Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Why I Make French Toast
Why I Make French Toast
A Cultural Experience Paper
My French toast is one of the favorite weekend breakfasts of both my wife and daughter. For most people, French toast is nothing more than a fast, easy, inexpensive way to prepare breakfast. Every time I make French toast I retell some version of the same story about where, when, how, and from whom I learned to make French toast. For my family, the story is much more important than the French toast. For me, the story is a way to remind myself of many of the most important values and ideas I have learned in my life. It is also a way to remember and honor one of the finest men I have ever known.
When I was about twenty-one, I lived in Summers County, West Virginia, on an institution called the Appalachian South Folklife Center. The Folklife Center was founded by Don West and his wife Connie. They lived there until shortly before their deaths in the early 1990’s. Prior to founding the Folklife Center they had lived in Baltimore, Atlanta, and a variety of other cities and towns all over the Southern Appalachian Region. Don West was a poet, preacher, teacher, union organizer, and social activist. Connie was an Appalachian artist and social activist. She spent most of her life raising her two daughters and supporting Don in his work. Their lives were dedicated to the preservation of Appalachian culture, social activism, and the teaching of art, literature, and ideas related to those subjects.
All year round in the 1970’s, large groups of people from all over the country and world came to the Folklife Center for workshops, festivals, and other activities. Don West felt very strongly that the Folklife Center should not accept any government funding due to the bureaucratic and ideological controls which would have been attached to such funding. As a result, money to operate the Folklife Center was always tight and spending had to be closely monitored.
One of the ways that Don West cut spending was by frequently feeding French toast for breakfast to large groups. Don would frequently perform the cooking chores himself even though he was the founder and Executive Director. The eggs came from chickens which were kept on the large farm which is the site of the Folklife Center. The bread was always from the thrift store; or in the vernacular of the poor, was ‘day-old bread’. Don had grown up on a hillside farm in North Georgia and was the hardest working person I ever knew. He had paid his way through Lincoln Memorial University by working in a dozen or more jobs in his four years there. He had done the same while earning a master’s degree from Vanderbilt. He had gone on to work in textile mills and coal mines in conjunction with his union organizing activities. As the director of activities at the Folklife Center, he ran the farm and often engaged in carpentry, plumbing, or logging in order to lower expenses. Don would enter the kitchen at 5 or 6am with his large calloused hands and do the work in the kitchen while simultaneously teaching Appalachian culture, literature, or union history to whomever might be helping him that morning. On many of those mornings, I was lucky enough to be helping Don West.
Don had graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in 1929 in a class that included James Still and Jesse Stuart who were also famous Appalachian writers. Don was famous enough at his death that the New York Times carried his obituary. However, he was not nearly as well known as his two classmates. But collectively, they are often referred to as the best group of regional writers to graduate in a single class from any college or university. The fact that Don West was not as well known was largely a matter of choice on his part. His first major book of poetry, “Clods Of Southern Earth” was a major pre-publication success and received very positive reviews all over the country. Don West could have pursued his writing career purely for the sake of money and success and would have been likely to be just as well known as Still and Stuart. Instead, he chose to focus the work of his life on the promotion of Appalachian culture, unionism, and social activism in a consistent and unflinching way for the rest of his life.
Don West was actively involved in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Don West was run out of Atlanta for working to spread the truth about Angelo Herndon, a black radical who was sentenced to death in Atlanta under the sedition and treason laws of the time during the Great Depression for speaking out against poverty and discrimination in the south. During his lifetime, Don West had three homes burned by people who were opposed to the teaching of social activism and equality. Don West was called before the McCarthy Committee during the witch hunts; and his testimony was copied and passed out on street corners by people opposed to his teachings in Hinton, West Virginia, when he first created the Folklife Center.
The final fire in Don West’s life was accidental and destroyed the combination dining hall, kitchen, and meeting room at the Folklife Center in the time I lived there. A small group of us had been to an evening class at the Antioch Appalachia location in Beckley, West Virginia, and received a call that the building was in flames. We rushed at dangerous speeds across the mountain between Beckley and Hinton, past Bluestone Dam and onto the Folklife Center property to find Don and Connie West, a few volunteer firemen, and a small group of neighbors who had learned over the recent years just how important Don West and the Folklife Center were to Appalachia. Don West, who had been beaten and left for dead in Harlan County union efforts, sentenced to inhumane country jails for his beliefs, and threatened with death a hundred times stood with his six foot four frame bent and tears in his eyes staring into the still flaming embers. His arms and face were scorched from multiple trips into the flames to rescue several of Connie’s paintings and a few mementos of their lives. But the thing that Don West spoke of regretting losing most was a simple chestnut board riddled with bullet holes. It had been labeled The Death Board where it had hung for years over the food service window. That board had been in a wall in a small coal miner’s shack where several union miners had been stood against the wall and murdered by company gun thugs. That board had symbolized the entire American labor effort against inadequate wages, open shops, and company sponsored discrimination. It had also symbolized both the group of men who had been willing to die for the effort and Don West who had lived his life with the same willingness to die for the effort while fighting daily to see that such men and women were never forgotten.
Another of the most telling memories I have of Don concerns the one time he allowed me to read his scrapbook. As I was leafing through the volume of book reviews, newspaper stories, and letters, I came on a wrinkled and tattered page from a Blue Horse Writing Tablet, the common household writing paper of the south. There was a hole in one side of the page where it had been wrapped around a brick which had been thrown through Don’s window in the middle of the night. In a semi-literate scrawl, the page read “You nigger loving son of a bitch get your ass out of Georgia”. Don had simply replaced the window, put the page in his scrapbook and gone back to work teaching, preaching, and promoting the ideas in which he believed.
When I make French toast, I am doing much more than just making French toast. I am honoring Don West and the life he lived. I am making sure that at least a few other people in my life know that there are many more important things in the world than money. I am working to pass on the ideas and values I learned from Don West. I am making an attempt to insure that my daughter will have the foundation of thinking instilled in her which can lead her to be a contributing member of society in more than a simple tax paying kind of way. I am doing much more than making French toast.
By Don West
In the summer of 1950 I picked up a Negro hitchhiker in south Georgia and brought him across the Chatahoochee at Eufala, Alabama. As we crossed the river, he began telling me the story of how his brother was lynched and his body cut down from the limb and flung across the doorway of his mother’s shack—broken, bloody, and lifeless.
Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
And there’s weeping in the weeds
There is sorrow in the shanty
Where a broken body bleeds…
For there’s been another lynching
And another grain of sand
Swells the mountain of resentment—
Oh, there’s anger in the land!
And a woman broods in silence
Close beside an open door
Flung across the flimsy doorstep
Lies a corpse upon the floor!
You’ll not ask me why I’m silent;
Thus the woman spoke to me
Her two eyes blazed forth anger
And her throat throbbed agony.
Let the wind go crying yonder
In the treetops by the spring,
Let it’s voice be soft and feeling
Like it was a living thing.
Once my heart could cry in sorrow
Now it lies there on the floor
In the ashes by the hearth-stone—
They can’t hurt it anymore!
Did you ever see a lynching,
Ever see a frenzied mob
Mill around a swaying body
When it’s done it’s hellish job?
Yes, the night was full of terror
And the deeds were full of wrong
Where they hung him to a beech wood
After beating with a thong.
Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
And there’s sobbing on the sand,
There is sorrow in the shanties—
And there is anger in the land!
When I make French toast, I am doing much more than making French toast.
Copyright 2003 & 2015 by Roger D. Hicks