A Fair Trade Book (?)
Title: Seagulls Hate Parsnips
Author: Virginia Tanzer
Publisher: EPM Publications
Length: 196 pages
Illustrations: drawings and map by the author
Quote: “At the 1964 New York World’s Fair…less than half the people questioned were able to identify Delaware as a state.”
Delaware is, as Tanzer explains early in Seagulls Hate Parsnips, the second smallest of the United States. “Nine miles across at its narrowest, and hardly a hundred miles long,” Delaware has at times been populated by more than ten times as many chickens as humans. In fact, Sussex County, the southernmost and largest county in Delaware, was the home of 200,000,000 chickens and 110,000 humans at the time of writing.
Tanzer wrote from Sussex County, and her purpose in this book is to celebrate the place and time of which she wrote. “Maryland’s Eastern Shore is awfully nice, but not as nice as Sussex.” New to the place, she liked everything she found, even the local accent: “Lots of people in the County are Volunteer Farmen, who shore do a good job fighting fars.”
Of course, she recognized that many of us would be content to read about Sussex County, Delaware, rather than live there. “FLAT IS BEAUTIFUL! If you yearn for mountains and hills and things like that, try Colorado,” and, “No matter how long you live here, or how involved you get in community life, you will never be considered a Sussex Countian. To qualify as that, your grandfather should have been born here. And even if he was, and your father was, but you, by some quirk of fate, were born in Pennsylvania, you will still be considered an outsider.”
Actually, several of Tanzer’s “hints” to people considering a move to Sussex County are applicable to many of North America’s rural communities. It’s not that the residents of places where “Almost every native…is related to a large proportion of other [natives]” don’t like the eighty-somethings who moved in as children and have been active citizens ever since, who are still deemed noteworthy as what a legendary Vermont town called “dearly loved strangers among us.” It’s partly that they’ve not travelled much, themselves, and find other people’s memories of travel interesting.
Tanzer was a “dearly loved stranger” in Sussex County. Although her book follows a claim that the place has “the nicest weather in America” with, five pages later, a report on a particularly dramatic storm at sea, people seem to have encouraged her to write about how Rehoboth Beach got its name, why people pick up and move entire houses, and so on.
She notes that, before large-scale immigration from India began, Delaware recognized its own five racial categories: White, Black, Red, “Oriental…and Moor.” In other parts of the United States “Moor” was sometimes used to express a more favorable perception of North Africans than of sub-Saharan Africans, even as the misguided “courtesy” of misidentifying any African-American the speaker happened to like as a presumed descendant of North Africans. Delaware’s Moors were another close-knit community that could be described as “triracial isolates,” genetically comparable to Tennessee’s Melungeons, North Carolina’s Lumbees, etc. In the early twentieth century the government of Delaware burdened itself with the obligation of providing separate schools so that neither “Moor” nor Nanticoke children would have to sit beside Black or White children. Tanzer documents that the Moors isolated themselves by choice, and discusses four distinct theories of how some distant connection with Morocco may actually have existed.
If I find her reports on the Moors particularly interesting, it’s because they were one detail of Delaware’s natural history that is not equally applicable to Maryland. Tanzer writes at length about Delaware’s flowers, gardens, birds, farms, and summer tourists, without mentioning any real difference between any of these things and their Maryland counterparts.
She does, however, describe an attempt to follow a friend’s recipe in which she produced a cake that even the seagulls wouldn’t eat. That would have been quite an achievement. I have never seen anyone cook a food item seagulls wouldn’t eat in Maryland.
Speaking of food, you wouldn’t expect two states as small and as close together as Delaware and Maryland to have evolved different “foodways,” but I notice something about Seagulls Hate Parsnips. I don’t believe a book about Maryland could be written without some discussion of crabs. Although Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, and vegetarians are well tolerated in Maryland, real Marylanders eat crabs. They don’t even park the crabs on clean sand to get the crabs’ bodies to empty out immediately before they eat the things. They can hardly overlook the reality that blue crabs are scavengers, designed to eat anything and particularly attracted to raw sewage. How people who know this can swallow something that looks like a giant beetle, at best, I have never understood.
Tanzer, writing about Delaware, is able to evade the question of eating crabs. Or is she? She had written another book, Call It Delmarvalous, about the “linguistic peculiarities and culinary specialties” of the DelMarVa peninsula. Presumably that would be where she admits or denies any personal experience with the culinary specialty of Maryland. I’m not sure I want to know.
Anyway, Seagulls Hate Parsnips is an interesting and enjoyable read. It is particularly recommended to anyone who has trouble remembering the names of the original thirteen states because two of them are hard to find on a small map. After reading this book you will remember that that blurry line down the edge of Maryland is a separate, special, historic place.
Seagulls Hate Parsnips is written for adults and contains jokes and references children won’t understand. It is, however, more family-friendly than the average daily newspaper. Sophisticated kids who want to learn about things that interest Real Grownups more than teenagers, e.g. property taxes, might like this book.
According to Spokeo, Tanzer is still living in Delaware at the age of 101, having been born in 1913. It is, er um, 2015 now, so this information could be wrong. If you buy either Seagulls Hate Parsnips or Call It Delmarvalous from either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, by sending $5 per book + $5 per package (i.e. if you order both together you send $15), I’ll try to send $1 per book to Virginia Tanzer or a charity of her choice.
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