Sunday, April 10, 2016

Merci Train Boxcar Symbolizes French-American Ties

Following World War II, in recognition of American postwar relief efforts, the people of France sent over bnoxcars fliied with gifts to say "thank you."

Far from home and aching for familiar comfort, a young French soldier spied a glimmer of hope on the bloody fields of Verdun. His tired eyes focused on a scrap of aluminum, a shred of military gear that had fallen in northeastern France during World War I.
He allowed his thoughts to wander to fields of clover, as green and promising as any memory of home. In the rare hours when the trenches grew quiet, he scraped the metal until it became a handsome ring with a flourish of clover at its center. Days later, he became one among hundreds of thousands who died in the 303-day Battle of Verdun.
Once a treasured keepsake of the soldier’s family, the ring has spent the past 67 years in the care of the State of North Carolina. It was one of thousands of items generously given by French citizens in 1949 for the French Gratitude Train, also known as the Merci Train.
Residents from every French province donated nearly eight tons of goods, ranging from embroidered handkerchiefs and fine china to toy soldiers and larger-than-life statuary. The effort was patterned after the 1947 Friendship Train, an American goodwill project in which people across the U.S. contributed food to war-torn France and Italy.
Gratitude was at the core of Alice Baumgaertner’s decision to send the ring and a photo of her relative from Paris to Raleigh. Sadly, the photo was lost over the years, along with her loved one’s name. But her gift remains as poignant evidence of the degree to which French citizens credited Americans — especially members of the armed forces, but also those who kept home fires burning — for their liberation from the grip of Nazi Germany.
merci train north carolina
Outside, Merci Train boxcars were decorated with the coats of arms of French provinces and cities.
North Carolina’s boxcar was one of 49 shipped from France to America — one for each of the 48 states, with the contents of the remaining car shared between the Territory of Hawaii and the District of Columbia. On February 8, 1949, the boxcar was welcomed by Gov. Kerr Scott in Raleigh. A parade featured bands from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, as well as a contingent of French dignitaries. Also participating was R.V. Collie, a Confederate Army veteran who’d marked his 105th birthday two days earlier.
News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels made welcoming remarks at a ceremony held in Memorial Auditorium. He recalled that the Marquis de Lafayette, a close ally of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, rode up Fayetteville Street in an open carriage in February 1825. “The present occasion is not of a debt being paid, because no debt was owed,” Daniels declared. “But the gratitude of the French people warms our hearts and we are grateful for their friendship.”
The gifts arrived in wooden crates packed floor to ceiling in a 1918 French boxcar known as a “Forty-and-Eight,” a nod to its ability to transport 40 men or eight horses. World War I veterans would have been very familiar with the tight, windowless quarters.
Many of these boxcars have vanished, victims of decay or vandalism, but not North Carolina’s. In the 1960s, after being on display for many years at various sites in Raleigh, it was taken to Wilson by the North Carolina chapter of the Forty-and-Eight Society for restoration. In 1981, the boxcar was transported for long-term loan to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, where it’s now a feature of the museum’s Roundhouse exhibit.
Today, many are surprised by the Merci Train’s story, but its arrival made big headlines in Raleigh. Curious crowds filled the Hall of History, a precursor to the city’s downtown museums, to watch crates being unpacked. Photos show women wearing hats and gloves, eager to inspect handmade lace and delicate demitasse sets, while children crowd to see dolls dressed in traditional French attire. Of particular patriotic interest was a fabric knot made from combed fibers of U.S. and French flags flown from the Eiffel Tower on May 8, 1945 — the day Germany ultimately surrendered.
Photograph from the News & Observer, courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Decades later, the contents of the boxcar can be viewed as a lens for the suffering experienced by donors, and their hopes for a brighter future. One, identified as B. Levif, sent three framed oil paintings with the humble request that they be given “to a white orphan, to a Negro orphan, and to a Jewish orphan.”
An affectionate gift came from a donor in the French city of Lyon, known for the production and weaving of silk. A community effort produced an elegant wedding gown, complete with veil, headband, and good wishes for a bride.
Despite these heart-tugging appeals, North Carolina officials — as with those in other states — decided not to distribute items to individuals. Instead, objects were provided to local institutions, where they could be enjoyed by the public at large. For example, a woodcut portrait of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was part of a collection sent to Bennett College in Greensboro. Additionally, a mobile museum exhibit built into a trailer visited towns across the state.
Many of the artifacts are stored at the North Carolina Museum of History. The original inventory, written in impeccable script on a legal pad, was later converted into typed file cards. Penciled-in notes indicate that several objects were sent to the Executive Mansion, the official residence of the governor. Loans include small portraits of Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, as well as a pair of vases “hammered from 75mm shells.”
Like the clover ring, the vases were produced by a French soldier in the trenches at Verdun. However, they were given with a full heart by the surviving soldier, Paul Laval of Paris.
It’s remarkable that people across France gladly donated such personal treasures, not knowing what would become of them. “They were gifts of genuine gratitude,” says Katherine Beery, registrar at the Museum of History. “And we take very seriously our responsibility to care for them.”
This post first appeared in Our State magazine.

Five years Ago, Piedmont's Crawford Leavoy Succumbed to Alcoholism in New Orleans. Now, He's Running One of Durham's Best Restaurants.

Two weeks after finishing his first marathon, Crawford Leavoy waits in the starting
chute of Cary's Tobacco Road Marathon. Indy Week photos by Alex Boerner.

Mardi Gras drifts on the calendar. Based on the dates of other nearby holidays, it's not as easy to remember as, say, Christmas, a date children master as quickly as their own birthday.
But Crawford Leavoy remembers that, five years ago, Mardi Gras arrived March 8. What he's blurry about is what happened in the hours, weeks, and even months that came before.
At the time, Leavoy, the current general manager of Durham's Piedmont restaurant, lived in New Orleans. For years, he was at the epicenter of the American Mardi Gras experience, the infamously booze-fueled, bacchanalian launch of Lent, during which the faithful give up something dear. In 2011, a week ahead of the party, Leavoy did what he'd been doing a lot of: he got blackout drunk.
When Leavoy finally opened his eyes around noon the next day, he was not entirely surprised to find himself in someone else's apartment. His head was pounding when he checked his phone to discover dozens of texts from concerned friends, including a few bartenders who had grown weary of watching the charming wine director from one of the city's most respected restaurants turn repeatedly into a foul-mouthed boor. There were messages from his longtime partner, too, a medical student who had spent hours trying to find him at the places he typically got wasted.
For Leavoy, this had become business as usual.
"I would get so annoyed when people told me I was drinking too much," Leavoy recalls over a stiff mug of coffee, one chilly morning at the Durham coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon, stumbling distance from his office at Piedmont. "I thought, 'That's your problem, not mine.' I was so sick of hearing about it. But after that night, I couldn't ignore it anymore."
Terrified of losing so much that was dear to him—especially Clayton Alfonso, who he would marry in October 2014, and his hard-earned job at August, the flagship of acclaimed chef John Besh—Leavoy admitted something he had angrily denied for years: he was an alcoholic.
If he wanted to remain in his field as a wine director, not to mention grow old with his faithful partner, he needed to make some very severe changes.
Leavoy grew up in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. A standout on his high school's debate team, he had friends who drank and smoked pot. His only vice was cigarettes. He didn't taste booze until he arrived in Baton Rouge as an eighteen-year-old Louisiana State freshman.
Underage drinking was simply part of the culture on a campus long regarded as one of the country's top party schools. Alcohol loosened Leavoy up to new experiences, like going to gay bars.
"I bought into the idea that having a drink at the end of the day signified that you were taking the necessary steps to becoming an adult," he says. "I was studying political science, but really, it was my minor. Drinking beer became my major."
Soon it wasn't just the end of the day, and it wasn't just beer. Leavoy moved on to whiskey, which, as the country song goes, is quicker for getting drunk. After graduation, Leavoy and Alfonso, who met and started living together at LSU, moved to New Orleans, where Alfonso enrolled in medical school. Leavoy found jobs at fine dining establishments, eventually landing at August. He managed to hide his habit as he rose through the ranks; in just a year and a half, he moved from busboy to wine director.
Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Rodney Young and Shaun Monroe during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Rodney Young and Shaun Monroe during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham.
"At the time, I was drinking super classy things like flavored vodka with Sprite and a little lime. It was fruity, mysterious," he says, mockingly assigning the lofty descriptors of the expensive wine he served to the customers who trusted his discerning palate. "It got the job done."
Leavoy was good in his role, in part because of his innate ability to memorize facts and recall important details, like what a big-spender enjoyed on his last visit. And, well, there was the free wine.
"I couldn't see it then, but now I realize it was the blurring of the lines," he says. "I would 'taste wine' and 'do research,' while drinking. I got into some interesting social circles."
Not all of them were good. Buddies in the restaurant industry often cover for one another, carrying a drunk friend home or letting them sleep off a bender on the sofa. They're not inclined to get into personal business, like cutting someone off when they've had one too many. Once, a colleague at August did confront Leavoy. It didn't end well.
"He said something like, 'Jesus, it's coming out of your pores,'" Leavoy recalls. "I told him to shut up and mind his own business."
Leavoy worked hard to maintain the act. He served as a volunteer coach for a private school's debate team. He recalls traveling with the team to a big event during an especially stressful time.
"I got the kids to the hotel and thought to myself, 'There has got to be a liquor store open,'" he says. He found a fifth of Knob Creek. "The next day, in probably one of the most embarrassing things ever, the kids had to wake me for the tournament."
Looking back through the lens of intensive counseling and five years of sobriety, Leavoy is astounded he survived without so much as a DWI. He's even more amazed that Alfonso stayed by his side.
"There are a lot of memories of going out after work and getting phone calls at seven in the morning—'I'm leaving for work and you're still out.' I didn't recognize that as a problem," Leavoy says. "I don't know why he put up with it."
For Alfonso, standing by Leavoy was simply the right thing to do.
"Sober Crawford was who I fell in love with. Drunk Crawford was my worst nightmare," he says, recalling Leavoy's final collapse, which came on the heels of a fifth-anniversary celebration dinner at August. "I fought for him to succeed in rehab because that is what a dedicated partner does."
Alfonso appealed to the medical school dean, asking for Leavoy to receive counseling, a benefit reserved for married students. At last, the ordeal opened Leavoy's eyes, forcing him to acknowledge dangerous patterns that he had dismissed simply as the life of a wine director in a party town.
On his way out of New Orleans, and on his way to rehabilitation, Leavoy rode past Mardi Gras parade floats lined up alongside the Superdome.
During a three-day evaluation, his counselor encouraged extended in-patient treatment. Leavoy already demonstrated signs inconsistent with healthy detox. He didn't realize, for instance, that his flu-like symptoms and simmering rage stemmed from a sudden absence of alcohol.
"He told me that if I was agitated or didn't feel right, I might need to go to the hospital. I laughed. I was always on the cusp of flipping out," says Leavoy. "It was the fear of being alone that got me to be aggressive about a solution. Retrospectively, it was one of the most amazing talks I've ever had."
Leavoy had to muster the courage to ask his father for help after learning his insurance would not cover treatment. His father said he would help with whatever he needed. As Leavoy recalls the talk, he pauses, collecting himself.
"I was amazed," he says. "There's so much selfishness in drinking, but that was the most generous thing anyone could have done."
During the first few weeks, Leavoy compared himself favorably to other patients. They struck him as more desperate, further gone. He treated it like summer camp, he says, but he soon started to feel better, like he had some control of his situation for the first time in years.
Piedmont General Manager Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Alex Bednar, AJ Miceli and Stephen Paul during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour Saturday at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Piedmont General Manager Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Alex Bednar, AJ Miceli and Stephen Paul during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour Saturday at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham.
Leavoy was more fortunate than many addicts, who come home to find little more than the wreckage of burned bridges. John Besh had held his job, allowing him to return to a good position in a prominent restaurant. Alfonso welcomed him home.
"This was, hands-down, the most difficult thing I have ever had to do," Alfonso says. "But I'm so glad that Crawford got the help he needed and that I stuck through those dark times. We are married and living life to the fullest."
After rehab, Leavoy began running to lose a few pounds. He hadn't run since he was a kid, when he tried out for his middle school track team but was told he was too slow. It strengthened his body and cleared his head, helping him stay clean. He earned membership in a rarified club—getting and staying sober in New Orleans.
"I don't live in a fairy-tale world. Sobriety is a fragile thing, and I am faced every day with a decision of whether to pick up a drink," he says. "There has to be some level of getting right with the world, understanding that you're not at the center of it. You have to accept the world as it is."
In April 2013, Leavoy's world shifted 850 miles northeast when Alfonso accepted a medical residency at Duke University. They came to Durham to look for a house and felt an instant connection with the food community. Leavoy was glad to see plenty of running clubs, too. They had dinner at Piedmont, which had declined as other hot restaurants opened downtown. They were not dazzled, but Leavoy sensed promise.
A month later, Piedmont hired a new chef, Ben Adams, who has since left to launch Picnic. One of the first people Adams hired was Leavoy, who started July 1. The team was a fine one: less than a year later, the INDY raved about Piedmont's astounding turnaround. Two days later, The News & Observerawarded the renewed restaurant four stars.
Surprisingly, Leavoy does not find working in a restaurant with a bar, or buying large volumes of wine, a challenge to sobriety. Though he hasn't had a sip in five years, he pairs wines with food from memory.
"If you're on balance and find your way on the beam, you can do anything you want—including going to bars. Bars do have non-alcoholic options," he says. He's created dozens at Piedmont. "I didn't know that at the time."
Settling in Durham gave Leavoy a chance to return to coaching debate teams. He interviewed at Durham Academy during that first visit and became a part-time coach. In July, he became the highly competitive team's head coach.
"Yes, I have two full-time jobs now," he affirms with a grin. "And I run thirty miles a week."
A year ago, Leavoy decided to step up his running program and finish a marathon. He almost did last fall in Savannah, but race officials shortened the distance by about two miles due to worries about high heat and humidity.
Maybe the temperature was meant to be: on February 28, the fifth anniversary of his sobriety, Leavoy returned to New Orleans to run that city's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Conditions were good. Leavoy missed his goal of completing the course in three hours and thirty minutes by two minutes, but that was merely a detail. Two weeks later, he ran in Cary's Tobacco Road Marathon.
Crawford Leavoy gets himself prepped for the start of the Tobacco Road Marathon Sunday morning in Cary, NC. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Crawford Leavoy gets himself prepped for the start of the Tobacco Road Marathon Sunday morning in Cary, NC.
"The goal of New Orleans was never to have some epiphany about the anniversary or sobriety," he says. "But the fact that the date and location had such significance really was another one of those things that cannot be just a coincidence. I went with the desire to stay in gratitude for what I've been given." 
When Leavoy ran past Jackson Square, he began crying. He was moving past the bars from which he used to stumble at dawn, drink in hand. When he saw his husband at the halfway point, he knew he'd make it.
"I went from falling down in the French Quarter to running through it," he says. "I felt gratitude in ways I cannot describe."

Recovery script

Crawford Leavoy blames no one but himself for becoming a belligerent drunk. But there likely were genetic predispositions pointing him toward alcohol abuse—and an abundance of environmental contributions, too.
"That's New Orleans in a glass," Leavoy says. "A loving bartender will take your messages when you've passed out drunk."
In recent weeks, as Leavoy trained for the Crescent City's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, he has been candid about his sobriety. Still, colleagues in the local culinary community have expressed surprise that an associate widely admired for his ability to recall small details about customers and friends went through such a difficult time.
Hai Tran, the sommelier at Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa, was reluctant to consider if his own coworkers struggled with sobriety issues and the proximity to alcohol.
"It really is up to the respective individual if they are able to continue in this profession once they have dealt with such personal demons," he says. "I commend Crawford for conquering his own demons instead of letting it own him."
According to Paul Nagy, an assistant professor at Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, a person's ability to recover from addiction is as "individualized" as someone's ability to recover from heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
While it typically benefits recovering alcoholics to distance themselves from triggers, such as easy access to booze in a high-stress workplace, Nagy suggests that becomes less urgent with time.
"One to five years into recovery, many people have developed skills for managing life without substances and ideally experience that life in recovery has become 'worth it' enough to diminish the risk associated with historic vulnerabilities," says Nagy.
Leavoy's experience appears to be a textbook example.
"I was ready to stop lying to everyone, including myself," he says. "People say, 'Man, you got sober in New Orleans?' The bigger thing is I stayed sober in New Orleans, and I'm making a conscious decision every day to stay sober here."
This post first appeared in Indy Week.

The right tools make oyster shucking simple

We’ve been gearing up at Southern Season to celebrate National Oysters on the Half Shell Day on March 31. There’s just one problem: Not all of us know how to shuck an oyster.
We asked Chef Ricky Moore of Durham, North Carolina’s acclaimed Saltbox Seafood Joint to show us – and you – how to shuck oysters like a boss.
“It’s not that hard,” says Moore, who grew up enjoying fresh seafood in coastal New Bern, North Carolina. “The most important thing is to buy the freshest local oysters you can find. Once you find an oyster knife that feels good in your hands, and you learn how to pry open its hinge, you’ll be good to go.”
Moore appreciated the heft and elegance of shucking tools produced by Carolina Shuckers. Each tool is hand-forged by North Carolina artisans Kirk Davis and Michael Waller.
“A good oyster knife is engineered to open a shell like a can opener,” says Moore, who will teach a Chef Meets Farmer class on cooking fresh catch with Locals Seafood on May 16 at the Cooking School in Chapel Hill. “You could shuck oysters all day long with one of these.”
While a heavy glove can protect your hands from injury, Moore prefers to grasp a closed oyster between folds of dishtowel. Be sure to have plenty on hand as they’ll get wet and dirty.
Set the oyster down on the dishtowel with the rounded side up. The indented, hinged side should be facing you. Secure the oyster in place by folding the towel over the shell and pressing down. Poke the point of your oyster knife into hinge, pressing just enough to slide in about ½-inch of the tip. Grasp the knife firmly and twist the handle a quarter-turn until you hear a pop.
“The goal is to keep all that oyster liquor inside the shell,” Moore says as he pulls back the dishtowel and gently pries open the oyster, revealing a plump mollusk surrounded by ocean-fresh brine. Moore uses the oyster knife to scoop under the oyster, releasing it from the shell. If necessary, use the tip of the knife to remove any dirt or shell fragments.
“Next, you want to eat it,” he says with a grin, tipping the shell to his lips as the oyster slid into his mouth. “That’s all there is to it. Just keep repeating until they’re all gone.”
While the oysters were outstanding as is, Moore also suggests trying them with a great hot sauce – like bourbon barrel-aged Red Clay from Charleston – or making a simple mignonette. Once you’ve made the recipe below, feel free to tweak it with different acids (maybe a champagne or sherry vinegar) or substitute the parsley for cilantro or other fresh green.
“For me, the mignonette needs to be a pourable mass; not quite a paste, but you want to drizzle it on and let the oyster liquor loosen it up,” he says. “It brings a fresh flavor that pairs beautifully with the oyster.”
Ricky Moore’s Mignonette
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or a favorite vinegar)
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1½ tablespoons minced Italian parsley
1 tablespoon minced chives
Freshly grated black pepper
Blend all ingredients in a small bowl until well combined, then drizzle over raw oysters.
If the oyster liquor is not salty enough for your taste, add a pinch of sea salt to the mignonette.
Note: As with any raw food, there is some risk associated with consuming raw oysters. Purchase oysters from a reliable seller and avoid consuming them raw if you have a chronic illness.
This post first appeared on Southern Season.

Think Outside of the Box for Passover

There are few things that Melissa Krumbein enjoys more than cooking for her large family at the holidays. Add in the challenge of not using leavened products during Passover and the Richmond, Virginia-based caterer is truly in her happy place.
“There’s no reason to have a boring meal just because it’s Passover,” says Krumbein, who teaches at the Cooking School.
Observant Jews forgo leavened bread during this festival of freedom, which begins at sunset April 22 and continues through the 30th. The act is meant to remind them of the time when Jewish slaves fled Egypt in such haste that they had no time to bake traditional breads. Instead, they made flat matzo crackers, which remain a staple of Passover celebrations around the world.
The first two nights of Passover are ushered in with solemn seders, during which several aspects of bondage are recalled. Among them is the task of eating charoset, a sweetened apple and nut mixture that symbolizes construction mortar. While delicious on matzo, it’s a tasty year-round addition to yogurt or hot cereal.
Krumbein, who owns the Richmond dessert company Let’s Nosh, relies on a recipe first made by her husband’s grandmother, Lillian Gass Nerden. Born in 1910 to a Russian Jewish family that had immigrated to Orono, Maine, she was responsible for caring for her many siblings. Their tight bond lives on today in the family’s Cousin Club, which celebrates reunions across the country and in Canada.
“I can assure you that Lil never made a small quantity of charoset, as the holiday table was always full of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends,” Krumbein says.  “Lil was a wonderful cook. Be sure to make extra, enough to last the week!”
Lil Nerden’s Charoset 
6 red delicious apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
3 cups nuts, such as walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
3 teaspoons sugar
1½ teaspoons Vietnamese cinnamon
6-7 tablespoons sweet red wine, such as Manischevitz (or Concord grape juice)
Hand-chop apples and nuts to a consistency like rough-cut mortar. Don’t use a food processor for this as the result will be too smooth.
Transfer apple-nut mixture and remaining ingredients, starting with 6 tablespoons wine, to a medium bowl. Stir to combine, adding more wine if needed. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing film to surface of charoset, and chill for at least an hour to let flavors blend. Bring to room temperature before serving.
This post first appeared on Southern Season.