Reading about food is the next best thing to eating, but I’m not referring to cookbooks. Almost every good Southern writer has placed people around a table at some point because that’s where the best conversations take place, from politics to religion to how best to get the neighbor to fix the fence in his own yard so his cows, pigs, or goats stay out of yours.
Here, then, is a tiny selection of a few favorite food-related passages, some old and some new…
from Marcia Guthridge‘s short story “The Host”
“I pictured that cheap Formica table in the kitchen dripping with slippery fish, the butcher-block island twinkling with scales…. I saw minced-fish-and-onion cakes the size of basketballs…I saw the little Weber grill smoking up the carport…scarring slabs of fish with charcoal stripes, and I saw her sweating and grinning through the smoke. I glimpsed the edge of lunacy myself. I thought of fish fritters for breakfast and my stomach quivered. ‘I don’t really care that much for fish, you know.’”
(The surprising last sentence is right on target. If you know Southern folks, you understand.)
from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel
“In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuit, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steak, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked batter-cakes rum-colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat juicy bacon, jam…”
(The author goes on and on to include the mid-day meal and supper with more than a dozen other savory items, including pork chops and deep-dish cobbler. “Food” scenes appear throughout Wolfe’s work and there is, perhaps, a bit too much repetition, but it’s still tasty.)
from Sarah Addison Allen’s The Sugar Queen
“For breakfast she’d eaten what her mother always wanted, a modest bowl of rolled oats and blackberries. Her stomach growled as she stared at her closet. Her food was there. All her lovely food…Moonpies and pecan rolls, Chick-O-Sticks and Cow Tales, Caramel Creams and Squirrel Nut Zippers, Red Hots and Bit-O-Honey, boxes upon boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes. The space had a comforting smell to it, like Halloween…”
(Josey Cirrini is unhappy living with her overbearing mother, so she escapes to her closet where she has stockpiled sugary sweets and paperback romances. The story is a yummy mix of food and magic. )
“‘I’ve gotta whack this dough at least two hundred times,” she said, hitting it so hard that puffs of flour rose in the air and dusted her chin. ‘The secret to my beaten biscuits bein’ the best in Savannah is ’cause I whack the dough till it blisters up real good.’
I wrinkled my nose. ‘Beaten biscuits? I’ve never had one.’
She stopped and raised her eyebrows. ‘Never had a beaten biscuit? Well, then you ain’t lived.’”
( Soon after young Cee Cee comes to live with her great-aunt Tootie Caldwell she meets Oletta, the wonderful housekeeper who takes her cooking seriously, inflicting “deathblows” to the biscuit dough and bringing down the mallet so hard it “made the window rattle.” Oletta was right. If you’ve never had a beaten biscuit, you ain’t lived!)
from Jesse Stuart’s short story, “This Farm for Sale”
“The proof of what a farm produces is at the farm table. I wish that whoever reads what I have written here could have seen the table prepared by Mrs. Stone and her two daughters. Hot fluffy biscuits with light-brown tops, brown-crusted cornbread, butter milk, sweet milk (cooled in a freestone well), wild-grape jelly, wild-crab-apple jelly, mast-fed lean bacon that melted in my mouth, fresh apple pie, wild-blackberry cobbler, honey-colored sorghum from the limestone bottoms of the Tiber, and wild honey from the beehives.”
(Yes, I wish I could have seen Mrs. Stone’s table, too. The passage reminds me of summer visits to the Blue Grass Region of Kentucky when I was growing up, to a farm owned by an elderly couple whose last name was House. Mrs. House prepared the most incredible “dinner” (at midday) and she served my “glass” of milk in a huge, chilled beer mug. Wonderful!)
from Flannery O’Connor’s “The Comforts of Home”
“The girl had landed in the county jail a month ago on a bad check charge and his mother had seen her picture in the paper. At the breakfast table she…passed it over the coffee pot to him. ‘Imagine,’ she said, ‘…she doesn’t look like a bad girl.’
Thomas glanced at the picture. It showed the face of a shrewd ragamuffin…
‘She looks like a wholesome girl,’ his mother said.
‘Wholesome people don’t pass bad checks,’ Thomas said.
‘You don’t know what you’d do in a pinch.’
‘I wouldn’t pass a bad check,’ Thomas said.
‘I think,’ his mother said. ‘I’ll take her a little box of candy.’”
(Okay, not so much food mentioned here, but with Miss O’Connor that box of candy is all-important to the character and the situation. It’s…perfect.
When I was writing To Come and Go Like Magic I didn’t particularly think about including scenes with food, but good eats naturally seeped in from time to time. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes, poke salad greens in the spring, warm gingerbread with cream. One of my favorite scenes, though not my favorite food, takes place when the family is discussing a story about two women who have had a tree legally deeded to itself so it can never be cut down. At the mention of “crazy people” everyone around the table looks at Uncle Lucius whose mind isn’t the best anymore. As a result, he has developed some rather unusual eating habits. He doesn’t notice the attention and continues to eat his peas “one green pea at a time, like they’re pills,” popping a pea in his mouth and downing it with a gulp of water.
Perhaps Southerners just have a need for a little bit of lunacy, a little bite to eat, or a little bit of both in their stories…
Happy eating, happy reading, happy weekend!
(*Food pics are photos of photos from Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking)