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Vol. 18, No. 2: Food

Theodore Peed’s Turtle Party

by Bernard L. Herman

“There’s only one piece of white meat in him, and that’s his neck. The rest of the meat is dark meat. If you fry it, it’s still like a white piece of meat, like a chicken breast. The rest of it looks like a chicken leg.”

Two events mark the fall social season on the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia—H. M. Arnold’s Bayford Oyster House Bash and Theodore Peed’s Turtle Party. Venison barbecue anchors the late September menu at Bayford; an array of snapping turtle dishes, including fried turtle with “50 weight gravy,” tempt the attendees at Peed’s. Potluck dishes, savory and sweet, supplement the spread. For several years the two events occurred on succeeding weekends, but the stamina required for attending both, much less hosting them, exceeded the energies and dedication of all but the passionately committed. Eventually Arnold and Peed, longtime friends, agreed to a longer recuperative interval. On a bright, warm, windy morning in the changing days of mid-October, 2010, and three weeks after the Bayford Bash, Peed and his family were deep into turtle party preparations.

Theodore Peed is a generous and impressive man with an operatic laugh. Lean, muscular, and energetic, he moves easily through cooking tasks. His salt-and-pepper hair and beard lend him a patriarchal air, and he speaks with a voice to match—a richly deep and rumbly voice that resonates part growl, part oratory. “Everything I do is simple,” he says. “You don’t need to be fancy just to cook good.” Peed savors big flavors, too. Recalling the longed-for taste of bitter greens, he declares, “That first bite will knock your socks off, man! It’ll make you cry! It’ll shock you! Like a shot of liquor!” In the bustle of preparations, he greets friends and strangers alike with genuine enthusiasm. The legendary hospitality and humor of his garage kitchen stand as an open invitation. On the day of the turtle party, he muses, “I don’t know if I’ll do this again. It’s a lot of work and expense. This could be the last one.” Everyone who knows him understands, hopefully, that this is just Peed talking. The consensus among those helping with the preparations is that, of course, there will be a turtle party next year.

Locavorism, William Neuman observed in the New York Times, relies on “A core belief . . . that food from small, local producers is inherently better and safer than food made by large, faceless corporations.”1 In this formulation, locavorism translates the vitality of food culture into the safety and quality of foodstuffs. The blurring of commodity culture and food culture is an easy habit that enjoys histories as old as the birth of exchange relations between human beings, including their relationships with spirit worlds. In the early twenty-first century, it also harbors, however innocently, an unarticulated point-of-view that posits the search for quality and morality in food as a largely positive pursuit, bound to environmental and economic sustainability. In certain contexts, however, it is not the food that is important so much as the stories that foodstuffs and events occasion. Locavorism, then, is as much about the consumption, communion, and narration of local culture as it is about food politics. In fact, the locavore’s commitment to food and place relies on narrative—and in that regard it is very much an iteration of terroir. This is the point where Theodore Peed’s Turtle Party comes into play in our discovery of the “haute local” as something more powerful than the quality of ingredients or the cooking of signature dishes.

The “local” in locavore, however, is inherently unstable—in large measure because it exists at the pleasure and convenience of narratives that in many ways are not about food but the infinitely nuanced contexts in which stories are formulated, shared, and acquire significance. Peed’s culinary celebration speaks to themes of connoisseurship. Thus, my concern here is with locavorism as a form of connoisseurship, a knowing appreciation that sustains and is sustained by narratives that reveal “local knowledge.”

Theodore Peed’s garage serves as kitchen, staging center, and workingmen’s community gathering spot. Located a few steps from his two-story house, the garage faces the road that runs from the crossing of Bayside and Rogers roads toward a “T” at the fields where William Harmon and the Nottingham brothers grow Hayman sweet potatoes, a local favorite prized for its extra sweet taste and notable for its greenish flesh when cooked. On the day of the turtle party Peed opens the garage doors. A table, newly made, with a varnished oval top trimmed with twisted polyrope, occupies the far corner, facing the television perched on a set of storage cabinets. An impressive collection of imperial purple Crown Royal sacks accented with bright gold thread hangs on the wall. Peed observes that there used to be many more in the grape-like cluster. A brother adds that Peed gave the bags to a family member for a quilt that is yet to be made. Family and visitors occupy chairs placed around the table, watch college football games, and chat. Peed’s chair claims a proprietorial position at the head of the table.

The business part of Peed’s kitchen commands a corner near the open garage bay. Lit by a window and overhead fluorescent lights, the cooking area is furnished only with his two-burner range and a folding card table for last-minute preparations. A row of cupboards to the side doubles as counter space and bar. Antlers and skulls on the wall surround a clock crafted from a snapping turtle shell and gifted to Peed by friends. The clock stopped long ago, marking the time at 7:38. Arnold says, “Somebody should set that clock to 5:00, then it’ll be right most of the time.”

More folding tables stand next to the refrigerators. When the dining hour approaches, the women in the house will come out and organize a serving line. The back wall is fitted with shelving and storage bins, all neatly screened with colored plastic sheeting. Pens for Peed’s yelping hunting dogs range behind the garage; big black cast iron cauldrons are stacked like helmets to one side; picnic tables, used both for butchering and dining, flank the gravel drive that leads to the street. Peed notes, “I use them black kettles. A lot of people call them old African kettles. That’s what our ancestors used to wash clothes in and then, during hog killing time, cook the lard in.”

The family’s pets, Peed’s Jack Russell named Russell (Russ for short) and his wife Mary’s sweet-tempered pit bull Hazel, wander in and out pursuing curiosity and the possibility of handouts. As more folks drift by, the deer feet presented to Russ and Hazel as chews increasingly lose their ability to hold the dogs’ attention. The alluring scent of the turtle party’s early preparations, the bustle of cooks and bystanders, the occasional scratch behind the ears offer greater appeal.

Just after 10:00 a.m., Peed pulls a cooler up to his work area and begins unpacking dressed venison, layering it in his welded steel roasting pan. The meat brined overnight is pale pink. A generous shake of Old Bay seafood seasoning spices each layer until the pan is full, the tenderloins being the last additions. With the venison prepped, Peed pulls out a knotted black plastic trash bag and heads toward the cooker in the yard. His brothers, Bill and Carl, follow carrying the venison. Peed bangs open the cooker’s lid and, with his brother, shoves the venison into the smoke-filled black interior. He bends and unties the trash bag, extracts the pig carcass, and places it cut-side down on the grill with a soft thud. Satisfied with the arrangement, Peed closes and secures the lid. “The pig takes about four hours,” he estimates.

Peed links the history of the turtle party to his reputation as a wild game man: “We started off maybe about fifteen years ago. We killed a lot of rabbits, and we just decided to have a little party with rabbit. Sometimes we would cook twenty-five or thirty rabbits. It would be in the wintertime, so there was collard greens, cabbage, turnip greens, all that stuff.” The first rabbit dinners evolved from mid-winter hunting suppers and football parties into the annual autumn turtle party. The turtle party also owes a debt to Peed’s rainy day hospitality, when friends and acquaintances head to his garage for warmth, conversation, and a bite to eat. Peed’s daughter Ebony and friend Chester Satchell describe those occasions:

Peed begins, “You come here in the wintertime—”

Ebony interrupts, “In the wintertime when it rains, because everybody is mostly self-employed, and nobody works when it rains, so they just show up in here—”

And, Chester laughingly interrupts her, “Yes, they do! They work right here!” His tone and humor bring into question the kind of work being done.

Ebony resumes, “They work right here . . .”

Chester presses forward with innuendo, “They work right here in this garage!”

Ebony perseveres, “Then they got to go home and get cussed off because they ate here and their wives—”

Chester breaks in, “And they can’t eat when they get home!”

Ebony presses on, “. . . and they can’t eat when they get home.”

Chester concludes, “Remember that white boy stopped by here one day and said, ‘I know I smelled some pork chops’?”

Chester’s last point reveals a deeper history of the turtle party. Theodore Peed’s garage kitchen hosts hunters, outdoor laborers, friends, neighbors, and drop-ins, black and white alike. Some stop by claiming they caught the smell of his pork chops and gravy out on the highway; others drive past Peed’s house, sometimes three or four times, to see if he’s in. No matter, they show up—and often with contributions in hand. Preparing a meal of stewed neck meat and potatoes for twenty or more friends sheltering from an icy winter rain is something Peed just does as a matter of course. The turtle party is “just my thing for my friends,” Peed says. True enough, but it is also Peed’s celebration of community and his recognized place in it.

Peed tells the story of how he learned to prepare turtle through layers of narrative that blend cooking and family history. Although he states that he taught himself the ins and outs of turtle cuisine, he also draws connections between different facets of the process in ways that highlight family history. Peed begins with his father, “The way I got hooked on them turtles was my daddy. He’d bring them home, but he never caught none, except crawling. But he knowed a few guys that used to ‘sign’ them. Don’t ask me what the sign is. They’d go up in them guts in them creeks, and they’d see a little bubble or something. It had to be something . . . We used to call it ‘signing them,’ like with clams. [Animals living in creek and marsh bottoms typically reveal their location with a breathing hole or bubbles referred to as a “sign.”] They’d take a hook, reach down there, feel them out around the shell, and pull them out of that mud. It’d be something. You start to get in that mud—it’s rough!”

Peed continues, shifting emphasis from his father’s to his own abilities, stressing his efficiency and cleanliness: “They used to get them, bring them home, put them in a barrel, put stove ashes in the barrel with them to cleanse them out. I just put them in a barrel, let them stay for about four or five days, and then I kill them. My daddy never showed me what I know how to do with them. Take them, cut the heads off, wash them real good. They’d use lye soap! My grandma used to make that lye soap. Wash the shell real good, then cut him from the bottom there and tore his guts out. Then they used to boil him. Break the shell open and get that backbone out and everything. But to me that wasn’t sanitary. You leave any shit in there, and it’d be bad. Me, what I’d do, I’m killing two right now. I kill them now; I cut them out of the shell in the morning. Take my knife—my knives, they’re sharp—I cut them right there at the edge of the shell and pull all their guts out. Cut him up and soak him out. Put him in the refrigerator for about two days and then put him in the freezer . . . When I skin him, no meat touches the guts or nothing.”

Peed’s turtle party is also about the complex social networks that have evolved on the Eastern Shore of Virginia over the past four centuries. When Peed describes his cooking pots, he calls them African kettles and links them to deep histories of foraging, work, and race. The same references hold true for turtle, but with an inversion of social and racial roles. “If a hundred people was here,” Peed says, “seventy-five of them is white. Black people will tell you, ‘I don’t want none of that turtle. Give us some ribs . . .’ Little kids [ask], ‘Peed! Peed! Where the turtle at? Turtle soup?’ I’m telling you . . . And I’ve had a whole lot of rich Eastern Shore people come here who haven’t come here before, and say they’re coming back again for the turtle. That’s a tradition that was popular with black people. They’re the ones who really invented turtle. Now you look at TV down South, that’s what the white people eat down there. Poor people had to eat. They had to survive, and they found this was something they could eat. It would fill them up and wouldn’t make them walk slow. One year I cooked some for my white buddies. I cooked about two. Guys in the wintertime, we’d been hunting—I fried some turtle. I said, ‘I’m going to cook some for them.’ After they eat, they say, ‘Oh man, this is so good!’ I said, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you one thing.’ They said, ‘What Peed? What, what, what!’ ‘You won’t be walking slow tomorrow.’”

Satisfied with the progress of pig and venison underway, Peed turns his thoughts to breakfast and heads toward the porch and kitchen at the rear of the house. Fifteen minutes later, breakfast in hand, he is back in the garage that serves as the turtle party command center. Fried speckled trout, grits with butter, and fried potatoes with onion crowd his plate. Setting his cigar to the side, he turns to his brothers Bill and Carl: “They got fish in the house for breakfast.” Fish for breakfast is part of the life of this place, a long narrow peninsula that frames the Chesapeake Bay on one side and provides a buffer to the Atlantic Ocean a few miles to the east. Some families serve their fish with pancakes and syrup, others used to fry salt fish with lard and top it with milk, a preparation that is largely a relic of the past. The Peed brothers recollect how their mother fried apples and pears as an accompaniment: “Fish, the fried apples, and the biscuits for breakfast. I like apples and pears cooked together. Fry a couple of slices of real good bacon. Use the bacon fat and put the apples and pears together. Real hard pears, you put them in about twenty minutes before you put the apples in. Stew them all the way down—got to scorch them a little bit.” It was a high-calorie dish designed to sustain a day of manual labor. Peed calculates as he breaks apart his fish, estimating the number of expected guests at roughly a hundred.

There are no invitations to the turtle party, just a general awareness of the date and place and the understanding that family, neighbors, and friends inclined toward a game dinner are welcome. Peed works his way through the mental list of dinner items. The half of a young pig split lengthways and the roasting pan filled with seasoned venison were already cooking in the barbecue rig in the front yard. Bill, Peed’s older brother from South Carolina, would stew up five gallons of turtle gumbo. “It’s all in the roux and the imagination,” Bill remarks. Gumbo is a recent arrival to this part of the South, where another lesser-known regional cuisine prevails. Still, roux enjoys its local parallel as the base for “gravy.” Peed outlines the preparation: “My ingredient is turtle. Then I make me a gravy. I can take a thirty-gallon pot, that cast iron pot, and I can make gravy out of that sucker that make you want to smack your momma! My grandmother taught me the gravy. Them old folks—flour, they say, you got to scorch it a little. You got to burn it a little bit. I ain’t talking about burning it up, but you just got to scorch it a little bit.”

Peed continues checking his mental list. Five large heads of cabbage would be cooked with big chunks of ham rind, salt, and pepper in a cast iron kettle perched on a homemade propane burner. He plans to fry eighty split marsh hens and the meat of eleven snapping turtles. Inside the house the women in Peed’s family prepare potato and macaroni salads.

Peed follows a schedule as steady as the wind soughing through the pines that mark the border between his home and the adjacent cornfield. Parboiled turtle cleaned and picked the night before fills a big aluminum pot. Marsh hens brought plucked and halved by hunting friends occupy a cooler near the refrigerators. Aluminum serving trays, stacks of trencher-like Styrofoam plates, and plastic cups stand ready on folding tables. As the day progresses so, too, does the evening menu. Bill completes his turtle gumbo and sets it aside to season in the pot. Peed turns his talents to the cabbage. The coarsely chopped leaves go into another pot along with a seasoning of cured side meat, salt, and pepper. Ebony, Peed’s daughter, scrutinizes the boiling cabbage, sniffs the peppery mix, and gives it a stir with a ladle. She turns to her father and asks pointedly, “Did you season it good?” Meanwhile, a steady stream of family and neighbors flows in and out of the garage, stopping by for a bit of chat and, more importantly, to monitor the proceedings. Men step to the garage; women head for the house. Peed gives the pot one last stir, “The cabbage is ready. I want it an itty bit crunchy.” Bill approves, “That’s a wonderful aroma coming out of there. It’s nice when things come together.” “Right on schedule,” Peed notes. And the cabbage is done.

Mid-afternoon arrives, and an early cocktail hour gets underway. The television in the corner continues to broadcast college football. Michigan plays Iowa; Arkansas takes on Auburn; Western Michigan meets Notre Dame—all at 3:30, resulting in a ballet of channel hopping. Conversation touches on sports and local news. Now and again, two speakers bend their heads close together for an exchange of a more private nature. The wind begins to ease, and more drop-ins arrive. “Wait until 5:00,” Peed states, “and they’ll really start pouring in here.”

Peed starts the marsh hens, a local favorite shot from shallow draft boats poled through high marsh grass. Arnold helps him hoist and position a ten-gallon iron kettle—a real “double, double toil and trouble” affair—onto the two-burner skeletal steel stove. Peed pours frying oil into the pot, lights the burner with a flaming paper twist, and suspends a thermometer from the rim. Twenty minutes later, the temperature hits the requisite 300 degrees. Peed empties two bags of House-Autry mix into a large clear plastic bag, scoops up a handful of dressed marsh hens, gives the bag a shake, and starts dropping the birds into the oil. The thick, comforting aroma of railbirds frying swirls through the room.

Peed is not alone in his choice of the seasoned breader from House-Autry, a two-hundred- year-old milling concern located in Newton Grove, North Carolina. Like Old Bay, House-Autry debuted comparatively recently in Eastern Shore larders where salt, black pepper, lard, and sweet (sugar, syrup, or molasses) flavored most dishes. The sizzle, hiss, spit of the frying birds drowns out the television. “You know when they’re done,” Peed says, “just when they start to float.” The first batch complete, Peed dips the crusty brown birds out of the kettle with a wire mesh strainer, places them in a paper towel-lined aluminum pan, and taps the strainer three times on the pot rim. “That’s the secret,” a bystander reveals, “Three taps or they don’t come out right!” Everyone laughs. “Try this,” Peed commands. The fried railbirds are excellent—a dark meat like Canada goose, but with a richer flavor. Five batches later, all the marsh hens are fried and stored in a foil-wrapped serving pan. Peed opens the pot of parboiled turtle meat. 

Snapping turtles are the big draw at Peed’s annual dinner, and collecting enough turtles for the event without going to too much effort is a community project. There is no shortage of snapping turtles on the Eastern Shore. They live in boggy roadside ditches, farm ponds, and salt creeks, bearing names like Nassawadox, Hungars, Mattawoman, Westerhouse, and Occhanock, that define the succession of necks along the bay. In spring and early summer the turtles are on the move, busily following the imperative of making more turtles. Pamela Barefoot, who lives on a branch of Nassawadox Creek, looked out her door one warm and humid morning and discovered a twenty-pound turtle on her doorstep. Driving down the length of Church Neck, it is not unusual to see three or four snappers in the road lurching along, dragging their thick dragon tails, primeval heads extended, intent on their destination. If the turtle is big enough, and the discoverer bold enough, the turtle is snagged and bagged. Occasionally tactical errors occur. Dropping a large and angry turtle in the trunk of late model sedan is ill-advised. The problem is not with turtle dirt, but with close quarters, especially if the trunk is cluttered with the kind of items that you tend to find in this corner of the world. Things like crab pot floats, spare tractor parts, mesh bags for clams and oysters, and fishing gear offer real obstructions that complicate negotiations with a thoroughly irritated turtle. It takes an experienced eye and a quick hand to grab a cornered snapping turtle by the tail and lift it into a bushel basket. Peed’s turtle providers possess that know-how—and share the scars and stories to prove it. The faint of heart or those in a hurry simply phone in their turtle sightings, and Peed or one of his friends hurries to the location to make the capture. The turtles are collected and dropped off at Peed’s garage and the various locations he frequents. Arnold stores snapping turtles in transit in a bushel basket in the Bayford Oyster House. A visitor might see the basket wiggle a bit on the concrete floor next to the old shucking tables or hear clawing inside and ask “Peed?” It’s a rhetorical question on the Eastern Shore.

Peed’s ability to handle and process a snapping turtle is legend. Cigar in one hand, he reaches into the bushel without hesitation and expertly hoists the turtle, evaluating its culinary potential by heft and appearance. He kills the turtles, cutting off their heads at sunset and letting them drain overnight. The next day, he carves the meat from the carcass with the grace of a surgeon. With an array of two or three scarily sharp knives and a hatchet, he separates the upper and lower shells, removes the entrails, and neatly extracts six large pieces of turtle meat. Peed is fast and neat: “Now a snapping turtle don’t have but six pieces of meat in it. There’s the neck, the tail, the two front legs, the two hind legs. There’s only one piece of white meat in him, and that’s his neck. The rest of the meat is dark meat. If you fry it, it’s still like a white piece of meat, like a chicken breast. The rest of it looks like a chicken leg. It’s dark.” Snapping turtles are not the easiest animals to clean for cooking, but Peed, drawing on expertise developed over years of practice, can process a large one in less than ten minutes. He stores the dressed cuts of meat in a large metal pot prior to skinning, washing, and freezing. The rest of the turtle, shell and guts, disappears into the woods behind the beagle pens at the back of Peed’s land. Peed saves especially large turtle shells as trophies that will be cleaned, varnished, and displayed on the walls of his garage kitchen along with the antlers of the deer he has shot over the years. The turtle supply grows through the summer.

For the turtle party Peed fries the meat harvested from snapping turtles that range in weight from twelve to twenty-five pounds. Prepping the turtles for cooking after butchering and freezing is labor intensive: “If you don’t boil him, you cannot eat him. You can skin him, cut the skin off him, and fry him, and he’s still tough. What I do [Peed motions toward the door of the garage]—I got my pots out there. I have boiled twenty turtles at one time. They’re all cut up. I got six pieces—like I said, it don’t matter how big he is, there ain’t but six pieces in there. You can take a turtle that weighs ten pounds and take one that weighs thirty pounds and you boil them, it will come out almost nearly the same. I boil mine. I look at the bones in it and when the meat starts leaving the bones. And that’s the only bone a dog will not eat. He will not eat a turtle bone. It’s so damn hard! After I boil them, I take them out, let them cool, and then I skin [them]. I take all that skin off right down to the lean meat. There’s nothing on the neck. When you pull it, that’s a piece you can cook right then and there if you want to. You still got to boil it though. Boil that bad boy. Take my fork and hit him. If the fork goes through him like it’s supposed to, cut the fire off, take the pot off the burner, let it cool off. Then we get here and start skinning him. Skin will roll right off, you know what I mean, we don’t want no slime on him. Then I start frying.”

The turtle chunks receive the House-Autry treatment and go into the pot. “I’m not bragging, but the only people that can beat me cooking turtle is somebody that’s eighty or ninety years old. Ain’t nobody my age around fifty-nine years old. I started cooking [turtle] when I was in my forties. And I’ve learned a little bit, too, you know what I mean, the more you cook you can kind of ease a little bit in it.” The dinner hour is closing in and more and more turtle-hungry guests fill the yard. Peed relinquishes the turtle-cooking duties to Dora Hyslop, a family friend, and turns his attention to organizing the set-up for the serving line. Meanwhile, Peed’s brothers and Arnold extract the venison and roast pig from the big cooker and carry the cooked meat into the garage. On one foil-topped table, Peed’s brother Carl pulls apart the pork and places the coarsely shredded chunks in a serving pan. A few of the hungry gather around and pick through the cracklings. Arnold, long a family friend and turtle party supporter, gets the treat of the head and cheek meat. The venison, too, is pulled from the bone, chopped, shredded, and prepared for serving. Mary brings the finished turtle to the serving tables.

At some moment in the closing preparations, Mrs. Peed, her sisters, sisters-in-law, daughters, and friends take charge. They rearrange the tables into an “L,” with standing room behind. The sun gone down, guests collect in the pool of light flooding from the open garage doors. Peed circulates through the crowd, cigar in one hand and drink in the other. The noise level continues to rise. Folks foray into the garage to reconnoiter the lineup. Cakes and other desserts collect on the card table near the fryer. Mary Peed directs the placement of dishes in a logical succession: potato salad, macaroni salad, cabbage seasoned with ham, roast pork, venison, fried railbirds, snapping turtle, smoked bluefish, and turtle gumbo. The line continues to grow, snaking into the twilit darkness outside. More and more voices join the conversation, and with each new voice the volume rises. Eagerness and desire fill the air. Then Ms. Peed’s strong dignified voice rings out, “There will be no dinner without blessing.” The swiftness with which silence falls is startling. The boisterous crowd knows the rules and respects the event. Only the postgame commentary in the background breaks the reverent moment. Heads bow. “Father, we thank the Lord for this food we are about to receive. Lord, we ask that You will bless this food and sanctify it that it might be nourishment for our bodies. God, we thank the Lord for how You bless us time and time again. We thank You, God, for yet one more year that You have allowed this crowd to be together. And, God, we give You thanks for this food. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

A hungry, heartfelt Amen resounds through the early evening. In that instant, the distinction between party and ministry dissolves. Conversation surges back to life. Jericho’s walls fallen, the righteous victorious, turtle is served. Diners crowd their plates with some of everything, relishing the occasion and food in a moment of connoisseurship, friends and neighbors savoring the flavors that bind them together. The company’s gustatory roar of approval is Peed’s greatest thanks.

This essay first appeared in the 2012 Food Issue (vol. 18, no. 2).

Bernard L. Herman is George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His books include A South You Never Ate: Savoring Flavors and Stories from the Eastern ShoreThornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper (2012), Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830 (2005), and The Stolen House (1992). He has written, lectured, and offered courses on visual and material culture, architectural history, self-taught and vernacular art, foodways, and seventeenth and eighteenth-century material life.NOTES

  1. William Neuman, “Cheesemaker Defies F.D.A. Over Recall,” New York Times, November 19, 2010,
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