My latest reviews about two sharply contrasting books have just been posted on Alabama Writers’ Forum. Deep South Dynasty by Kari Frederickson is a fascinating history of an influential Alabama family, the Bankheads. Barry Marks’s new poetry, My Father Should Die in Winter, examines grief and hope. Check them out at https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/
The first time I remember baking anything, I was in my 30s already and my Grandmother Harbison’s hip had broken while she was taking cornbread out of the oven. After following the ambulance to the hospital and meeting my parents there to get Grandmother ensconced in a room, Grandmother was worried about what Granddaddy Harbison was going to eat while she was hospitalized. As far back as I knew my Harbison grandparents, Grandmother always took care of the cooking and the inside of the house and Granddaddy, who had an impressive green thumb, took care of the yard and the outdoors.
He didn’t cook. And, back then, with very few exceptions, neither did I.
But this was an emergency so I went back to my grandparents’ house and pondered what to do. There was a pot of Grandmother’s homemade vegetable soup already simmering on the stove and Granddaddy assured me that as long as he had cornbread and buttermilk in the house, he could make do for himself for a while. There was buttermilk in the refrigerator and, since grandmother’s cornbread had been ruined in her fall, I said I’d make a cake of cornbread.
I had no idea what I was doing. I pulled out the cornmeal and was relieved to see a recipe for cornbread on the package. I followed the directions carefully and was amazed and relieved when the final product actually looked and tasted like cornbread. Granddaddy declared that it was good.
I have been making cornbread ever since and have amended that original recipe over the years. Here’s the thing, though: I still have to follow the recipe to make a decent cornbread. As long as a recipe is available, why bother to memorize?
Over the years, I have gotten more comfortable in the kitchen. As a lifelong bachelor, that is a necessity. I vowed never to become like one of my bachelor professors at Alabama who never cooked, but was at Morrison’s Cafeteria every day at 5:30 p.m. to take his meal. He died not long after that Morrison’s on University Boulevard shut down; I worried that his fatal illness may have been triggered by food deprivation.
My grandmother, Eula Harbison, was a natural magician in the kitchen. She came from the era in which relatives might arrive for long stays and, later, company might happen to drop by for an unannounced visit, especially on a Sunday afternoon. She always had food warming in the oven and a cake on hand to offer her guests with a cup of percolator coffee. She made a variety of cakes, but my favorites were always the most simple and unadorned. On some occasions, she would apply a sugary glaze to these basic cakes, but as often as not there was no glaze. Her hospitality always seemed humble and effortless; she was a superb host.
This comes to mind tonight because I just made an olive oil cake and, even though olive oil cake was not part of Grandmother’s repertoire, it reminds me a lot of the kinds of cakes she would always have on hand.
An olive oil cake is a traditional Italian cake that substitutes oil for butter. It can be amended and embellished in any number of ways. It’s a common cake, but when I mention it to people, most are not aware of it.
I was aware of it, but I never recall tasting it. That changed in March when I was on a business trip in Memphis and having dinner with friends. The dessert menu at Catherine and Mary’s, an Italian-influenced Southern restaurant not far from Beale Street, listed an olive oil cake.
The cake was moist and flaky with a frothy cream and drizzle of sauce. It was the perfect way to top off a rich meal. I got back to Birmingham and vowed to experiment with olive oil cake recipes. No experimentation was necessary; it’s a straightforward and simple cake that has turned out moist and delicious each time I have made it by following simple directions. In fact, I was just asked to make one for an anniversary gift. With that success under my belt, I already am planning ways that I can adorn the cake for special occasions in the future. I am not confident as a baker, so olive oil cake may be my gateway into more adventurous baking.
I don’t live a “company dropping by” sort of existence, but I would be proud to offer a slice of olive oil cake to company that might call in the future.
Here’s the recipe I’m using:
My review of D.B. Tipmore’s My Little Town is just published. Check it out here:
Thursday: It has been said that the Mississippi Delta “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” In our current moment, there are people who will quibble, perhaps, with a statement like that, but I like the romance, even though there is apparently no “Catfish Row” in Vicksburg.
So, after a challenging Wednesday night trying to get a meal and service at the conference hotel in Memphis for the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention, I decided on Thursday to walk down to the Peabody Hotel where I knew I would have a quiet, dignified meal and start my trip anew.
It worked, and after spending some time in the Peabody lobby with the ducks swimming around the fountain, I was ready to give Memphis a fresh start (www.peabodymemphis.com).
I attended my first SETC in Tampa in 1985 and that convention, too, had a rocky start but I kept coming back and, with a few gaps here and there, I have attended most conventions ever since. In the past few years, I have mostly been coming for editorial board meetings for Southern Theatre magazine. My second term on the editorial board ends this year.
This will be my last SETC. I hope to make it memorable.
Friday: I attended a morning performance by Colonial Williamsburg’s Museum Theatre (www.colonialwilliamsburg.org). I had met the director, Katrinah Carol Lewis, on my first day in Memphis. She educated me on the theatre program at Colonial Williamsburg, which includes much beyond the reenactors. The show, “Sentiments of American Women,” takes a look at and says the names of women who lived in and around Williamsburg in the period of the Revolution. The show gives voice to lesser-heard and never-heard women of the era. We meet enslaved women, indentured servants, and privileged women. In an extended tea party scene, the three actors explore eighteenth century norms, spotlighted by the questions and concerns of a 21st century woman. After the curtain call, the cast invited the audience to join them in saying the names of women in our lives who influenced, inspired, and shaped us. The performance space echoed with women’s names. One voice said, simply, “my mother”; the room collectively sighed in agreement.
Later, I met friends for lunch at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous(www.hogsfly.com), still my favorite spot to get ribs in a city that prides itself on its barbecue. The Rendezvous, situated in a basement space in an alley, seems to go on forever from one dining room to another with seventy-plus years of mementos on the wall. The dry-rub barbecue, its specialty, is a dish my mother still vividly recalls years after she first tasted it.
Since the Rendezvous alley is directly across the street from the Peabody, my friends and I went over to duck-watch in the hotel’s elegant lobby. There was plenty of people-watching, too.
I find that in my travels lately, I tend to explore less and go to places that provide sanctuary and familiarity. I’ve seen most of what there is to see in Memphis on previous visits and felt little need to explore further on this trip. I passed Graceland back when Elvis was still alive and that is as much of Graceland as I need to see. The Rendezvous and The Peabody, however, are always dependable places of refuge and I tend to return whenever I’m in the area.
As we left the Peabody, clouds were gathering. The big winter storm that was forecast was arriving right on schedule. At 6:00 on Friday evening, snow began to not so much “fall” as “blow” wildly across the sky.
I’m not big on reunions, but a professor from the University of Alabama, my alma mater, had mentioned a gathering of Alabama students, alumni, and faculty – past and present – to be held a couple of blocks from the hotel that night, just as the storm peaked.
The Main Street trolley was my primary mode of transportation on this trip and, when it was time to head down to Westy’s for the gathering, the trolley had temporarily stopped due to icing on the tracks. The snow was still coming and had quickly covered the ground, but the fierce wind was dying down a bit and I tightened my scarf, buttoned up my jacket, secured my hood, and headed down.
Westy’s, a divey place in the “Pinch District,” close to the Pyramid, seems to be a stalwart of that north Memphis area (www.westysmemphis.com). When I was in school at Alabama, attending theatre cast parties, my rule was “When they start playing show tunes, I’m out.” Westy’s is a place where I’m pretty sure show tunes have never been played.
I’m glad I braved a Southern blizzard to attend the event. In addition to some of my professors and friends from Tuscaloosa days whom I hoped would be there, there were other Tuscaloosa friends and colleagues that I wasn’t expecting to see. I didn’t stay long, but I was happy to have braved the weather. And happy that I had checked the weather forecasts before I packed.
By the time I left, the short-lived blizzard had subsided, leaving bluster and frigid temperatures in its wake, and the trolleys back on schedule.
Saturday: Most of the snow was gone by morning, leaving ice and sludge in its wake. I had a pleasant breakfast with the professor who has taken my place at my former employer, said some good-byes to old friends, and took a trolley ride to the south end of the line and back.
I have “done Beale Street” in the past, and had no big desire to dodge the crowds on this trip. However, I did jump off the trolley long enough to pay homage at the W.C. Handy statue on Beale Street. Handy, a Florence, Alabama, native, secured his reputation as “Father of the Blues” while living in Memphis. I feel a connection since he and I both taught at the same Alabama college – Handy in the early 1900s and I a century later. When in Memphis, I feel a certain responsibility to commiserate with him over our shared history.
It has been a long-standing SETC tradition to have dinner at a nice local restaurant with old friends on the final night of the convention. We are usually a group of five, but the conditions of the 2020s reduced our group to three this year. Somewhere along the way, I was designated as the person who chooses the restaurant for this soiree – a responsibility I take very seriously.
Outside of barbecue, I don’t know a lot about Memphis restaurants, so I spent a lot of time researching, along with some welcome consultation with food writer John T. Edge, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, not far from Memphis.
I changed my mind several times along the way, but came up with a winner. Catherine and Mary’s is part of the restaurant group of Memphis chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. with Trey Williams as chef de cuisine (www.catherineandmarys.com). The fare is billed as “grandmother cooking, Italian philosophy of dining, and southern ingredients.” The ambience was perfect, the wait staff was exceptional, the menu has something to appeal to every taste, and the food is outstanding. My friends had pasta dishes and I – trying to stick with my resolution to eat mostly fish as my protein – had a perfectly prepared halibut entrée and, for dessert, a memorable olive oil cake. Janet and Russell, my friends, ordered a round of our traditional SETC closer, Brandy Alexander, and we toasted the friends who weren’t with us this year.
Sunday: Time to leave my final SETC. Whenever I’m in a river town, I want to spend time on the river. While my hotel was just off the river, any view of it was thwarted by the façade of the convention center. I have been to the Mississippi River in Memphis in the past, but I never quite seemed to get there on this trip. I vowed to change that before I drove home.
After checking out of the hotel, I drove along the riverfront and eventually landed at a spot with the foreboding name of Martyrs Park. It’s a place of reflection, memorializing over 5,000 Memphians who remained in the city to help and lost their lives during an 1878 yellow fever epidemic. It was an isolated and perfect spot for calm meditation on the storied river.
Here’s my latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. The Gulf South is a fascinating anthology that addresses one of the most urgent issues of our current moment — the environment.
A History of Saints (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2021), the debut novel by Julyan Davis, is a modern comedy of manners set during the Great Recession in the eccentric environs of Asheville, North Carolina (blundering “toward a theme park version of itself”). Funny and surprising, the novel brings together a truly bizarre cast of characters – including two feral chihuahuas – and explores, as the subtitle declares, “dog handling, courtly love, gardening and cooking, sexual fluidity, belly dancing, poetry, loss, and addiction.” That list barely scrapes the surface of the explorations that also include a missing chifforobe, a stolen shopping cart, a samurai sword, and “misguided sugar babies.”
The first sentence sets the antic pace: “At the next light Frank struck an individual dressed as a mattress.” Frank is Frank Reed, around whom the book mostly revolves. In an effort to save his grand old home, “Carolina Court,” Frank Reed rents out rooms and assembles a mismatched and colorful group of tenants. The mattress turns out to be one of those tenants, Angus Saxe-Pardee (sometimes known as “Angus Sex Party”), an erstwhile Scotsman.
Angus, in an effort to be of service – or to be in charge, takes it upon himself to run a classified ad to try to rent out Frank’s remaining space. “LIVE GONE WITH THE WIND FOR ONLY $400 A MONTH” reads part of the ad. Eventually the all-male household is joined by two women – Andromeda, a young woman seeking refuge from an affair that has ended badly, and Lida, an enigmatic traveling nurse. The complications and hilarity that ensue are full of surprises and laugh-out-loud banter.
A History of Saints is Davis’s first novel, but his writing is skilled and assured. A native of England, known primarily as a painter of the American South, his art frequently has a narrative flair, especially his touring large-scale painting installation based on Appalachian murder ballads and his “Demopolis” paintings inspired by an Alabama colony of French settlers. That French “Vine and Olive Colony” inspired Davis’s first forays into the South, which he has been painting consistently since the 1980s. The wry humor of A History of Saints is not unprecedented in Davis’s oeuvre; scattered through his work are wistful paintings of period-costumed monkeys and, my favorite, the stages of the moon represented by Moon Pies.
While reading A History of Saints, I was reminded at times of The Untidy Pilgrim, the first novel by Southern renaissance man Eugene Walter, in 1954. Davis’s writing is reminiscent of Walter’s in its devil-may-care whimsy and its unbridled joie de vivre in the complex and occasionally zany weaving of a narrative. Yet, there are poignant moments of insight such as Frank’s realization that it is “the objects we cherish that make a home — the paintings and keepsakes — not the walls around us or the roof above us.” A History of Saints is the work of an artist who is already a skilled storyteller, who has taken those skills to another medium with a novel that provides a welcome respite in challenging times. (https://julyandavis.com)
At this time of year, I frequently think of the Gulf region, where revelers from Mobile to New Orleans and beyond are celebrating the pre-Lenten festivities of Mardi Gras. When I think about New Orleans, I always think of Upperline, the Garden District restaurant that is the domain of JoAnn Clevenger.
I had heard about the charms of JoAnn and Upperline for years before I finally made my first reservation. When you called to make a reservation, JoAnn usually answered the phone. She would find out where you were visiting from, what brought you to New Orleans, if you had previously dined at Upperline, and where you were staying. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I was being pre-screened; if I was, I always made the cut.
On that first visit to the restaurant, I was visiting New Orleans in August (which some people would say is crazy to begin with, but I enjoy the city at all times of the year). I had an early reservation and had the bright idea to take the St. Charles streetcar up to the Garden District and walk around until the time of my reservation. It was a bright idea, but not a smart one on a sweltering August afternoon; within minutes, I was drenched in sweat and looking for a shady place to sit. The shade was no balm, however, from the oppressive heat.
Drained, and close to the restaurant, I decided to seek a merciful respite and went to the door of Upperline, where they were still preparing for dinner service. I told JoAnn that I had a reservation later (when they opened, actually) and asked if I could come inside until time for my meal. I probably looked pretty pathetic, and I was led to my table and asked what I would like to drink. “Ice water for now,” I said.
As I cooled down, I had the opportunity to observe JoAnn and the chef going over the evening’s menu. She would sample a dish thoughtfully and make her comments or suggestions. After a few minutes of this, the chef headed back to the kitchen and JoAnn took the helm at her station at the entrance.
I have always been interested in being privy to the details that go into the makings of an exceptional restaurant. One evening, dining at Brigtsen’s, another standout New Orleans eatery, I watched as chef Frank Brigtsen quietly walked through each dining room of the shotgun house that houses his eponymous eatery. After he had finished his walk-thru, he adjusted the volume of the music and headed back toward the kitchen. It is such attention to detail, I think, that distinguishes a great restaurant from a good one.
Back at Upperline, customers began to arrive and the restaurant came fully to life. The art-covered walls, curated by JoAnn, featured New Orleans scenes and New Orleans artists, and JoAnn circulated among her guests in what was, essentially, her own vibrant salon. When she came to my table, we chatted about Birmingham and she told how her menu’s “Hot & Hot Shrimp” was inspired by a visit to Birmingham’s award-winning Hot and Hot Fish Club. The meal was wonderful and, by the time I left, I had resolved to eat at Upperline whenever I was in New Orleans.
I kept my resolution, often taking friends there for their first time, and was never disappointed. Whenever one went to Upperline, JoAnn was always dressed in her signature black and red tunic. I learned somewhere along the way that she had eight of them in her closet. She always adorned it with her Girl Scout pin from her years growing up in rural Louisiana. She was fond of garlic and, in the summer months, a garlic-filled menu would be available. She admired Thomas Jefferson and the menu often featured dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. A “Dorothy Parker” cocktail was garnished with three Red Hots. Dishes from Creole and Cajun Louisiana were always available, often with daring twists.
JoAnn Clevenger has been a finalist for the James Beard Award as “Restaurateur of the Year” on multiple occasions but has never won it. Anybody who ever dined in her restaurant would know that nobody deserves it more.
JoAnn has that very rare ability of seeming to remember you whether she really does or not. On my repeat visits, she always gave the impression that she recalled me from earlier visits. One time, after I had been away from New Orleans for a while, she said, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.” I replied that it had been three years. At the end of the evening, as I was going to my cab, she sidled up beside me. “Don’t wait three more years to come back,” she said with a wink. “If you do, I may not be here anymore.”
She was still there, greeting diners at the door, three years later. And three years after that. She was still making time to chat with each of her guests. The food was always superb, made moreso by the ambiance.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 and things began to shut down, the Upperline website announced that “Upperline is on pause and looking forward to reopening
as soon as it is safe for our beloved staff and guests.”
By November 2021, the pause was still in effect and JoAnn Clevenger, now in her 80s, announced that Upperline was closed permanently.
The pull of New Orleans has always been strong for me, and I’ve been away for too long. But now, with Upperline closed, the pull of the city is just a little less urgent.
My review of Richard Rhodes’s new biography of naturalist Edward O. Wilson, Scientist, is now available on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.
In the backyard, outside the window where I write, pines rise up a steep hill. The trees and a thick groundcover of amber-red pine straw almost camouflage the deer who frequent the woods; they are usually there when I open the blinds in the morning. Birds chirp and go back and forth among the feeders hanging on the fence and up the hill. Because of the hill, the sun takes its time appearing over the ridge; finally, it appears and emblazons the landscape in a panoply of light and shadow. A feisty squirrel invades the bird feeders, oblivious to the spicy mix that was put there to deter him.
In the front of the house, I open the front door and hear the incessant hum of traffic on the interstate nearby. Trees mostly block the view of the cars in the distance, but the hum is constant. My townhouse’s interior spaces serve as a limbo between these two contrasting worlds; my townhouse functions as my “safe place” in a never-ending pandemic with too many people ignoring the seriousness and consequences it entails.
I have to admit that the word “dystopia” has been creeping into my thoughts lately.
In an undergraduate political theory class, a long time ago, I wrote a paper on “anti-utopian novels” – books which would more commonly be called “dystopian” now. As I recall, I considered 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and Player Piano, and included a mention of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon as an outlier that comes close but does not totally fit the category.
I think of dystopia when I go to the grocery store and try to avoid the unmasked people. I look at them with suspicion as they look back at me, often with apparent contempt. I think of dystopia as I follow the investigations into the insurrection of January 6, 2021, and see footage from the invasion of the U.S. Capitol that is, in its own way, every bit as disturbing as the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11.
I heard a story on NPR today in which two women were having a serious-sounding discussion about the racial implications of the emoji colors one chooses. On NPR! I didn’t think of dystopia then; I just got depressed. I have never used emojis and, if I ever did, it would be in a whimsical spirit of irony. Now, knowing that my choice of emoji might mark me as racist, I will continue to ignore that option.
I think of dystopia when I hear people who identify as Christian, and whom I used to think of as good and reasonable people, support a dissembling celebrity politician – a wannabe autocrat – whose morals, life, and lifestyle fly in the face of everything they profess to believe. I pray that those people will finally abandon the Big Lie about the 2020 election and those who perpetrated it.
It’s an election year in my home state and I think of dystopia when I see the campaign ads of the incumbent governor, running for reelection, delivering a barely articulate diatribe against the current President and telling Washington that they don’t run our business. Or something like that – it’s hard to know what she says half the time. This woman (a friend of mine calls her “Governor Mee-Maw”) doesn’t hesitate to take and spend every dollar of federal money our state can get while challenging the government that authorized it and refusing to expand healthcare fairly to the population. A known January 6 insurrectionist, running for the U.S. Senate, touts his endorsement and support from the man whose insurrection he supported, while his opponents line up to try to outdo each other in their opposition to vaccinations, mask mandates, and the current President, their support of firearms, and their Christian credentials. One guy, who has never met an election he couldn’t lose, is going to go after the “secular left” that, he says, is destroying our country. One candidate even vows to build the “wall” (have we not moved past the wall?) while another has revealed that he was called by God to run for the U.S. Senate. And, just like the prophet Isaiah, he responded, “Here am I; send me.”
These candidates use the word “socialism” as a scare tactic, with the full knowledge that most of the audience for these ads have no clue what “socialism” actually means. They just know they’ve been told it’s bad by politicians who probably don’t know what it means either.
I guess I should be able to take some slight comfort in knowing that these tactics are national, and not confined to my home state of Alabama. But it concerns me that these politicians are making their statements and accusations as if they speak for all Alabamians and that is so far from the truth.
For the record: I am an independent liberal and support everything that label implies. I understand and can have an intelligent and factual conversation about socialism. I do not believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from anyone. I support universal health care. I do not own guns and I support strict gun restrictions. I don’t condone banning books. I am fully vaccinated and boostered; I have been fortunate in not having COVID yet. I will wear a mask in public until I determine it’s safe to take it off. I trust the science and understand that only we humans can address the threats of climate change. I am an Alabamian, the son and grandson and great-grandson of native Alabamians, the descendant of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and am committed to work for progressive change within my home state. I love college football (Roll Tide) and don’t care much for NASCAR. I am not alone in Alabama and will work for change from within — not criticize from without. Any questions?
I think of dystopia when I hear a woman earnestly tell a school board meeting that her children will never wear masks and that she will bring out all of her guns – “loaded” – if anyone tries to mandate masks.
I have tried to remain silent about these things because, frankly, such insipid cluelessness scares me. But these people have no qualms about spewing and supporting these lies to my face, on social media, and on television, so it’s time they begin to know how I feel – I’m not on board with their callous stupidity.
A new book that captures the zeitgeist of our current moment is Noah Hawley’s novel, Anthem. A post-pandemic dystopian novel, Anthem looks at a time in the near future when young people are starting to commit suicide in alarming numbers, leaving a distinctive meme behind. I recently ran across an excerpt from Anthem in which the author, addressing the reader directly, apologizes for the ridiculous world he has created in the novel, explaining that the senseless world in which we currently live is equally ridiculous. He writes:
“Consider this: … 34 percent of his neighbors have gone to war against tiny pieces of fabric worn across the nose and mouth. They believe these tiny pieces of fabric are robbing them of their personal freedom. And so they have declared war against these pieces of fabric, even as scientists present evidence that those same tiny pieces of fabric will protect them from a deadly virus sweeping the globe, killing millions. But for the 34 percent, the fabric, not the virus, is the enemy. And so they lie dying in hospitals from a disease they argue does not exist.”
I am weary of the pandemic, of politics, of all of it. Still, I look for comfort to the artists that are dealing in their own ways with our current moment and Anthem – despite its Tarantino-level violence and most disturbing plotlines – fits the bill. On the other hand, David Byrne’s jubilant stage show, American Utopia, is upbeat and hopeful while acknowledging the challenges all around us. That show existed before the pandemic, but it somehow is perfect for its moment as captured on film by filmmaker Spike Lee. I see new fiction dealing with life during the pandemic in publications like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Poet Hank Lazer’s 2020 collection of poetry, COVID19 SUTRAS, tackled the situation head-on in its early months.
Somehow, the writing influenced by the pandemic era is more meaningful than the deluge of daily headlines. They are tackling difficult times but provide a balm in its midst. Their efforts show me that, in a still isolated time, I am not alone and can always look to our shared artistic community for comfort and support in times of stress.
When I started this online journal, I did not plan for it to become political. But I didn’t plan for the current crises we are forced to navigate, either.
I think of dystopia when I worry that we are now living in one. Even so, there are silhouettes of deer grazing atop the hill and birds are chirping in the yard. There is peace for a moment.
CEO Stephanie Stuckey, who is doing clever, great, and promising things with her family’s brand, recently shared one of my 2020 essays on the Stuckey’s website. Here’s the link: