Paw-Paws, the Klan, and Good Taste

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May 9, 2022 by libroshombre

LIBRARY COLUMN

Contact Greg Hill, 479-4344                                                                          May 5, 2022

            The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende and I must smell alike.  She said, “The strong aroma of meat, fried onion, cumin, and baked dough soaked into my skin so deeply that I have never lost it. I will die smelling like an empanada.”  SpiceAdvice.com says “cumin has a distinctive, slightly bitter yet warm flavor,” and when it comes to cumin (and fried onions) I’m a near cousin of Ms. Allende, having a lifetime of Tex-Mex dining behind me.  I cook a lot and am heavy-handed with my cumin.  That’s why the cover of a recent birthday card from a friend featured a photo of a scowling little girl reading a cookbook while holding a measuring spoon and thinking “Cumin? What the @#$% is cumin?”  I’m equally culpable when it comes to cilantro whose strong flavor many don’t appreciate until adulthood, and some never.

            Taste is certainly relative.  For example, comedian Fred Allen claimed that “English coffee tastes like water that has been squeezed out of a wet sleeve.”  “Relative tastes” brings to mind my confusion upon learning a childhood song in first grade that went “Picking up paw-paws, put ‘em in your pocket, way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.”  My father’s dad was known as Pop Hill, and I called him “Pawpaw”; entering a whole patch of Pawpaws and putting even one in my pocket was disconcerting.  Eventually figuring out that impossibility, I wondered what the @#$% was a paw-paw.  In “Pawpaws: America’s Best Secret Fruit,” SeriousEats.com says “pawpaw trees, the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, produce greenish-blackish fruit, usually three to six inches long. The flesh is pale to bright yellow and contains a network of glossy, dark brown seeds. A pawpaw’s flavor is sunny, electric, and downright tropical: a riot of mango-banana-citrus …. They also have a subtle kick of a yeasty, floral aftertaste a bit like unfiltered wheat beer.”  And “‘The flavor of pawpaws is forceful and distinct,’ writes culinary historian Mark F. Sohn diplomatically.” 

            They’re “secret” because delicate pawpaws don’t ship or store well.  My Paw-paw had secrets too, like being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.  He was a Chattanooga, Tennessee policeman, where everyone had joined.  A prime incentive, at least for Pop, was that it cost five cents to join, and by recruiting a new member you got to keep two cents, the price of a cheap speakeasy beer.  Per Wikipedia, the “second Klan” was a powerful political force back then, following the glorification of the outrages committed by “first Klan” in “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Girffith’s profoundly racist 1915 blockbuster movie.  “The first Klan was established in the wake of the American Civil War … it was suppressed through federal law enforcement around 1871. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the South, especially by using voter intimidation and targeted violence against African-American leaders.”

            The second Klan emerged in 1915 posing as a fraternal organization, utilizing marketing techniques and raising money by “full-time paid recruiters” selling memberships and the standard white conehead costumes.  “The first and third Klans were primarily Southeastern groups aimed against blacks. The second Klan, in contrast, broadened the scope of the organization to appeal to people in the Midwestern and Western states who considered Catholics, Jews, and foreign-born minorities to be anti-American,” according to Wikipedia.  It was especially popular in the Midwest, particularly Indiana, and in Texas, where police assisted vigilantes’ public whippings of blacks and Jews, including branding foreheads with “KKK.”  However, “The Klan attracted people but most of them did not remain in the organization for long. Membership in the Klan turned over rapidly as people found out that it was not the group which they had wanted. Millions joined and at its peak in the 1920s the organization claimed numbers that amounted to 15% of the nation’s eligible population. The lessening of social tensions contributed to the Klan’s decline.” 

            That decline was exacerbated by the arrest, trial and conviction of Indiana’s “Grand Dragon,” David Curtis “Steve” Stephenson.  He was born in Houston, Texas, had some public education, and began as a printer’s apprentice.  He completed officers’ training in WWI but never served overseas, but he learned useful organizational skills.  Known as “a young man on the make,” in 1920 Stephenson moved to Indiana to work in retail coal and was recruited by a leading Klan organizer.  He quickly joined the Klan’s “inner circle,” created the state’s first Klan newspaper, built a network of recruiters and organizers, and offered free membership to Protestant ministers.  In 1922 Stephenson backed the national Klan organizer, Hiram Evans, for national Imperial Wizard and was rewarded by Evans appointing him Indiana’s Grand Dragon.  Evans had a monopoly on the hood and robe sales, and a portion went to Stephenson who became immensely wealthy, some of which he used to bribe state government officials.

            By this time about a third of all adult males in Indiana were Klan members, and Stephenson felt invincible.  Then in 1925, he raped Madge Oberholtzer, the manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, kidnapping her at gunpoint with the help of his henchmen, holding her in his personal railroad car, and forced whiskey on her until she threw up and passed out, and then sexually assaulting her.  Stephenson “bit her all over her body; an examination later revealed deep bite wounds on her face, neck, breasts, back, legs, ankles, and tongue.”  A day later, while still captive, she acquired and took poison, but she died a few days later from staph infections caused by the bites. 

            Stephenson, who claimed, “I am the law in Indiana,” tried to claim she was in a car crash,  but was convicted.  “His brutal attack on Oberholtzer so outraged most members of the Indiana Klan that entire lodges quit en masse, and membership dropped by the tens of thousands. The scandal destroyed the Klan in Indiana,” The aftermath was felt throughout nation and national Klan membership plummeted until the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement.  Stephenson was paroled in 1950, was re-jailed for violating parole, and was paroled again in 1956 on condition he leave Indiana and never return.  He promptly moved to Seymour, Indiana and married, but soon abandoned her and married bigamously in Tennessee (which his first wife discovered, and that he’d died in 1962, when she filed to divorce in in 1971).  Then he moved and married bigamously again.  Finally, in 1961 at age 70 Stephenson was arrested for the attempted rape of a 16-year-old girl but got away with a $300 fine when she refused to testify.  Stephenson’s one good deed came in 1926 when he was denied parole and started naming names of politicians who’d accepted Klan bribes, including the governor and head of the Republican party, and his example and the bad press crippled the national Klan organization.

            We’re free to read pros and cons about the Klan at our public libraries, but many people, even Americans, possess an innate taste for authoritarianism.  FreedomHouse.org’s recent article, “Authoritarian Rule Challenging Democracy as Dominant Global Model,” reports that “autocracy is making gains against democracy … Authoritarians in every region are working together to consolidate power and accelerate their attacks on democracy and human rights … In countries with long-standing established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power.”  The list leaders are Hungary, Poland, India, and the United States.  Perhaps our home-grown authoritarians – you know who they are – ought to listen to Penn State Coach Joe Paterno: Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”

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