog’s Facebook page where the links are auto-posted or find out how to sign up to get the whole text of the post in your email inbox within minutes of my posting it.

But however and wherever you do it, I’m grateful for your readership, your sharing, and your engagement.

Suppertime Cheese Grits

I got asked a while back by a friend if I was going to talk about grits on my blog.

If y’all thought cornbread was contentious, just wait till Southern folk start talking about grits. And do note that while they are very different things, they are both derived from corn, the poor man’s wheat, and they are both examples of peasant cooking, so of course, I’m going to talk about grits.

If ever there was an example of my adage that “Normal is just another word for whatever you are used to”, it’s grits. And if you can do it to a bowl of grits, I assure you somebody has.

Growing up, grits were for breakfast. Mom liked them because the preparation was simple, it was filling, and it was as cheap as could be. One thing she didn’t like about grits, unfortunately, was the grits themselves: She tended to prefer Cream of Wheat, but never managed to convert us. But she grew up traveling around the country with my grandfather, who was in the Navy, so one has to make allowances.

When visiting our neighbors, Monty and Doc, I would eat fried grits for lunch, which was basically leftover grits poured into a loaf pan, then cooled in the refrigerator until firm. They would then be sliced into inch thick slabs and fried in bacon grease, making an ersatz fried polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta, I was convinced it was just expensive fried grits. Spoiler: It pretty much is, although grits tend to be made with white corn, and polenta with yellow, which is sweeter, so there is a slightly different flavor profile. But grits and polenta are a whole lot closer than collards and kale, which are interchangeable.

But today I want to tell you about suppertime grits. Because I usually make these as a weeknight meal, I take some liberties to speed things up, but you can have this on the table in about 20 minutes. I tend to use them like you would pasta or potatoes, but if you add enough cheese or even a heavy meat sauce, this makes a fine main dish.

You will need some grits. White is traditional, and regular people eat just regular grits, although there are artisanal, stone-ground grits to be had out there. But for our purposes, some white grits – even the quick-cooking grits, like I do in this recipe-, will do on a weeknight. We don’t speak of instant grits, nor of anything that comes in a packet.

You will need a liquid. At its most basic, you can use water, and many people do, but milk is a fine choice too. But if you are going to the trouble to make them for supper, try chicken stock instead. In this recipe, we will use both chicken stock and milk.

And since these will be served as part of a meal (instead of by themselves) I would add some cheese. Now, any cheese will do – cheddar (my preference), cream cheese, Velveeta, American – just whatever you have laying around. Honestly, I use cheese grits like this as an opportunity to use up little bits of cheese I might have laying around.

Here’s how I would do it.

I’d put 8 cups of chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and heat it up to a boil, and then bring it down to a simmer. Now, if you don’t have chicken broth on hand, you can use something like Better Than Boullion’s Chicken Base, or even some chicken bouillon cubes instead. The point is, any of that will be better than just water.

Now that it’s simmering, slowly add 2 cups of quick-cooking grits while you which them in. If you just dump them in, it will clump up. I would do it slowly, stirring the broth as I slowly shake the grits into the pot. When they are all in, add ¾ of a teaspoon of salt, give the mixture a final stir for luck, and then put the lid on the pot, turn it down to low, and let them simmer for a good 10 minutes or so, until they thicken. You will want to stir them at least twice during this time, so they don’t stick.

You could stop now and have a fine bowl of grits, but we can keep going and make them extraordinary. Let’s add a tablespoon of butter (I use salted butter here because it’s what I always have, but unsalted would work too), and a cup to a cup and a half (let your conscience be your guide) of good shredded Cheddar cheese, the sharper the better. Just stir it in a bit at a time, and watch it melt. This will thicken the grits a bit, especially if you use pre-shredded cheese (it’s a weeknight, so you are forgiven), which is coated in cornstarch and thus has a thickening effect on everything. You then will thin it down with about half a cup of whole milk, or if you are feeling festive, half and half or whipping cream.

This serves four people if you do it as a main dish or about eight as a side. I’d serve it in bowls and sprinkle the top with freshly ground black pepper.

Now, of course, this is a starting point. One of my favorite ways to eat grits is to serve them with a red sauce made with peppers and Italian sausage, which makes them very fancy, indeed.



Peasant Food

There have been times in my life when I knew a thing, innately, down in my bones, and yet I didn’t know it academically. Later, I would learn the academic or scientific basis for something that knew only in that visceral way, and then I would feel validated and sometimes comforted by now having language for a thing I only knew practically before.

I learned the other day that my style of cooking is called “Peasant Cooking”. This was not one of those times when having language for a thing you know will bring you joy.

But it’s not far off, I guess. We were working class folks – until I was 14 my Dad went to a job where he had his name on his shirt, and prosperity (and health insurance) hit our home when Mom got a job at the Walmart. (For some reason, she worked at the Walmart, but we shopped at Walmart, without the article. Vernacular is a funny thing.)

We ate good food, honest food that did not hide behind fancy names.

In my mid-twenties, I was upwardly mobile, and trying to get beyond my blue collar roots.

By chance and circumstance, I ended up at a fancy Italian restaurant with a client I desperately wanted to impress. To that point, my Italian food experience largely involved spaghetti and meatballs or Pizza Hut.

The client: They have the best polenta here. Do you like polenta?

Me: I love it.

Me in my head: WTF is polenta?

We ordered the polenta. I remember it was nearly $20 a plate, way back in the mid ‘90s.

When it came, we both dug in. It was amazing.

The client: What do you think about it? Good, huh?

Me: It’s amazing.

Me in my head: I just paid $40 for 2 plates of gotdamned fried grits and spaghetti sauce.

I had a similar experience when I first was served cauliflower in béchamel sauce. I have to give them credit – no way would I have had the gumption to pour milk gravy over boiled cauliflower and serve it to people I wanted to give me money, but people raised in town are a different breed.

Milk gravy – béchamel sauce, the French call it, and they have a word for everything – is an important thing to know how to make. If you can make milk gravy, you can eat nearly free for days and days without repeating anything. And there’s been several things I wanted to tell y’all about – like creamed chicken over rice, or sausage gravy and biscuits, or baked macaroni and cheese – that I can’t talk about without talking about white sauce, or béchamel, or milk gravy, whatever they called it wherever you happened to grow up.

Gravy scares people for some reason, but no reason it should. It’s just a series of steps, and if you follow them, it’s hard to screw up. But I will say this is a time to make sure you have your stuff all out ahead of time, because things are gonna move fast.

You will need all purpose flour, salt, pepper, whole milk, and butter. You could also use cooking oil, or bacon grease, or pretty much any fat, understanding they all change the flavor profile a bit. We often make this with the grease left over from something else (like the grease left when you cook sausage, or bacon, or the drippings from roast chicken, which is amazing) but I’m going to assume that if you don’t know how to make milk gravy, you probably don’t have a jar of bacon grease in your refrigerator, either.

In a small cast iron skillet, or a heavy sauce pan if you don’t have one, put in two tablespoons of butter and turn the heat to medium. While the butter is melting, get your measuring spoons and cups out, and then measure out two tablespoons of flour and a cup (8 ounces) of milk.

The flour you add to the melted butter – just scatter it thinly around on the surface of the melted butter and then take a whisk and stir the hell out of it. You want to mix the butter into the flour here – you will end up with a thick, clumpy sort of mush. You don’t want it to burn – now, some people like to let it “toast” a little, because some book told them to, but we don’t. I was told this was to cook out the flour taste, but their gravy just tastes burnt to me.

Once the flour and melted butter are well mixed – that’s called a roux, by the way (it’s pronounced “roo” – it’s French, but I learned it in New Orleans from Cajun folks. My people wouldn’t have had a word for it) – slowly add about 1/4th a cup of the milk, and begin whisking. The roux will suddenly start clumping up as it thickens. Keep whisking as you keep adding the milk in increments; add some milk, whisk it into the roux. Add more milk, and whisk it into the roux. Keep going until you are out of milk. Make sure you get the whisk into the corners of the pan, as the sooner you get the flour incorporated into the liquid, the better.

If you followed the instructions, you won’t have any lumps in the sauce. Add salt – opinions vary here, but I would try ¼ of a teaspoon and see how that works – and I usually add the same amount of ground black pepper.

You are going to have a bit more than a cup of gravy here, which is fine if you are putting this over rice, or toast, or mashed potatoes. The important thing is the fat to flour ratio is always 1:1. In this case, 2 tablespoons flour, two tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of milk.

It needs to cook for just a few minutes yet to thicken up. I usually put it on low and let it simmer while I set the table, but if it thickens up too much on you, just slowly drizzle water into it while whisking to thin it back down. If the opposite problem happens – if it’s way too thin because you didn’t follow the directions – do NOT try adding flour, or you will be sad. The safest way to deal with this is to just turn up the heat and cook off the liquid until it thickens. Either way, stir it periodically while it’s still over heat, as the edges will thicken faster than the rest.

Also, know that it will thicken a bit as it sets, so if you are trying to be fancy and are planning to put it in a gravy boat on the table, you will want it to be thinner than you expect it to be, or else you will have something that looks like oatmeal when it comes time to eat. But honestly, I usually make this as part of something else. It’s the basis for so many good things, but none of them involve cauliflower.


The First Time

I was 15 years old when I wrote my first short story. I have no idea what the impetus was for choosing the short story format, but if I had to guess, it would be because it would have seemed like less work since, you know, it was short. I wrote most of it in Study Hall and finished it at lunch, so, perhaps 2 hours was spent on this.

The experience was magical. Scenes and words were in my head and flowed from my fingers, pouring out like a gushing stream. I was so proud, and I showed it to three adults, all of whom I trusted, and all of whose remarks involved how violent it was, and I was made to see the guidance counselor as a result. I had no management.

I wish I could talk to 15-year-old Hugh. I wish I could tell him, as someone whose writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers and published books and other esteemed places that he had really good instincts. That his 800-word story that involved *checks notes* three scene changes, drug use, three homicides, teen pregnancy, and suicide was probably a little ambitious for his skill level, but that the plot was great for a first time effort, and that the plot twist at the end was ambitious as hell and something he should be proud of himself for trying.

I would tell him that he told when he could have shown, and that if all his knowledge of drug culture came from Miami Vice, maybe that shouldn’t be central to the story. I would also say how proud of him I was that he took a moral position in his writing, even if it is heavy handed, and that giving the drug dealer a Hispanic name was a bullshit move, but was no doubt also learned from Miami Vice.

Then I would have hugged him, and told him he could, at 15, do things and see things other people couldn’t, and that he could already tell a good story; that the people we trust don’t always know what to do with people like us who make things, and that sometimes they are afraid of us, and sometimes they are afraid for us, and because of that, we have to be careful who we let see the things that matter to us.

But mostly, I would have told him to keep going.

Content Warning: The following story is pretty violent to have been written by a 15 year old virgin who couldn’t bring himself to write out the word “fuck”, even if that is clearly what he was thinking, and involves depictions of murder and descriptions of suicide, but is pretty tame by modern movie standards.

* * *

David had been my best friend since kindergarten and I am a senior in high school now. David’s and my parents were out of town together and left us there so we could go to school Friday.

It was Friday night when, after drinking a ton of beer, David told me about his “enterprise”. He was taking cocaine and cutting it with roach poison so he could make more profit. I was appalled. The very idea of drug use repulsed me, let alone something as deadly as this. I knew David had been doing coke since 10th grade, but I couldn’t have believed him to be capable of so sadistic a crime as this. However, out of ignorance or fear, I ignored it.

Saturday afternoon, I went to his house and then we went over to the mall. That night, about 1AM, we pulled into a Circle K for gas.

“You pump the gas, Johnny,” he said. “I’ve got to use the john. Pull up and wait for me when you’re through.”

I pumped $10 worth and pulled up to the front of the store to wait for David. Rstless, I got out nd was pacing in front of the store when a move caught my eye.

Why was the store owner holding his hands in the air? Why was the woman screaming? WHY GOOD GOD? Why was David holding a gun? The old man handed David a wad of money, and David shot him in the forehead. His wife never stopped screaming. Wet sticky pieces ofher husband’s skull sliding down the wall and all this woman can do is scream.

“Shut up!” David yelled.

The woman continued to scream.

“Shut up, I said!”

David emptied the gun into her chest. The woman, not willing to die, lay writing on the floor.

I know all of this could not have taken more than 5 or 6 seconds, but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

David hopped in the truck.

“Drive, dammit! Drive!”

David gave me directions to his “place”. As I drove, my sphincter muscles were clenched tight with fear. Here I was, sitting next to a double murderer, who was calmly sitting there. Every time I would look at David, I instead would see that old woman, writing on the floor, spitting up pink blood.

David’s place was an old beat up shack at the old railyards I had heard about it for years, but this was the first time been there.

David was bad off. It had been six hours since his last hit and he looked pretty bad. He was shaking and breathing fast. Even though it was November 8th he was sweating like a cold water pipe in the middle of July.

“Did you see them? Did you see that woman scream,” David asked?

David had went pretty far before, but this was it. He had done the unthinkable. He had killed 2 innocent people in cold blood. I made up my mind. In the morning I was going to call the cops. I had a load of scholarships, and I did not want this to mess them up.


He was whimpering, crying with joy from the money and pain from his habit. It was too much. I flew into him.

“Dammit, why did you rob that store?”

“Why not?”

“You killed 2 people for…” I counted the money “245 dollars. Why?”

“I needed the money to buy a rock. I can make over $2,000 with that.”.


I was disgusted. Then it was about the same old thing. Money.

“Look Johnny. Go to the mall. Just outside the door is a guy named Ramone. Tell him it’s for me, and give him the money. He will give you a package, OK?”

Why I agreed, I’ll never know. Maybe I was still in shock over what happened. Or, maybe I already had an idea of what would happen.

Well, I went to the mall and got his package. I also stopped by the hardware store.

I went into the shack. David was sweating bad. I gave him the package and he tore it open like a kid at Christmas. He cut a line and snorted his life-giving powder. Revolting how one’s life could be dependent on something so terrible.

He stood up, euphoric, for about 30 seconds. Then he toppled, fell, face first onto the floor, writhing and hacking at the fluid in his lungs. Amazing what effect roach poison and coke will have on a person.

If I live to be 100, I will never forget how he looked at me as if I had betrayed him. Well, maybe I had, but what I have done is wipe a little of the scum off the earth. Is that so bad? I know I must answer in hell for what I’ve done, but my girlfriend is pregnant, and I want my kid to grow up in a decent world.

The above was the author’s last words, found in a sealed letter beside his body. He shot himself through the head at approximately 4AM Sunday morning.