Author: Jim Auchmutey

John Lewis and the Wren’s Nest

There’s so much history at the Wren’s Nest that it’s easy to forget some of it. Former Executive Director Sue Gilman reminded us late last week, for instance, that the late John Lewis was once a member of our advisory board. Really?

Lewis, the veteran congressman and hero of the voting rights struggle of the 1960s, will be memorialized this week at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and then laid to rest in Atlanta’s Southview Cemetery. The congressman was a great friend of the arts in his adopted hometown, and we’re happy to say that the Wren’s Nest was indeed one of the organizations that benefitted from his counsel.

Lewis joined the advisory board during a transitional period for the Wren’s Nest. While the house museum had been desegregated by a federal court order in 1968, it remained unwelcoming to African Americans through the 1970s. The institution didn’t really change until a new board intent on opening it up took over in 1983.

The new management recruited board members and advisory members committed to making the Wren’s Nest get with the times, including three notable Black leaders: Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax; the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the civil rights legend and pastor of the next-door West Hunter Street Baptist Church; and Lewis, then an Atlanta city councilman.

“We knew we needed to open ourselves up to the community,” remembers Madeline Reamy, executive director from 1984 to 1987.

In a 1985 article, United Press International asked Lewis why he was involved in rehabbing the home and
reputation of Joel Chandler Harris, the creator of Uncle Remus. “Whether or not we agree with everything Harris did, said and wrote, he was a historical figure,” he explained. “His house is history. Some people want to destroy the past, or revise it. But I think we should preserve it. We can learn from it.”

Lewis was elected to Congress the following year, and his stature only grew over the coming decades.

Of all the reasons we have to honor the memory of John Lewis, his thoughtful regard for the Wren’s Nest and its complicated legacy is a minor one. But remember it we will. Thank you, Congressman Lewis. We are honored that you are part of our history.

Brer Rabbit Hits the Sauce

It’s high grilling season, and with more of us stuck at home cooking for ourselves and our families, we thought it was a good time to revisit “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living.” That’s the retro recipe booklet put out around 1950 by Brer Rabbit Molasses, a brand that started in New Orleans in 1907, the year before Joel Chandler Harris died. It’s still marketed in parts of the country by the conglomerate B&G Foods.

We posted a recipe for Molasses Ginger Rabbit Cookies in April and were pleased when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution picked it up for their “Community Cooks” feature in the Sunday newspaper. Unfortunately, the booklet does not include a barbecue sauce recipe as such. So we combined the closest thing — a Molasses Sauce for ham on Page 48 — with a Kansas City barbecue sauce recipe I included in my book “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America.” That recipe derived from one Kansas City barbecue legend Paul Kirk gave me years ago when I was writing about food for the AJC.

Pam and I used this sauce last weekend on smoked chicken quarters. But you can put it on anything, from ribs to smoked tofu. It’s sweet, but as you’ll see in the recipe notes, you can customize it by reducing the sweetness and jacking up the heat and tartness. 

Whatever you do, don’t use this sauce on grilled rabbit. As you may recall, Brer Fox wanted to “bobby cue” Brer Rabbit (as seen here in Floyd Norman’s illustration). While we like that story, we don’t want to encourage that sort of behavior when it comes to our No. 1 bunny and star attraction.

We’re looking at you, Brer Chicken.

 

 

Brer Rabbit Molasses BBQ Sauce

2 cups ketchup

¾ cup cider vinegar

⅓ cup molasses

¼ cup brown sugar, tightly packed

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1½ teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

¾ teaspoon ground red pepper

Combine wet ingredients and whisk in dry ingredients, mixing well. Pour into a saucepan and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring often. NOTE: This is a sweet, Kansas City-style sauce with an undertone of spiciness. To make it less sweet, decrease the ketchup and sweeteners and add more vinegar, chili powder and red pepper. But do so in small increments, tasting as you go.

Makes: About 2 cups.

Our storytellers speak

For 35 years now, the Wren’s Nest has presented professional storytellers at the house and at schools and community centers across Georgia. That’s a lot of storytelling! This summer, we’re adding a plot twist: We’ve asked our regular storytellers to tell us about their stories and to talk about their craft.

Starting this week and continuing every other week into August, we’ll post interview videos with our storytellers on our YouTube channel and website. Chetter Galloway is first up on Wednesday, followed by Gwendolyn J. Napier on July 22, Esther Culver on August 5, and Akbar Imhotep on August 19. They’ll talk about how they first discovered storytelling, how they came to the Wren’s Nest, how they frame Uncle Remus stories for modern audiences, what other kinds of folklore they mix in to their performances, and interesting experiences they’ve had as they present the adventures of Brer Rabbit and other critters.

You’ll hear some surprises. Akbar Imhotep, who has been telling stories at the Nest since the fall of 1985, confided that he didn’t know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he began. After several months of telling African folklore tales, it was gently suggested to him that perhaps he should learn a few Uncle Remus stories. He’s been performing them ever since. You’ll also hear Chetter Galloway talk about the one story by Joel Chandler Harris that he avoids telling because it’s too easy to misinterpret. Can you guess which one?

The Wren’s Nest has contracted with numerous storytellers over the past four decades. It has been one of the best things we do to make our legacy come to life and connect this institution with the tales that made the Joel Chandler Harris home a museum in the first place. We are so pleased that you can finally hear some of these talented artists talk about their lives and work. It was fun doing these interviews.
We hope you’ll enjoy listening to them.

 

The Fourth of July celebration that wasn’t

The coronavirus pandemic has undone many plans. One of the biggest regrets we have at the Wren’s Nest is the Fourth of July concert that never happened.

Last Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors were supposed to play a free community concert from the stage in our backyard. Jazz Matters, the music nonprofit that produces a summer series of outdoor concerts at the Nest, was the presenting organization, and we were the hosts. We were expecting a crowd of up to 1,000 people, which would have been the largest gathering in quite some time at the place Joel Chandler Harris used to call Snap Bean Farm.

Much planning had gone into the event. “We had volunteers lined up, sponsorships in place, publicity ready to start,” says Janice Williams, who runs Jazz Matters with her musician husband, Edwin Williams. “We were so excited. People really wanted to be a part of it because it was the U.S. Army and it was the weekend before the Fourth.”

Then came the pandemic. In the early spring, the concert was called off. “We had to cancel everything,” Williams says. “We were so sad.”

The Jazz Ambassadors are a 19-piece orchestra that bills itself as “America’s Big Band.” You might not expect the military to swing, but Williams says her husband has great respect for the musicians in the Army and Navy bands. “They’re world class.”

Concerts — even outdoor ones — are risky business in a time of pandemic. With no live audiences to play for, Jazz Matters had stepped up its online programming just as we have here at the Nest. You can check out their podcasts and virtual performances at www.yesjazzmatters.org.

Unfortunately, Jazz Matters will not be producing concerts at the Wren’s Nest again until next year, circumstances permitting. If you’ve never attended one, please do. As you can see in the photo, it’s quite a scene when people set up tables, light candles and pour wine in our backyard, making it look like a little Chastain Park Amphitheater. Rest assured that the Williamses have let the Jazz Ambassadors know that we would love to host them next summer. 

In the meantime, we wish you a happy Fourth of July. Stay safe, be well, and God bless America.

All you need is Love Atlanta

Every year in late June, the Passion City Church, a large congregation based in a former Home Depot Expo store, coordinates a massive citywide volunteer project called LOVE ATLANTA. They partner with other nonprofits and send armies of volunteers to help with more than 200 projects throughout Atlanta — including, we’re happy to say, cleanup days at the Wren’s Nest.

This was the third straight summer LOVE ATLANTA has pitched in at the Nest. More than 40 volunteers came over three days last week, many of them wearing masks because of the pandemic. As luck would have it, the first crew arrived on the morning the City of Atlanta decided to start replacing the sidewalk in front of the house, clogging our driveway with dumpsters and heavy construction equipment. Our helpers good-naturedly parked across the street and got to work.

They cleaned out the basement and scrubbed down the front porch. They pruned branches and trimmed bushes and pulled weeds. They picked up sticks and stacked stones, glancing at the rain-threatening skies. They filled a huge dumpster with debris and hauled scores of yard bags to the landfill. The grounds had been looking a little woolly, to tell the truth, and these volunteers gave them a welcome sprucing up.

Many thanks to LOVE ATLANTA coordinators Keronda Robinson, Stephanie Valenti, Abby Patrick and Billy Dukes, and to everyone else who came out to have a good summer sweat at the Wren’s Nest. Brer Rabbit loves LOVE ATLANTA and hopes to see you again next summer.

 

 

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