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Column: Travels with Foxfire
Ronda Rich.jpg
Ronda Rich

Tink is like a child with the mail. He can’t wait to get it. Since there’s always a chance that there’s something in there that is going to ruin my day, I don’t mind waiting. At. All.

He especially loves UPS deliveries.

One day, he came hurrying into the kitchen where I was piddling. He was grinning merrily, toting a small package in his hands. He held it up and sang joyfully, “Is this what I think it is?”

I took the package from him and looked at the return address. Penguin Putnam, New York. It took a moment to realize what he meant. I have a book coming out with Penguin -- a 20th anniversary edition of my first book -- so Tink thought it was an advance copy.

Puzzled, I shook my head. “No, this isn’t mine. It’s too early.” I tore it open and pulled a paperback out with the title: Travels with Foxfire, Stories, People, Passions and Practices from Southern Appalachia.

Immediately, I was interested. My eyes scrolled down and I saw the author’s name. I nearly dropped the book.

“Phil Hudgins!” I exclaimed. “Baby, this was one of my first editors.”

I remember especially the first newspaper story of mine that Phil edited. Slated for the Sunday feature section -- front page -- it was about a Carnegie Hero winner from 25 years earlier. I tracked him down and the baby he had snatched away from an oncoming train and reunited them. That’s another story. I thought the lead paragraph was brilliant. Phil did not. He was puzzled over it (he was right), but I was 19 and still had much to learn. He was very kind as he pulled it apart and taught me as he carefully edited.

I beamed from ear-to-ear as I studied the cover of his book. I shouldn’t have been surprised because Phil is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever known but I didn’t know he’d written a book. Especially one about the people -- my people -- who I adore. (Phil, precise newspaper man he is, would want me to point out here that Jessica Phillips conducted a tremendous amount of research and interviews for this book.)

The first Foxfire book, which paid homage to the ways, both peculiar and smart, of the Appalachians, was published in 1972. Since then, it has sold more than 1 million copies between 12 primary volumes and 10 companion books. I was a child when they first appeared, but I remember my mountain family talking about it over Sunday dinner. It was incredible to them that someone saw enough interest in the way they dried leather britches or made sorghum syrup to write a book about their ways.

As soon as I was finished piddling -- something that mainly Southerners excel in -- I took the new Foxfire book to the living room and settled down to read. For the first time, I learned that the father of two friends of mine once had a moonshine museum which centered around his own moonshine still.

I love enterprising mountain people.

Then I read about legendary Southern writer Joe Dabney. I have long known that his writing about the Scotch-Irish and whiskey-making were important to the history of the culture but, I did not know that he won the prestigious James Beard award for his cookbook Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scoopernong Wine. The book is filled with wonderful stories.

“How did you choose the stories you told?” I asked Phil.

“That’s a hard question,” he replied by email. “I knew some of the stories I wanted to tell, (but) other story ideas came from all over and, slowly, the book became a reality. It was a fun project.”

It’s also fun to get a terrific book in the mail, unexpectedly, when it has a friend’s name on it. Especially when it has stories in it on hunting ginseng, doctoring with herbs and all-night gospel singings.

Those are things I treasure.