Category Archives: literature

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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A Poem for New Year’s Day

 

Sometime in the ’90s I decided that trying to have fun and frivolity in a crowd of intoxicated people on New Year’s Eve was a fool’s errand. Instead, I stay home on New Year’s Eve and invite friends over for a hearty lunch of Southern good luck staples on New Year’s Day. The menu changes, but it always involves pork, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and an ambrosia.

On New Year’s Day of 2014, instead of a traditional toast, I decided to launch the meal with a favorite poem by American poet Richard Tillinghast, who is from Memphis but has lived in Ireland for many years. I think “Table” is a fitting way to launch a new year full of hope and possibilities. For New Year’s Day 2015, I want to share it with you. May your table be full and steady. Happy New Year.


Table
by Richard Tillinghast      from the Turkish of Edip Cansever

for Julia

A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table.
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.
He put his eggs and milk on the table.
He put there the light that came in through the window,
Sound of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel.
The softness of bread and weather he put there.
On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.
Those he loved, those he didn’t love,
The man put them on the table too.
Three times three make nine:
The man put nine on the table.
He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.
So many days he had wanted to drink a beer!
He put on the table the pouring of that beer.
He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness:
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.

Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.

“Table” by Richard Tillinghast, from Selected Poems by Richard Tillinghast; Dublin: The Dedalus Press. 2009. Reprinted with permission of the publisher (www.dedaluspress.com).

 

“Oh, Masha, Masha, Masha …!”

IMG_0843    One of my favorite opening lines in all of dramatic literature comes from Masha in Chekhov’s The Seagull. At the beginning of that play, Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black. “I am in mourning for my life,” she says. I was thrilled recently when I stopped by a neighborhood shop on my way home from work. I was wearing a black shirt and black trousers and the shopowner, a friend, asked me why I was dressed all in black. It was the perfect opening for a literary quote and I grabbed it.

I am a man with strong opinions on many things and many of those opinions were formed relatively early in life. I was fortunate to have a high school English teacher who was not intimidated by the Russian master Anton Chekhov and I remember loving Chekhov’s The Three Sisters the first time I studied it in a high school lit class. It was then that I decided that Chekhov was my favorite playwright and he is still my favorite playwright to this day. I must admit that Sam Shepard is a close second. And I will direct a Chekhov or Shepard play at any opportunity.

Chekhov referred to his plays as “comedy.” That fact still baffles many people familiar with the work. It never baffled me. As a Southerner, I have always felt a kinship with the playwright’s sly and droll sense of humor.

Chekhov’s plays examine the idiosyncrasies and foibles of the human condition and he seems on occasion to wince patiently and lovingly. This is what we mortals are, Chekhov seems to assert, as ludicrous as we may be. Chekhov was trained as a physician and examines his characters fairly and humanely but with clinical detachment.

Chekhov’s down-to-earth sense of humor reminds me of my favorite quote from William James: “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

I once congratulated a friend on her performance in Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard. “Oh please,” she snapped. “I hated that performance and I hate that play. He’s so damn depressing!” I realized that her cluelessness about the play and the character may have been what contributed to her excellent and amusing performance as a headstrong woman who couldn’t see the forest for the (cherry) trees.

I have had the opportunity to direct Chekhov plays a couple of times, to act in a couple, and to see many productions over the years. When I directed The Seagull, I played up the abundant humor of the piece. Audience members thanked me for it afterward. An actor friend who drove a hundred miles to see the production grabbed me at intermission and said, “Thank God. Finally a performance of The Seagull where an audience is actually laughing at the funny parts!” (one of my favorite reviews ever).

As the various characters struggle through their various issues – loveless marriages, aging and decay, lack of talent, greed and ruthless ambition, fickle lovers, loss – they often make bad choices and those bad choices are often accompanied by overwrought and over the top overreactions. We smile to ourselves and I think we recognize ourselves in much of what transpires on stage.

I have dealt with The Seagull in many stages in life. When I was a college student, I thought it was the perfect play for college students as it examined our need to define ourselves, set our goals, and perhaps overreach beyond our capabilities. Now that I’m older, the play speaks directly to me on a profoundly different level but with the same intensity. And much of the journey of the play is still very touching and funny.

Konstantin, one of the major characters, does commit suicide in the end. Oh well, there’s that…

Chekhov’s characters are often in turmoil and despair. He does not make fun of them, but he does handle them gingerly and allows an attentive audience to smile at their overwrought reactions to situations that might often be easily remedied with a little common sense and effort. Often it seems his characters are frozen in inaction and ennui simply because they can’t stop talking about their despair. One thinks Just go to Moscow and stop whining about it after listening to the title siblings of The Three Sisters long for Moscow for four acts. To me, that’s funny.

Anton Chekhov died in 1904 at the age of 44. He died of tuberculosis but almost until the end he was writing letters assuring his correspondents that he was well on the road to recovery. Chekhov was a doctor; he knew better. At the end, a doctor who was attending Chekhov ordered a bottle of fine champagne with three glasses. He poured full glasses of champagne for Chekhov, Olga – Chekhov’s wife, and himself. According to Olga, Chekhov finished his glass, smiled, and said, “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” Then he rolled over in his bed and quietly died.

(The image is Mandy Erbes and Joseph C. Wilson as Masha and Dorn in The Seagull, directed by Edward Journey, at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, in September 1993.)

 

Waning Days of Summer

IMG_0726  When you live alone you develop routines and rituals. At least that has been my experience. I don’t know when I started the ritual of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on the first day of summer, but I know exactly why.

On page 11 of The Great Gatsby, during a dinner party fraught with marital mystery and tension, Daisy Buchanan says, “I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” Her friend Jordan Baker replies, “We ought to plan something,” and yawns.

I didn’t yawn. Like Daisy, I often watched for the longest day of the year – the first day of summer – and then forgot it until it was past. On my third or fourth reading of The Great Gatsby, that passage resonated with me and, following Jordan’s bored advice, I made a plan: I always read The Great Gatsby on the longest day of the year. I can’t remember exactly when I started that ritual – probably in the late ‘70s – but it continues to this day. And I have never missed the longest day of the year since.

William Faulkner is my favorite writer (good Southern boy that I am) but I think Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the most perfect American novel. It’s a short read; I can knock it out in about three hours. But it is so compactly and intricately structured that I never tire of it even though I have now read it upward of forty times. I always discover something new or respond to something I never responded to in previous readings. I first read the novel in high school and, unlike many young readers, I loved it immediately. I studied it again in college and then found myself drawn to it periodically after those initial readings. And then I developed my summer ritual.

I love summer. I love the heat and the sweatiness and the long days and the outdoor activities. In my part of the South, many people seem to relish complaining about the heat and humidity of summer but I cherish it. I’d rather be too hot than too cold any day. So not only does The Great Gatsby represent my literary tastes, it has also come to represent my favorite time of the year.

The reason I am talking about the beginning of summer at the end of summer is because I am winding down the summer of 2014 with a book that is about The Great Gatsby and that I am thoroughly savoring. Literary critic Maureen Corrigan has authored a new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, that is an extended meditation and exploration of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It amuses me that Corrigan’s book exploring The Great Gatsby is twice as long as the novel itself. It turns out that Corrigan may be an even bigger fan of the book than I am although she admits to not liking it in high school. I heard Corrigan tell an interviewer that she has read Gatsby at least fifty times and I knew I had to check her book out.

It was worth it. And reading it now, three months past the first day of summer, is giving me a nice way of transitioning to ever shorter days and ever dropping temperatures. I must admit that the only thing that bothers me on that first day of summer in June is the knowledge that the second day of summer will be a bit shorter, and the next shorter still as we take the plunge to the shortest day of the year in December.

The Great Gatsby itself takes place over a summer season. In the first pages the narrator, Nick Carraway, comments that “life was beginning over again in the summer.” Toward the end, he mentions that “there was an autumn flavor in the air” on the day that Gatsby is killed.

Maureen Corrigan, in So We Read On, has provided this reader with the perfect way to ease into the fall.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, …” Thanks, F. Scott. And thanks, Ms. Corrigan.