Brer Rabbit Sure is Tricky… to Carve

As we creep ever deeper into the autumn – and Halloween – season, I decided this past week to get into the spirit with a bit of pumpkin carving! On a beautiful, fall day, I ventured to a pumpkin patch and picked out a perfectly round, yet manageably-sized pumpkin. After enjoying some apple-cider donuts, I was ready to return home to start this year’s carving project.

I’m certainly no pumpkin carving artist, but I decided to challenge myself a little this year. I thought it would be fun to create a Brer Rabbit pumpkin carving.

It turns out, this was somewhat better in theory than in reality.

 

First, I picked this image, painted for The Wren’s Nest’s 100th anniversary, as my inspiration:

Next, I transformed the image into a pumpkin stencil using Photoshop – following these directions – which resulted in this:

Then, I scooped out my pumpkin, making sure to the save the seeds (which I’m snacking on as I write this post), and started on my carving journey:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the end result was not quite as clear as I had hoped:

I suppose this is just one more way that Brer Rabbit has made it tricky to capture him. Regardless, I had fun making my festive creation. And I’m certainly enjoying the roasted seeds of my labor.

If you’d be interested in using the stencil for your own carving, please email me at meredith@wrensnest.org for a copy. Perhaps the fault was with my carving skills, not the stencil.

The man in the dashiki

Akbar Imhotep, who celebrates his 35th anniversary as a storyteller at the Wren’s Nest this fall, did not know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he started performing at the house in late September 1985.

He began by telling African folk tales that were similar to the Uncle Remus stories Joel Chandler Harris popularized. One day the executive director at the time, Madeline Reamy, pulled him aside and asked, “Akbar, when are you going to tell some Uncle Remus stories?”

“As soon as I learn some,” he answered.

He learned some, and has been telling them ever since at the Wren’s Nest and in schools and community centers across Georgia.

Akbar is an important figure in the history of the Wren’s Nest. He has been associated with the house longer than just about anyone, including Joel Chandler Harris himself. More importantly, he represents a change in the way the Wren’s Nest presented its history and the legacy of the Brer Rabbit stories.

The Wren’s Nest had storytellers before Akbar, but they were usually people impersonating Harris or Uncle Remus, many of them holding forth at a plantation cabin in the back yard. Akbar was different. He was the first storyteller who personified the African origins of the majority of the Uncle Remus stories. He told African tales that were antecedents of the Harris stories and underscored their cultural roots by wearing a dashiki. 

“What was I going to wear: a suit and tie?” he says.

Akbar comes from Perry, Ga., where he fell under the spell of biblical stories and an uncle’s storytelling at an early age. After a stint at the University of Georgia, he settled in Atlanta during the 1970s and went to work as a stagehand and then as a puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts. You can hear him talk his background in an interview we did this summer.

When he first visited the Wren’s Nest with a school field trip group, he knew next to nothing about the house or the stories that had made it worthy of being a National Historic Landmark. Over the years, he has come to embody them.

We’re very glad he discovered us and helped interpret this legacy for new generations.

Congratulations, Akbar! May the story go on and on.

Social Media in the 20th Century

Back in June, The Wren’s Nest launched the first phase of an interactive version of the Harris family tree. The second phase came at the end of July/early August and with it, my discovery of just how awesome Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, was. The third phase of the Harris family tree interactive is now available and includes labels for 22 of the family’s members.

This was nearly double the number of labels from the previous two phases. In addition to the generous help of Harris’s descendants (Linda Harris and Annette Shakespeare), I quickly found myself up to my eyeballs in obituaries and wedding announcements – courtesy of memberships to Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com – trying to find out everything I could about each person. I also discovered something about 20th-century newspapers that I didn’t know was a trend:

“Social Items” and “Personals.”

Now, when I hear the term “personals,” I think about personal ads. The advertisements that were like a cross between Craiglist postings and online dating profiles. Basically, a place in the newspaper in which you either try to sell something or try to find a partner.

It also makes me think about the song, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

But that’s not what these Personals and Social Items contained. Instead, I found announcements like these:

“Mr. and Mrs. Frank Rowsey, who have been residing at the Biltmore hotel, have returned to their home, The Brier [sic.] Patch, on Old Plantation road, for residence.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Joel Chandler Harris III will move to Montgomery, Ala., October 1, where they will make their future home.”

“Miss Burdeene Blechele, of Canton, O., and Misses Gretchen and Brownie Miller, of Lexington, KY, are visiting Misses Lillian and Mildred Harris.”

And there were plenty more examples over the course of many decades (you may notice these examples are from 1943, 1928, and 1900), mostly alerting readers to people’s movements or travels.

It seemed oddly familiar to me and for a little while I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me:

These are basically like modern day social media status updates. But in print media.

Evidently, people used to share when they were going on a trip, moving to a new city, or newly engaged in the newspaper the way we share the same news now on our Facebook or Twitter feeds.

I suspect that in sharing this “revelation,” my millennial age is showing. In retrospect, it almost feels silly that I didn’t know this existed or even considered how this type of information was shared before online social media or widespread phone use. But I guess I assumed it was done in a more intimate way; through personal letters or phone calls to specific people. Not as public announcements that anyone reading the newspaper could read.

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Are we haunted?

Denise Roffe has seen a full-bodied apparition — what most people would call a ghost — three times. 

The first time was when her mother died and she saw her form passing through a garden and entering a house in Stone Mountain, Ga. The second time was when she saw a woman dressed in old-fashioned finery in the ladies’ lounge at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. 

“We were doing a paranormal investigation,” Denise recalls, “and I saw her for just a second with my flashlight. I screamed.”

The third time? That would be at the Wren’s Nest last year. More on that later.

Denise is co-founder of the Southeastern Institute of Paranormal Research, a group of ghost-hunters who use small electronic equipment to measure sounds, energy fields, and other manifestations of spirits who have gone before. She and her colleagues led several nights of ghost-hunting sessions at the Wren’s Nest last year, drawing more than 200 people. They can’t hold the sessions in person this year because of the pandemic, but we’re offering them virtually on Zoom for six evenings in September and October starting this Saturday. (For tickets and dates, CLICK HERE.)

Denise inherited her interest in the paranormal from her father, who saw his grandmother’s ghost when he was a child and spoke often of such mysteries with his daughter. She has been ghost-hunting for more than 20 years, the last 12 with the SIPR. She has written a book about ghosts — “Ghosts and Legends of Charleston” — and has led dozens of investigations  in Savannah, Charleston, and Atlanta-area landmarks such as the Fox and the Southside Theatre Guild in Fairburn, where a theater troupe performs in a vintage movie house.

“Theaters are by far the most active places for the paranormal,” Denise says. “The only thing I can figure is it’s all the energy you get when people produce a play and get together to see it.”

The other misconceptions have to do with what people see on the ghost-hunting shows that have become a TV staple. “They see people yelling at ghosts, demanding that they come out, and then something happens and everyone jumps,” she says. “The truth is that we mainly debunk. We capture sounds and electronic phenomena and analyze them. Most of them turn out to be ordinary things. A few of them turn out to be disembodied voices or some other evidence of the paranormal.”

As for that full-bodied apparition at the Wren’s Nest: During an investigation last year, Denise walked past the doorway to Joel Chandler Harris’s bedroom — the room where the author died in 1908 — and glimpsed a man standing in front of the fireplace contemplating the mantel. She saw him well enough to make out his face.

Our director then, Melissa Swindell, took Denise to the family room, where she examined photos of Harris’s children displayed on the wall. She recognized one of the faces. She believes the apparition she saw was of Julian Harris, a distinguished writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped his father found the Uncle Remus Home Magazine in the last few years of his life. Maybe they were having an editorial conference.

You’ve heard of living history demonstrations at house museums? We had no idea.

Brer Rabbit spills the beans

America must have been going through a dietary iron crisis during the late 1940s. In “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living,” the Brer Rabbit Molasses cookbook we found in our archives earlier this year, the text repeatedly talks about ways to sneak iron into children’s diets with something sweet. 

They recommend putting molasses on cereal at breakfast, in cookies at lunch, on toast at snack time, and over ice cream for dessert. To wash it all down, there’s the Brer Rabbit Milk Shake, demonstrated in this quaint scene in which two rabbits dressed like waiters at the Ritz pour milk and molasses into Miss Wholesome’s glass.

Talk about the sweet life.

Brer Rabbit is a brand of molasses that started in New Orleans in 1907, while Joel Chandler Harris was alive and writing Brer Rabbit stories. More than a century later, the label is still around and is now marketed by B&G Foods, a conglomerate based in New Jersey. The recipe booklet came out around 1950. We suspect that its preoccupation with dietary iron is a hangover from World War II, when meat was rationed and families really did have to worry about making up for missing nutrients.

We’ve run two recipes from the booklet this year: Brer Rabbit Molasses Ginger Cookies (in April) and Brer Rabbit Barbecue Sauce (in July). Before we leave this culinary artifact behind, we thought we’d offer another recipe from its pages, for Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans — because even though Labor Day has passed, the picnic season lingers for weeks in the South.

Many thanks to our recipe tester, Pam Auchmutey. She passes along a tasting note: Despite the molasses, these beans are less sweet than your typical pot-luck baked beans, which often include maple syrup. Molasses is sweet but complex. It makes the beans rather interesting.

Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients:

2 cups dry navy beans (1 16-ounce package)

4 slices of bacon (uncooked)

½ cup molasses (more for extra sweetness)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 ½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon pepper (or more to taste)

1 small onion, chopped (optional)

1 ½ cups water from simmered beans

Directions:

   Wash bean and soak overnight in cold water to cover.

   Bring to boil in same water (to preserve minerals and vitamins), adding extra water if needed. Simmer for 50 minutes or until beans are tender.

   Drain beans, reserving cooking water.

   Place beans in a large crockpot. Season with mustard, salt and pepper.

   Add molasses and stir. Tuck bacon among beans.

   Cook on high until mixture bubbles (about 1 hour). Turn to low and cook 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. If needed, add water from simmered beans to moisten.

   When fully cooked, beans will take on a brown hue. Turn crockpot to warm to serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

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