Category Archives: books

On Food Memory and Alabama Literature

2014-01-01 02.22.58   Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about to have an additional impact on Alabama in the form of current legislation proposing that the Lane Cake, which has an undisputed Alabama provenance and is mentioned several times in Lee’s novel, be designated as the state’s official dessert.

I am often intrigued with the ways in which writers use food. Good writing about food is all around us – in cookbooks and food magazines and newspapers; in memoirs and novels and short stories and scripts for performance on stage or screen. In much culinary writing, including that of the legendary food critics James Beard and Craig Claiborne, the idea of “food memory” is pervasive. The powerful connections that food tastes and smells evoke are a shared sensibility providing powerful associations, emotions, and longings.

It is this sense of the sacrament of food which has led me increasingly to seek out and savor food writing. Writers – whether they intend to or not – use this idea of “food memory” to stoke and create a shared sense of ritual and place with the reader. As my career took me around the country and far from Alabama and the South, I found that some of the most visceral emotional connections that I have to my roots are memories of food and of food associated with family.

Food is frequently prominent in the writing of a number of writers with Alabama roots including Rick Bragg, Mary Ward Brown, Mark Childress, Melissa Delbridge, Fannie Flagg, Charles Gaines, Winston Groom, Zora Neale Hurston, and others. In looking at Alabama authors and their writing about food, it is hard to find something that is truly unique about a certain community because rich or poor, black or white, rural or urban, our food heritage is so universally “local.” “Southern cooking” and “soul food” are essentially the same and a love for barbecue is ubiquitous. I looked for obvious delineations but I found instead that there were constants. Is it any wonder, really, that many of the earliest battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement were department store lunch counters?

Scout’s assertion in To Kill a Mockingbird that “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between” captures a key memory of Southern existence. We are defined by the tastes and memories of our youth. This is one of the reasons that Sook’s declaration that “it’s fruitcake weather” resonates so vividly for readers of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” whether we grew up in Monroeville’s dusty streets or under the sooty skies of mid-20th century Birmingham. I grew up in Birmingham and did not have first-hand experience with the adventures Capote describes but still, because of that story, I thought I had a clear sense of when “fruitcake weather” had arrived on crowded Avenue N in Birmingham’s Green Acres neighborhood.

In Capote’s lesser-known Monroeville story “The Thanksgiving Visitor” he describes nostalgia for the breakfast repasts of

ham and fried chicken, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, black-eyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweet milk, buttermilk, coffee chicory-flavored and hot as Hades.

Capote’s litany of memory inspired me to pull down a favorite passage in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book’s subject matter is firmly entrenched in the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt. Here is Agee’s description of the Depression-era Hale County tenant family’s breakfast ritual:

the gestures of a day here begin; and in just such silence and solitude: the iron lids are lifted; the kindling is laid in the grate: and the lids replaced: and a squirting match applied beneath: and the flour is sifted through shaken window-screen, and mixed with lard and water, soda, and a little salt: the coffee is set on the stove, its grounds afloat on the cold water: more wood laid in: the biscuits poured, and stuck into the oven: and the meat sliced and sliding, spitting, in the black skillet: and the eggs broken, and their shells consigned; and the chairs lifted from the porch to the table, and the sorghum set on, and the butter, sugar, salt, pepper, a spoon straightened, the lamp set at the center; the eggs turned; the seething coffee set aside; the meat reheated; the biscuits looked at; the straight black hair, saturated with sweat and smoke of pork, tightened more neatly to the head between four black pins; the biscuits tan, the eggs ready, the coffee ready, the meat ready, the breakfast ready.

Norman McMillan, in his memoir Distant Son, tells us that

Summers meant lots of food. We didn’t think about it that way but we were more or less vegetarians. During the summer when we were at home, each lunch table was filled with seven or eight bowls every day. Pans of golden cornbread or plates of thick biscuits accompanied the vegetables. Except for white meat, which was used to season the vegetables, we saw little meat at all. Occasionally Daddy would bring steak home, and after pounding it with the side of a saucer he would fry it and make gravy. At times we raised a few chickens and we also ate squirrel and rabbit in the winter, and sometimes even possum and coon.

From the time I received a copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a gift I have savored cookbooks which also have a literary flair. Birmingham and Cullman, Alabama’s native son Frank Stitt went from studying philosophy at Berkeley to becoming an acclaimed chef and restaurateur. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, a perennial finalist for the annual James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” award, he is the acknowledged master of contemporary Alabama food. His 2004 cookbook Frank Stitt’s Southern Table includes the following discourse on tradition:

As an adult, I came to appreciate the blessing as a time to open our minds to a greater awareness of the beauty of the food we are about to eat. Instead of asking my family to endure a rote blessing, I wanted to pay homage to food as a sacrament. I have since refined this idea, incorporating it into the at-table stories I share with friends and family. I want everyone to come to understand the ancient rhythms of life, to know what it felt like to break bread at my mother’s table, to understand why upon walking by my maternal grandmother’s long-closed smokehouse I was transported back to the days when our people slaughtered their own hogs. I want them to understand that such acts were honorable, that to harvest a hog with your own hands, by the sweat of your own brow, was to know intimately the consequences and benefits of humanity.

Pat Conroy’s entertaining The Pat Conroy Cookbook includes a chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Reading Cookbooks No One Has Ever Heard Of” which includes lengthy considerations of several Junior League and church-sponsored cookbooks, including several from Alabama. One passage in Cotton Country, the Decatur Junior League cookbook, particularly pleases Conroy. He quotes this passage describing Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s Stuffed Country Ham:

To call this merely “Stuffed Ham” is an injustice. “Spectacular” is the only word to describe this ham: spectacular in appearance and taste. Trouble – perhaps – but for a buffet dinner or cocktail party mainliner, nothing could do more for your reputation as a good cook or hostess.

This passage sends Conroy into a spasm of appreciation. He writes,

Have you ever seen three sentences more confidently rendered by a hand so fine and sure – the disdainful dashes surrounding that intimidating “perhaps” and that bold, two-eyed colon stopping you in mid-stream for emphasis. A small history of the South could be composed just by studying the cadences and assuredness of position in Mrs. Barrett Shelton Sr.’s place in Decatur society. It would be paradisiacal for me to pass down a Decatur street and have the imperious Mrs. Shelton whisper to a group of lunching friends, “Mr. Conroy’s new in town, but I think he has the makings of a cocktail party mainliner.”

Indeed, much of my favorite food writing takes on such a lyrical and meditative tone. Mobile’s inimitable Eugene Walter seasons his recipe for pot likker with this advice: “Take a day off and wash wash wash 3 or 4 big bunches of fresh (yes, I said fresh) turnip greens, younger the better. Then sit down and pluck the leaves. … This takes time. Sit down, put on some Mozart.”

I find that there are few “grand themes” about the place of food in writing. There are, instead, comforts. The comforts come in familiarity, common ritual, and respect for the sacrament of being at table with friends, with family, with peers and, on occasion, with adversaries.

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Discovering Eugene Walter

IMG_1111 During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.

“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?

The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.

“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:

  1. Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
  2. Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
  3. With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  4. Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
  5. Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
  6. Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
  7. Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
  8. While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
  9. Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
  10. Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.

He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”

American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”

His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”

In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)

His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.

Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”

In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen , you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”

I re-watched not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.

Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.

Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).

I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”

Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.

As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.

Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.

Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”

I wish I had known to meet him.

Christenberry: Bearing Witness

IMG_0838  I have had a couple of opportunities to hear artist William Christenberry speak and on each occasion he recounted how his mother worried that, based on his work, people would think that Alabama was just some “rusted out, worn down, bullet-ridden place.”

Christenberry’s work focuses on memories of a fading South and his photographs capture buildings and landscapes in decay. He often photographs the same places year after year and documents how places evolve or disappear or ultimately break down completely.

One such sequence, the “Palmist Building” series begun in 1961, is among Christenberry’s iconic images. The earliest photographs of the building show an abandoned and dilapidated wooden structure. A sign advertising a palmist has been placed upside down in a broken window as protection from the weather. Subsequent images over years show the progression of the building’s decay amidst growing vegetation. In the later images, the building is completely gone, and trees, vegetation, wire fencing, and a utility pole stand beside a lonely road. Similar photographic series include “Church, Sprott, Alabama,” “Green Warehouse,” and “Coleman Café.”

I have never shared Mrs. Christenberry’s concern about her son’s work, but she addresses a basic misunderstanding of the South by people who don’t really know the place. By capturing fade and decay, Christenberry is preserving images of a South that is disappearing … has largely disappeared. His predilection for finding and recording old buildings, abandoned places, overgrown landscapes – a predilection I share and which makes Christenberry’s work special to me – is driven by a need to bear witness rather than by nostalgia. Christenberry focuses on rural landscapes but the impulse seems to me to be the same as my attraction to rust and industrial decay found in urban environments. Some misinterpret these images as representations of what the South is today but Christenberry captures and honors them as a rapidly disappearing landscape.

William Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa and left Alabama in 1961 to live and work in New York, Memphis, and finally Washington, D.C. where he has lived and taught at the Corcoran since 1968. Still, his preferred landscape for his art focuses on the environs of Alabama’s “Black Belt,” an area of rich black soil that cuts through the center of the state, where both sets of his grandparents resided. Hale County, “ground zero” for Christenberry’s art, was also the location for James Agee and Walker Evans’s iconic Depression-era book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a hypnotic and microscopic examination of the lives of three Alabama tenant farm families.

Occasionally, as I drive around the Black Belt in west Alabama, I will accidentally stumble across a place that Christenberry has photographed. I am startled at the discovery, stunned at the recognition, and often feel like I have witnessed some elusive ancient treasure.

Christenberry’s art encompasses painting and drawing, sculpture, and assemblage but he is primarily known for his photography. It was photographer Walker Evans himself who became a sort of mentor to Christenberry when they met in New York in the early 1960s after Christenberry finished his M.F.A. at Alabama. Evans steered Christenberry along the path of a concentration on photography after viewing snapshots Christenberry had made with a cheap Brownie camera as studies for expressionist paintings.

Often, in his sculptures, Christenberry takes the same buildings he has photographed and does three-dimensional reproductions of them, often resting on an authentic bed of Alabama red clay in a shallow box. Over time, these more realistic depictions have given way to solid white “dream buildings” and ghostly structures drawn from memory and iconographic imagery – ladders, gourds, signs, structures on stilts. Christenberry’s evocative art never tells the viewer what to think; he presents it and allows one to ponder and meditate on it, to explore the implications.

There are many books of Christenberry’s art available. These would be of interest to the uninitiated as well as those who already know the artist’s work. A couple of my favorites are Trudy Wilner Stack’s Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry (1996) and William Christenberry (2006) with thoughtful essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox.

My articles about William Christenberry and Walker Evans with several multimedia links may be found at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org.

Tracking Down Mrs. Roosevelt

IMG_0746 A couple of weeks ago I spent fourteen fascinating hours watching Ken Burns’s newest documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” I have had a fondness for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt since I heard my grandmother talk about them when I was growing up.

It is easy to forget after so many years how important FDR’s Great Depression recovery policies were to the country as a whole and particularly to the part of north Alabama and the Tennessee River Valley where I currently live. At the time the Tennessee Valley Authority was inaugurated as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the improvements in the infrastructure for north Alabama led to the development and progress of the decades to come. TVA’s Wilson Dam changed the Shoals area immeasurably. I am convinced that Huntsville’s considerable growth and the development of its substantial technology, space, and defense industries can be traced directly back to the technological advances spawned by the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s. I am also convinced that some of the local politicians who run campaigns railing against “big government” and “government interference” would not have been born if not for the government assistance and programs that came to the aid of so many millions during the Roosevelt New Deal era.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Works Progress Administration (WPA). Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Federal Housing Authority (FHA). Social Security Administration (SSA). The alphabet soup of programs initiated by the FDR administration is large and impressive. Some of them still exist today. Most towns, wherever you travel in the country, still utilize the legacy of the New Deal in extant public spaces, buildings, tourist sites, roads and highways, dams and factories. The WPA art works, photographs, performing arts, and literature were created by many people — some of whom would move on to become among the brightest lights of twentieth century American arts.

When Roosevelt took office in 1933, about 90% of urban Americans had electricity compared to roughly 10% of rural Americans. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created to rectify that situation and by 1942 the number had risen to 50%. Ten years later, close to 100% of Americans in rural areas had electricity.

My grandmother often talked about listening to Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” by her radio (after the REA had supplied electricity to her family’s rural Cullman County residence). My mother still has recollections of my Grandmother Harbison pulling her chair right up to the radio to listen to the coverage of FDR’s funeral in 1945. She sat listening all day.

During a recent conversation about the Burns documentary, Mother mentioned how she had always enjoyed reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” which ran from the time Mrs. Roosevelt was First Lady in 1936 to her death in 1962. “I wish I had saved those in a scrapbook or something,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look back at them now?”

My quest had begun.

Fuelled by the documentary, I searched for a book compilation of the columns. What I found was My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Acclaimed Newspaper Columns 1936-1962, edited by David Emblidge (New York: MJF Books, 2001). I ordered it and will soon give it to my mother, but I am reading it first and having a grand time of it. Mrs. Roosevelt’s written communication skills are as clear, blunt, and articulate as her husband’s much-lauded oral communication skills and she tackles a staggering array of issues with taste, tact, and progressive common sense. There are also warm personal insights about holiday outings with the family, gardening, fashion(!), and the amazing array of 20th century personalities she knew — from her uncle Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, from Helen Keller to Autherine Lucy, Shirley Temple to Nikita Krushchev, Winston Churchill to Humphrey Bogart, … you get the idea.

I have a tattered and fraying tee-shirt with FDR’s image that I usually just wear for yard work. One afternoon I wore it to one of the local farmers’ markets and a vendor at one of the produce stands called me over. “My parents loved FDR,” she said. “My dad always said he saved us from sure ruin.”

“My Day” and Ken Burns’s striking new documentary provide human and first-hand insights into some of the most important events of the twentieth century. We all need to remember and learn.