Lessons from Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree
How you doin’? I want to take a moment to celebrate Black History Month and a dear friend who was the producer and director of my second major feature film. You see I am not only skilled in working with food, but prior to designing and operating restaurants I was a motion picture and television production designer and that’s where I met the amazing Gordon Parks.
The fall of 1969 marked the first time a major motion picture studio in Hollywood released a film directed by a black filmmaker. Internationally known photographer, filmmaker, musician, author and Kansas native son Gordon Parks was that groundbreaking pioneer.
“The Learning Tree“ was produced by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts Studios. Along with Bill Conrad (executive producer), Bernie Guffey (cinematographer), Jimmy Liden (associate producer) and me (production designer), Gordon directed wrote and composed the soundtrack for the film.
“The Learning Tree” is based on Parks’ semi-autobiography 1963 novel of the same title, about growing up in a Midwestern small town in the mid-late 1920s when life was made difficult by segregation and poverty. The film is centered on the lead character, Newt Winger. Parks portrays Newt as a young teenager who struggles with racism, discrimination and poverty, while also having to deal with the emotions of first love, conflict, and fear of death in the fictional town of Cherokee Flats, Kansas.
Gordon and I chose his hometown of Fort Scott and various locations to film The Learning Tree in 1968. Looking back, some of the same bigotry and poverty still existed as it did when Gordon was growing up. He told me it was important for the sets to be as realistic as possible and not to fall into the typical stereotypes depicted in films of the day.
When he looked at the interiors of the family home he bristled--my mother would never have paint peeling off the walls and cracked windows. She kept our home in perfect condition. Overnight I had our painters and scrapers come back through the set and clean it up. He was right. When I was invited for a fried chicken dinner at his mom’s house it was spotless and well organized—just as it was when he was growing up. Dinner was fantastic as well—more to follow on pan-fried chicken below.
I took my learning on being true to the period when it came to the segregated jail cell in the city lock-up. I designed a small cube cell with writing on the wall which he described to me in painful detail. The set builders and painters could only do so much to make this set come alive. One night I came into the studio with buckets of oatmeal and sour milk and threw it against the walls. With in a day or so it started to smell… to finish the atmosphere, I came in every night for a week and pee’d on the wall. When Gordon got back from the Fort Scott location, he was checking out the sets. The refurbished family home was spot on. The judge’s house was just as he remembered it, Chappy Logan’s Tavern and house of ill-repute was spot on. However when he walked into the jail cell—Gordon threw-up. Both the site and smell instantly took him back to where he had spent time as a young man growing up in a different time.
This is a coming-of-age story about a young man who grows up dealing with bigotry, poverty, violence, conflict and love, along with the unwavering support and love of his hardworking family. The film realistically portrays the severity of social and racial injustices and inequality. There are several moving and emotional scenes throughout the film; one of them is when Newt talks with his mother, Sarah, about living in Cherokee Flats (Fort Scott) and dealing with his conflicted emotions about his home and who he is growing to be.
Gordon Parks was born 112 years ago. The camera was Gordon’s choice of weapon to fight against racism, discrimination and poverty. This film provides an important message we all can learn from, showing us how to learn to live and love and not live to hate. It illustrates the importance of equity and social justice for all, not just for the select or privileged. We are inspired to learn to accept and respect the differences in people in other races and cultures, not to judge, disenfranchise and suppress others with different standards, boundaries and obstacles. We are reminded that everyone has worth and feelings, and not to devalue, shame or discourage anyone.
Gordon Parks’ Mother’s
Kansas Cast Iron Skillet Fried Chicken
This classic recipe is made-from-scratch Southern-fried chicken which was served by Mother Parks. It is crispy and juicy, and it's sure to be a favorite for your family. The two-part batter simply consists of dredging the chicken in a buttermilk and egg mix, then giving it a quick shake in seasoned flour. This dish calls for bone-in pieces—however, other recipes use boneless chicken breasts or boneless chicken thighs with delicious results.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Chill time: overnight
Cook time: 25 minutes
Cool time: 10 to 15 minutes
1 whole fryer chicken cut into 8 pieces (4 to 5 pounds)
3-1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt, divided (I prefer Lawry’s)
2-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
3 cups buttermilk, divided
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons hot sauce
6-8 cups peanut oil for frying
ChefSecret: Serve the fried chicken alongside mashed potatoes (and gravy), coleslaw, creamed corn or another vegetable side dish. Fried chicken is also for breakfast with waffles and maple syrup.
Quip of the Day: “I think it’s fun to serve comfort foods because it’s an instant ice-breaker. If somebody’s expecting fancy food and you whip out some fried chicken, they feel like, well you know, they can put their elbows on the table and the etiquette police aren’t going to come out to get you.”
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To you and everyone dear to you, be strong, be positive, stay well, stay safe and be kind. Take a breath and count your blessings, and if you have a little extra to share with others, please consider donating to Feeding America.
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