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Back to the land

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Road Tested: Life & Recipes

By Carol Florida, self published through Lulu.com. $15.95.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility,” and so did those who went back to the land in the Ozarks in the 1970s and ’80s. Carol Florida, the author of the new memoir/cookbook “Road Tested: Life & Recipes,” captures those heady days when she thought everything was possible. With draw knife in hand, she and her young family transformed an impossible plot of forested land in the Ozarks into a home. She wasn’t alone; you couldn’t find a draw knife in any hardware store from Russellville to Harrison during those days.

As Florida writes, all it took was the journal, “Mother Earth News,” and a classified ad for land that seemed incredibly cheap to Californians like herself. They headed out for Low Gap, that outermost valley in Newton County, just before one more dizzying uplift above the Buffalo River.

She writes: “Now [in 2005], I am astounded by what we achieved in our first year in the Ozarks. … We cut the timber and cleared the land to make way for the homes we would build … I peeled the bark off of every log for our cabin with a drawknife, approximately 100 logs … in the dead of winter during zero degrees weather … with tears trickling down my face, I stood for days, frozen and still, on top of that house, in the snow, holding up one rafter after another …”

What elevates the all-inclusive scrapbook quality of “Road Tested” — it includes this renaissance woman’s art, inspired by poems by the Sufi poet Rumi, which also are included; unedited letters home that reveal a mother desperate for an adult to share her self-deprecating humor; snapshot photos and newspaper clippings; grammar that reflects the vernacular of the musicians she and her husband hung out with as they gamboled across the country from New England to Texas looking for gigs. What elevates this how-to manual of surviving 49 moves in 32 years is the author’s sense of herself as a sorcerer with not only good stories to tell, but a willingness to listen to others whose recipes for life may not be as savory as hers.

For example, her story about the Foundation of Ubiquity society, the “FOU” incident in Jasper about 25 years ago when militant evangelists held travelers on a Trailways bus hostage in an attempt to force local media to spread their message, ending in the double suicide of the missionaries, rings alarmingly familiar today when it’s easy to think that suicidal terrorism only happens in the Middle East, far away from Arkansas. Florida disarmingly writes that all it took to inspire even reasonable people like herself was “an amazing book called ‘The Impersonal Life,’ ” a book so … powerful and seemed so magically synchronistic, as if we were all called to a special knowing,” creating a sense of “inner wisdom, the voice inside that directs us if we just listen.” Trouble was, Carol writes, one reader of the book heard not one voice, but many and “hung himself in a schizophrenic episode.”

Florida concludes: “I hope to always enjoy listening to people’s passions, dreams and visions. But I’ve become a bit hypersensitive, and am no longer attracted to long, fervent discussions of spiritual philosophies. … The less words, the better.”

The recipes in “Road Tested” may not impress Mary Twedt, the host of Little Rock public radio’s snappy weekly radio show, “Arkansas Cooks.” But they should. Not only because there’s still a few of us transplanted Yankees in Arkansas who thought you needed a can of refried beans to make refried beans (part of Florida’s recipe is to cook real beans with garlic and onion). Most of the ingredients call not for pricy truffles, but for items you can find in almost any country grocery store, like marshmallow (to make Mississippi Mud Cake) or from a health-food store, like the sprouts included in Florida’s unique list of travel tips that every traveling mom on a budget needs. (The list includes a sheepskin, duct tape and a reminder to check out a delicatessen with this typical practical proviso: “Use common sense. Getting carried away in a grocery store can be more expensive than a $3.99 lunch special. Do the math.”

Naturally, “Road Tested” is self-published and maybe Florida’s spell-checker didn’t get the job entirely done, but this book is not about correctness –- political, social, not even culinary, not when lettuce and peanut butter is included as a favorite snack. “Road Tested” is about a slice of neglected Arkansas Ozark culture, which Florida describes with words such as “counter culture, misfits, seekers, hippies, and visionaries … Some advocated living a Quaker lifestyle, some fundamental traditionalist, others envisioned an extraterrestrial second coming, some spoke in tongues and some heard voices. Some stood back from it all, neighborly but very distant and distrustful of such things. …”

“Road Tested” can be ordered for $15.95 at www.lulu.com, ID 168095. (To solve the challenge of its tight binding, get a Williams Sanoma cookbook stand for your kitchen counter.) It’s also downloadable for $5.41.

Florida recently was invited to a book signing at the Newton County Library and her a cappella voice, guitar playing and original songs convinced the audience of her Leonardo-like talents.

— Anne Courtemanche-Ellis


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