Romancing the Stomach

Even the satiated hunger for tales of cooks and hyper-local recipes. David Mudd reviews a new book of essays that makes the imagination growl.

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Book review
Cornbread Nation #5: The Best of Southern Food Writing
Edited by Fred Sauceman, General Editor: John T. Edge
314 pp., University of Georgia Press, 2010, $19.95 paper

The problem with maintaining a proper appreciation for food is it’s just so routine.  Each day — several times even! — the urge to eat, and each time the need to act on that urge. 

And so, food. It’s in your face all the time. I’ve never suffered it myself, but I can see how some develop a contempt born of familiarity, or a bored neglect.

A good famine would take care of such attitudes, but they’re so drawn-out and messy.  Better to connect regularly with people knowledgeable and genuinely excited about food, people who can tell you in entertaining ways and deep detail why food matters for more than just filling the gut.

And for that, there’s Cornbread Nation. CN is the invention of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is the almost single-handed invention of a widely-traveled, ever-hungry writer named John T. Edge.  He’s been working for some years now to combine research into Southern culture with entertaining, informative magazine and website writing about (mostly) Southern foods, cooks, and cooking. 


Edge and others established the Southern Foodways Alliance, headquartered at the University of Mississippi, to institutionalize his unflagging interest.  And for about a decade now the Alliance has–in addition to sponsoring an annual symposium in Oxford, Mississsippi, and culinary events all around the eastern half of the country–rounded up and published what it considers really good contemporary Southern food writing. 

Cornbread Nation Number 5 is just out, published by the University of Georgia Press and edited by Fred Sauceman, a name I find too convenient by about half.  I’d charge the Alliance with hiring him based on that alone if the selections didn’t testify to an editorial competence.  (Still, I’ve submitted my resume under the nom de plume Rice N. Beanes, to see if I can swing the job of compiling CN #6.)

The book leads with an essay asking “Why Study Southern Food?” Skip it. The answer’s further inside and obvious–in the recipes for Asian stir-fried collards, honeysuckle sorbet, and northern Louisiana tea cakes, in pieces about a New York Jew’s illicit love affair with Western Kentucky country ham, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s examination of the demands and delights of May in Virginia when a family’s determined to feed itself from the garden, and in poems about a neighborhood ice cream man, plus a heartbreaker about the food and cooking-laced memories of a woman wasting away from Malabsorption Syndrome.

These works and most of the others, thirty or so, conspire to make the reader hungry not just for the appealing dishes and foods profiled, but for the personalities and places too. 

Bill Bishop/Daily Yonder
The dessert table at the gathering following funeral services for Erlene Goertz, Sacred Heart Church, Rockne, Texas, December 1, 2007.

I wanted to be in the humid highlands of Northern Alabama in early July after reading Kathryn Eastburn’s piece about the potlucks and camaraderie attending an annual two-day Baptist gospel singing there.  I wanted to hear Sacred Harp, the special brand of four-part harmony a capella singing the locals practice, and taste the homemade chicken and dumplings they ate afterwards, along with the yeast rolls, baked beans, and nine flavors of home-made ice cream. 

Martha Hall Foose’s piece made me want to sweat through a day in the Mississippi Delta alongside Sam the Tamale Man, helping him make and sell his spicy, fragrant specialties from a truck parked along busy Highway 49.

Susan Shelton’s fond profile of Spartanburg, South Carolina’s Beacon Drive- In convinced me it would be an honor to stand with employee J.C. Stroble–52 years at the Beacon and counting–soliciting customers’ spoken orders (Stroble’s legally blind, so nothing’s written down), barking them to the line cooks, keeping them straight, and the line moving.

Discover South Carolina
J.C. Stroble calling out orders at Spartanburg’s Beacon Drive-In restaurant

And God help me, I even wanted a slab of fried livermush after reading Chuck Shuford’s essay on the North Carolina working class delicacy.  Loyal Daily Yonder readers will recall it ran first on this site back in 2007. In it, Shuford manages to make a crude hog’s liver, skin and snout pate´ seem appealing, and its possible passing from the Western North Carolina palate–as local economies and culinary knowledge erode, and tastes change–a kind of tragedy.

The best food writing does that.  It ignites an interest in dishes and experiences that may not be exactly exotic or even self-evidently appetizing by telling us their back stories, describing the people who invented the recipes, developed the cooking methods, devised the celebrations, and established the little roadside joints where delicious surprises still, sometimes, await. 

The dominant and metastasizing fast food culture doesn’t like surprises, of course, since they’re usually of the roach-pressed-into-the-burger-patty variety.   No wonder then–when so many are working to deliver character-free foods–a gustatory weariness sets in. 

Cornbread Nation’s the cure. Read #5, get your bib on, and go where this book takes you–to the best little catfish house in Arkansas, to Prince’s, the home of improbably spicy chicken in Nashville, Tennessee, to Tampa’s Ibor City for the best Cuban sandwiches the country offers, and then on to New Orleans, to cool down with a Sazerac or two.

 

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